You’ve heard it before as a tongue-in-check cliché: “Don’t get mad, get even.” I received an email recently promoting a new book, published in the UK, entitled Getting Even, a collection of revenge stories! Personally, I wish far more people would really get angry instead of resorting to vengeance whenever they feel wronged. Perhaps for us Americans it is a carryover from our “wild West” roots and gunfighter lore, the John Wayne “real men don’t cry” stoicism. Our legal system is more steeped in vengeance than rehab. It infects our foreign policy and influences our readiness to go to war. Getting revenge instead of seeking reconciliation is at the heart of so many of our world’s problems. And we perpetuate this aspect of our culture in our movies, TV shows, books and magazine articles. It even seems to have penetrated children’s cartoon shows on TV!
If we are ever going to grow up as mature human beings, we have to learn to responsibly express all our emotions, anger included, and not “act it out” by getting even. Vengeance is adolescent and immature. It may sell movies but it is pandering to the teenager mindset that seems to enjoy heroes bent on getting revenge. Sorry Arnold, Bruce, Charles and Mel. I know those vengeance-riddled roles helped make you all movie stars but you only served to glamorize a trait the human species must shed if we are ever going to transcend our “naked ape-ness” into wiser, more mature beings.
It isn't like we don't have examples of alternative approaches. The restorative justice movement is more concerned with healing victims' wounds and restoring offenders to law-abiding lives than seeking retribution. As a nation, South Africa was the first country to transcend the vengeance model when it opted to reconcile its citizens’ differences and forgive rather than seek revenge for atrocities during the apartheid era.
Getting angry does not mean going on a rampage or a tirade. It simply means allowing the emotion of anger to rise within oneself, to feel it with all its intensity and stay with it until it resides. This is natural human process. You feel it in your body and stick with it. This is the mature approach to processing emotions of all kinds.
This “staying with it” is where most people bail out. I certainly did before I learned that suppressing my feelings didn’t make them go away so they festered inside me. Then the tendency is to find something for distraction (alcohol, yelling, driving fast, drugs, overworking, TV or something else) or get into our heads about it and wrap all kinds of justification or rationalization around it which makes righteous anger more thinking than feeling. Resentments and righteousness are intellectual positions and cannot be processed. Holding onto those thoughts is why most people can’t seem to let go of their desire for revenge. Obsessive thinking keeps the seeds of the emotion stored in the body where it stagnates or putrefies. Many holistic health practitioners, including some MDs, believe this is where most of our systemic diseases come from. Holding on to all that unexpressed emotion, they contend, contributes to cancer, chronic back pain and heart disease.
So, the next time someone advises you “don’t get mad, get even” tell them you choose a healthier way and find a place to be just as angry as you need to be. I promise it will pass quickly from your body unless you insist it take up permanent residence.