I have a few posts in draft status, but I haven’t really had time to write anything; I’m in the process of graduating, moving across the country and changing jobs all at once, so you can imagine I’ve been really busy. But I was reading the other day and came across this gem –
Anger is rooted in our lack of understanding of ourselves and of the causes, deep-seated as well as immediate, that brought about this unpleasant state of affairs. Anger is also rooted in desire, pride, agitation, and suspicion. The primary roots of our anger are in ourselves. Our environment and other people are only secondary. It is not difficult for us to accept the enormous damage brought about by a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a flood. But when damage is caused by another person, we don’t have much patience. We know that earthquakes and floods have causes, and we should see that the person who has precipitated our anger also has reasons, deep-seated and immediate, for what he has done.
For instance, someone who speaks badly to us may have been spoken to in exactly the same way just the day before, or by his alcoholic father when he was a child. When we see and understand these kinds of causes, we can begin to be free from our anger. I am not saying that someone who viciously attacks us should not be disciplined. But what is most important is that we first take care of the seeds of negativity in ourselves. Then if someone needs to be helped or disciplined, we will do so out of compassion, not anger and retribution. If we genuinely try to understand the suffering of another person, we are more likely to act in a way that will help him overcome his suffering and confusion, and that will help all of us.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step – The Roots of Anger
The applications for this are endless. In our personal relationships, sometimes we encounter unexpected hostility and pain. As the saying goes, misery loves company. One of the easiest ways to deal with pain is to share it, and a particularly malicious way to do that is by inflicting it on others. Even the notion of deserving versus undeserving victims of that pain fails to acknowledge that there is no good reason for one person to hurt another. If we justify our violence by claiming deserved it, we’re just hiding behind a shield of false morality. So, when someone lashes out at us, we shouldn’t reply in kind, or spread that hurt around, we should make the effort to understand why that happened – not so we can excuse it, but so we can explain and address it. But we can only do that if we also have dealt with negativity in ourselves.
When it comes to the justice system, much of our current methods are based on retribution. We believe that the guilty must be punished out of a sense of “justice” – child abusers, rapists, murders are all guilty of heinous crimes, and cannot go undisciplined in a civil society. But the way we approach justice – as punishment, “eye for an eye” and vindictive revenge, only serves to satisfy the empty hunger for what once was and can never be after a crime has been committed. In all truth, crimes are committed by people who, as Hanh says, have “reasons, deep-seated and immediate, for what [they have] done.” We cannot change what has happened, and while we can stop one person from repeating their crimes, the conditions and situation which lead to that act (untreated mental illness, extreme poverty, drug addiction, etc.) will predictably breed more offenders who will pass their pain onto others in similar acts.
With war, vengeance is both the weakest and the most effective justification for organized mass murder. War promises two groups of people that the best answer to their dilemmas is by slaughtering each other. Again, it appeals to a vindictive nature, which goes hand in hand with that vicious virtue that people call patriotism. Yet what good does terrorism do in retaliation for various terrible injustices, and further, what good is a decade of war, the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the sacrifice of many soldiers who would otherwise living in peace? History is the story of this back-and-forth between men with opposing interests, who cleverly enlist the bodies of those who will throw themselves into the fire, merely to see who can make the larger pile of burning corpses.
Again, I believe we should pursue justice when someone inflicts harm on us, but we have to ensure that justice is the type of action that is motivated by a desire to help others, and not simply snuff them out of existence or brutalize them for what is, in the Buddhist sense, purely ignorance. Pain is a part of suffering, and suffering comes from desire – the elimination of that desire comes from a host of exercises and behaviors that make us realize true self-awareness.
These perspectives are very much in line with the Bible and the example of Jesus, who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9) In Romans, Paul gives a clear directive to Christians in verses 17-21:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” [from Proverbs 25:21,22] Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And 1 Peter 3:9 says, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” This is reflective of the notion of karmic return. We will “reap what we sow,” so to speak. If we continue to sow vengence, the world will become like some Sicilian town in a Mario Puzo story where all the men have died from a blood feud. If we sow compassion, we will reap the benefits of love and understanding, which are a reward in and of themselves. With that in mind, peace!