I have been a massive Coldplay fan for the last five years. My love affair with Coldplay began with me listening to some of their chart-toppers and has only grown stronger since then. However, deep into my first semester here at UW-Madison, I realized that I needed more than just their chart-toppers. So, I began listening to their entire albums, unearthing some lovely hidden gems along the way.
On one such occasion, as I was listening to Viva la Vida the album — on shuffle, I came across a lyric that caught my attention. The lyric in question was part of the chorus to the song “Death and All His Friends”.
“I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge.”
It was just eight words and a single line but it made me think of my entire life up until that point of time. I thought of myself and the people I considered close. My thoughts then shifted to humankind in general.
The words in the song highlight something that blights humankind — the tendency to keep score and hold grudges. We are hard-wired to behave that way whenever we’re wronged. It is, after all, a biological process in our brains that makes revenge feel so rewarding. Despite the rewarding nature of revenge, the line from the song described it as something to be avoided, and with good reason too.
When I thought of people back home, I found that many people really seemed to live life keeping score of everything and everyone that wronged them, while some choose to let things pass. The former seemed open to accepting the rewards that came with revenge, while the latter appeared to openly shun that. Yet, it was the latter whom I found to be happier overall, while the former was mired in a seemingly endless conquest, like a snake trying to bite its own tail.
This bifurcation can be seen on a much larger scale, like the large student body here on campus. As students in college, we have a lot on our plates and the slightest of inconveniences can leave us seething in rage, ready to bite back.
Once we leave college and enter the chaos of workplaces and internal politics, we are only more likely to feel the impulse to act out and seek revenge. While it might be extremely tempting to hatch a sinister plot and give someone a taste of their own medicine, it would be far more useful to understand why revenge is so counterintuitive, and not cave to temptation.
The main question is, why is it that people who do not act on revenge impulses end up happier than those who do?
Reacting to someone else’s actions is quite similar to being stuck in quicksand. The more brutish our approach, the more likely it is that we are stuck in the quicksand. The best thing we can do to get out of quicksand is to let go of things that weigh us down and move slowly and deliberately.
When we feel like taking revenge, our first thoughts are most likely to lead us to violent solutions that would only exacerbate our problems. Those who seek to take revenge often act recklessly, and in doing so, they only add salt into already gaping wounds.
Those who choose to let things pass are never weighed down by the constant need to fight back. Their approach acts as a bandage for wounds that had been inflicted on them, and despite rejecting the brain’s advances for reward, they enjoy pleasure and not pain.
Once a person acts on their urge to get revenge, they’ve entered an infinite loop. Confrontation breeds confrontation and rather than rejoicing the results of a sinister plot, revenge seekers spend time covering off roads, trying to protect themselves from counter-attacks. On the other hand, people who let things pass spend that same time focusing on creating new paths and exploring new frontiers.
In short, seeking revenge and holding grudges only adds to problems and does not bring any real sense of justice. If anything, it is quite likely that while trying to get revenge for someone’s wrongdoing, we might inflict more damage on our aggressors and become aggressors ourselves. The ideal approach in such a situation is to let go of things. Forgive rather than fight. Live and let live.
It is important to note that letting go does not equate to inaction. Complete and total inaction would still leave us stranded in quicksand, much like reckless action would. Not standing up to someone who wrongs us only invites more wrong from them. Letting go of things truly means that instead of letting grudges and anger simmer in us to the point of explosive and reckless action, we must patiently do the right thing. Rather than matching blow for blow and fighting fire with fire, we must focus on ourselves and shoot for success.
The sweetest form of revenge isn’t really revenge at all — it is success. With tact and a calm head on our shoulders, we can use the injustices we face as fuel to reach new heights in our fields. Not only does rising from being wronged make our success much sweeter. It acts as a knockout blow to everyone who has ever wronged us.
Life is far too short for a cycle of recycled revenge. Instead we must let the impulse of revenge serve as a catalyst to reach previously unscaled heights and better ourselves.