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What’s the best revenge against someone who has done us wrong?
If you line a bunch of matches up and light the first one, the fire will pass from one match to the next until all are in flames.
Topple the first domino in a long chain, and the rest will soon fall.
In a nuclear reaction, a neutron crashes into a uranium atom, causing it to release more neutrons, leading to more and more fragmentation until everything explodes.
In a chain reaction, one action inevitably leads to the next until the system runs its course. There is a cost to each step of the sequence; the energy from one action is expended to start the next. Ultimately all the matches are burned up, all the dominos lie inert on the floor, or there’s a smoking crater where the power plant used to be.
When it comes to revenge, people can be that way too.
In 1878 Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing his pig. For the next twelve years, the Hatfield and McCoy families feuded in an ever-worsening spiral of revenge-seeking. By the time it was over, houses had been burnt, property lost, and family memebers on both sides had been variously kidnapped, maimed, murdered, incarcerated, or even executed.
It took the U.S. Supreme Court and generations of time to resolve the conflict and heal the wounds these families had inflicted upon themselves.
As humans, I think one of the reasons we so often follow this course is that we tend to imitate the examples we find around us. We heard it first in the school yard; too often we hear it as adults:
“He pushed me, so I’m going to push him back.”
“I’m going to give as good as I got.”
“He had it coming.”
Beyond imitation, we seek revenge by responding in kind because it’s the easy answer to the question, “What should I do about it?” Simple – just do what they did right back at them, and maybe do it a little harder. No thinking required.
A third reason is that it offers a convenient rationale: “But he started it.” Who can blame us for what we do next? It’s not even our fault – we’re the victim here. And if others seem to think what we did was wrong, well the other guy is at least equally guilty.
But that’s the problem with seeking this kind of revenge. If we allow someone else’s actions to dictate what we will do, that’s not leading. It’s following. And in following, we forfeit the freedom to set our own direction.
Worse, if our guides for appropriate action are the misdeeds of others, then the standards of acceptable behavior plummet faster than the thermometer on a Minnesota winter night.
But if trading blow for blow is not the best revenge, what is?
A Better Revenge
Many counsel not to seek revenge at all. Instead we should simply turn the other cheek when someone does us wrong. OK. That’s a message of peace, but it’s a tough ask.
Are we to passively absorb punishment until someone else tires of meting it out? Are we to resign ourselves to forever being the humble doormat or coughing up our lunch money to the school yard bully? There might be peace, but at what cost? How do things get better? And where’s the leadership in that?
Back around 180 A.D. Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher had a better idea.
We don’t have to stand in line, destined to burst into flame like all the other matches – we don’t have to reflexively try to avenge injury with more injury. But neither do we have to just sit there and take it. As humans, we have agency. We can choose to do something else. We can decide to be unlike those we feel did us wrong.
Our first and best action is to make sure we are not like them at all.
- Be selfless in the face of selfishness.
- Be polite when others are rude.
- Be honest in the face of deceit.
- Find solutions when others create problems.
- Share credit when others try to steal it.
- Build people up when others tear people down.
- Show respect where others disrespect.
To be unlike those who cause injury is to lead.
The Best Revenge – The Takeaway
A good leader is the match that keeps its cool, the domino that refuses to fall, the control rod in the reactor absorbing atomic fragments, not spewing them out.
The best revenge starts with doing the unexpected – being unlike the other guy. Dare to step out of line; remove a link in the chain and allow the negativity to die out. Even better, we can divert the energy we might have wasted to sustain it, and do something more productive. We can start our own chain, a chain of empathy.
Remember growing up and fighting with your brother or sister, and then mom walks into the room? “But he started it!” we might both protest. How far did that excuse get us? Why should it be any different now?
Especially in times like these, the best revenge is the opposite of revenge. It’s choosing our own, higher way, not mindlessly imitating those we feel have wronged us.
As leaders, let’s try to be the adult in the room. If we feel wronged in some way, let’s lead the process of healing by being “unlike” he who did us wrong.
Don’t be “that guy.” Even if he steals your pig.
That’s the best revenge.