“If he hits you, hit him back!” his mom told him, a wide eyed five year old who was tattling on the neighborhood bully.
The other girls on the porch nodded in agreement. It was the only way to avoid getting picked on—to fight back, to stick up for yourself.
Another young mother, brunette with fair skin and freckles all over her arms and legs, counsels her children similarly. “If someone starts a fight, you finish it,” she told them one day after two bus bullies wouldn’t leave her kindergartner alone. Her son responded by beating the bullies up the next day.
While not as extreme, these two incidents reminded me of the story I recently heard a Catholic priest share—about a community being destroyed by violence, where grudges are not forgiven, but repaid.
Fr. Jerry is the priest at St. Mary’s Mission at the Red Lake Indian Reservation, where violent crime is more than twice the national rate. According to the Associated Press, “On just a single day [in 2009] on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, police and investigators received emergency calls about a suicide, a homicide, three stabbings, two shootings and multiple incidents of domestic violence.”
In 2005, a 16 year old boy on the reservation killed ten people, including himself, in a shooting spree at his school. Fr. Jerry says he does funerals for young people who die violent deaths regularly.
Fr. Jerry talked about a culture in which people demand “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In other words, if you hit me, I’ll hit you back.
“Where does that get us?” he asked before answering his own question.
“We all become eyeless and toothless,” he said, solemnly.
So what’s the alternative?
Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomisrsky defines forgiveness as “a shift in thinking” towards someone who has wronged you so that instead of wishing harm to that person, you let go of the desire for revenge.
Forgiveness does not require an apology from the other person. It is something that you as an individual can choose to do. It’s an inner attitude that says, “I know I was wronged, and I don’t support that behavior, but I will choose not to hate the person who wronged me, which would only make me stoop to their level.”
And according to the critically-acclaimed PBS television series, This Emotional Life, forgiveness is good for you. Researchers have found that holding a grudge increases heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
A growing body of research finds that people who forgive have
- Fewer episodes of depression
- Higher self-esteem
- More friends
- Longer marriages
- Lower blood pressure
- Closer relationships
- Fewer stress-related health issues
- Better immune system function
- Lower rates of heart disease
- And they are more likely to be happy, serene, empathetic, hopeful, and agreeable. [i]
So for all sorts of reasons, we might want to focus less on retaliation, and more on modeling forgiveness for ourselves and our children.
Because as Fr. Jerry put it, if our rule is an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will all end up eyeless and toothless.
What do you think? Is there someone in your life that you could forgive, rather than fight back? Leave a note in the comments
[i] List of benefits copied from http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/forgiveness/understanding-forgiveness.