Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Revenge vs. Forgiveness

An excerpt from Jane Eyre:

‘Well, then, with Miss Temple you are good?’
‘Yes, in a passive way: I make no effort; I follow as inclination guides me. There is no merit in such goodness.’
‘A great deal: you are good to those who are good to you. It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should—so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.’
‘You will change your mind, I hope, when you grow older: as yet you are but a little untaught girl.’
‘But I feel this, Helen; I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.’
‘Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilised nations disown it.’
‘How? I don’t understand.’
‘It is not violence that best overcomes hate—nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury.’
‘What then?’
‘Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example.’
‘What does He say?’
‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.’
‘Then I should love Mrs. Reed, which I cannot do; I should bless her son John, which is impossible.’
In her turn, Helen Burns asked me to explain, and I proceeded forthwith to pour out, in my own way, the tale of my sufferings and resentments. Bitter and truculent when excited, I spoke as I felt, without reserve or softening.
Helen heard me patiently to the end: I expected she would then make a remark, but she said nothing.
‘Well,’ I asked impatiently, ‘is not Mrs. Reed a hard-hearted, bad woman?’
‘She has been unkind to you, no doubt; because you see, she dislikes your cast of character, as Miss Scatcherd does mine; but how minutely you remember all she has done and said to you! What a singularly deep impression her injustice seems to have made on your heart! No ill-usage so brands its record on my feelings. Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain,—the impalpable principle of light and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature: whence it came it will return; perhaps again to be communicated to some being higher than man—perhaps to pass through gradations of glory, from the pale human soul to brighten to the seraph! Surely it will never, on the contrary, be suffered to degenerate from man to fiend? No; I cannot believe that: I hold another creed: which no one ever taught me, and which I seldom mention; but in which I delight, and to which I cling: for it extends hope to all: it makes Eternity a rest—a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss. Besides, with this creed, I can so clearly distinguish between the criminal and his crime; I can so sincerely forgive the first while I abhor the last: with this creed revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low: I live in calm, looking to the end.’

Excerpt end.

I've read this passage a long time ago, and to explain it briefly it's a dialogue between young Jane Eyre and her school friend Helen; Helen is a forgiving person while Jane is passionate about not forgiving those who've hurt her. Jane believes in fighting back and not surrendering to others' unfair behavior towards oneself.

At first this excerpt irritated me, because I'm someone who has always "nursed animosity and registered wrongs." Some credited this to a trait in my paternal family, but regardless of the source, I always knew this about myself: I never forget anything bad done to me or anyone who did it! I lived with this rule my entire life, and to be able to deal with the world I chose to "overlook" bad deeds done to me and people who did them, and store them in my long-term memory so that I can still interact normally with those people. I never attempted to take action to avenge myself because of two reasons: I don't like to get into feuds, and I believe in relative perspectives. It's the last reason that led me eventually to start toning down this process of "registering" wrongs and looking for execuses for people's behavior. The dialogue, however, still holds noble and angelic views by Helen that are too much for me. I will never treat someone who'd done wrong by me in a good manner, and I won't forgive him or her either. I just chose to be more forgetting and courteous to such people and always try to give them execuses. I would most certainly want others' to do the same for me if I've ever done anything bad to someone.

Yet, the topic of choosing between revenge or forgiveness is more complex than that. I don't believe that people can be either; mainly because revenge requires cool calculation and forgiveness requires a very strong and pure belief in the fact that God is the absolute fair, and a realization that people aren't angels who never do wrong. I believe very few people are capable of either, what I do believe in, however, is that most of us can fluctuate in between the two extremes. I know I'm on the darker segment of the scale, but I don't mind as long as I don't "act" maliciouly against others.

Jane's stand is not that of revenge as much as it's that of "fighting back," so she doesn't believe in giving her enemies the left cheek if they struck the right. Now that I can strongly believe in and hold on too. But there are points in life when those enemies are stronger than us; either physically or authoritatively. Ovbiously such people souldn't be made enemies in the first place, but if they are naturely unjust then they don't require you to do a bad move so that they can hate you and be unfair to you. So there's no easy way to fight back except to be stronger and wait for the proper chance to "get even."

I'm no angel, and one of the very few traits I have that I consider good is my understanding of my failings and my (slow) attempt to fix some or all of them. But I can't simple forgive, maybe when I get older and wiser I'll find it in me to believe that

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