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August 1, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Revengeance! A Dish Best Served Bold

At this very moment, there’s something that’s got you a little bit irritated, isn’t there? Chances are, something has happened to you today that just won’t sit right. Maybe your lecturer sarcastically insulted you. Maybe your friend stood you up for lunch. Maybe you walked in on your flatmates making naked-love-noises in your bed. Whatever it was, you probably felt that all-too-familiar rising feeling in your chest and were ready to either drop through the floor—or drop the guilty party with your fists. Those are two incredibly different outcomes, and it stands to reason that they will have different effects on how you feel about what has happened. But is one response, fight or flight, better? Is taking big, capital-letter Revenge the path to happiness, the path to the dark side, or simply a little bit immature?

It makes perfect sense to understand revenge as beginning in the early days of mankind, when we were threatened by competition. For a caveman, not fighting back when a rival tribe has stolen his food and woman would have meant a lonely death—and an evolutionary dead end. In that situation it goes against human survival instincts to simply give up. It’s hardly surprising that such a fundamental response, born of anger, survival instinct and pride, has stuck around all these years and is still making waves today.

Those waves continue to make headlines worldwide. When Osama bin Laden was uncovered as the “mastermind” of the September 11 attacks on the USA, a nation swore a collective oath of vengeance. That oath was fulfilled on May 2, when bin Laden was killed by a team of US Navy SEALs. This was an act of revenge, and elicited extreme reactions one way or another all over the world. Some were overjoyed and ecstatic, while others fumed at the vengeful actions that, in their view, overstepped boundaries of law and morality. Still more people were made uneasy by the excitement and happiness arising from death, and questioned the celebration of a man’s demise. Clearly, revenge is a divisive action. However, it is also exceptionally popular, and to say we don’t all enjoy a good story of some villain getting their comeuppance would be a lie.

Some of the greatest stories from human history are based primarily around revenge, or setting the score straight—I’m talking of course about The Iliad, Hamlet, Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and of course, the greatest story ever told: The Princess Bride. Try playing a role-playing video game without finding a quest based around revenge, go on, try. Or open up the Old Testament and see how far you get before coming across some vengeance. Revenge is clearly a fairly integral part of our literary tradition. More than that: it is a part of the history of all mankind. The concept of utu is an important aspect of Maori culture—a simple way of putting it would be a formalised, restorative form of revenge and balance. However, for all its prevalence, the idea of paying Evil unto Evil rarely seems to turn out well for our fictional characters. Hamlet famously dies at the end, along with practically the entire cast, the Revenge of the Sith lasts less than a single generation, and even the successful ones such as Inigo Montoya is left to ponder his stomach wound and ponder the employment—let alone dating—prospects of a man who has spent twenty years of his life doing nothing but practice his swordfighting.

These literary examples are extremes, however, and it would be a bit of a mistake to draw too many parallels between Hamlet and spitting on your flatmate’s toothbrush for eating your last chocolate-chip muffin. Surely, if we don’t take it too far, it makes sense that revenge is a good way of doing away with all that toxic anger. However, don’t rush in just yet. Before you strike while the iron is hot—or make it hot by striking—take a moment to think about what you are doing.

A recent study has shown that after receiving negative assessments, participants who had spent two minutes going toe-to-toe with a punching bag were actually more aggressive than those who had simply taken a minute to have a cup of tea and a lie down. Psychologist Dr Art Markman suggests the hardly unexpected notion that aggressive behaviours such as violent revenge make us more violent in nature, by associating memories of the events that have made us angry with our own acts of aggression. Important to consider, however, is the equally evident factor of catharsis. It feels good to express our feelings instead of bottling them up inside, and we all know from experience that giving as good as you get can be damn satisfying. When someone shuts you down with some outrageous sass, there’s nothing better in the world than coming back with a sizzling zinger (or “sizzlinger,” if you will) to knock them down a couple of pegs.

Without restraint, though, those things that make us feel good will often result in some fairly dire consequences. This is not hard to grasp: if Steve is so offended by Alice’s behaviour that he feels he must take revenge, then it makes sense for a reciprocal act to provoke just as much unhappiness in Alice. Much like a pendulum, revenge can swing back and forth in this way until everyone runs out of energy and gives up, or the whole thing builds up out of control and somebody loses an eye. There can be some pretty big consequences if you don’t take care. One high school student tried to take revenge on a bully by letting down the bully’s tyres, and narrowly avoided being run over when the bully happened to be in the car waiting for him. And it’s not like extreme physical injury is the worst thing that can happen from a revenge plot gone too far. You could lose friends, love, your home—or even get in trouble with the law. Revenge as a defence isn’t exactly going to stand up in court, as one American woman found out the hard way. After her husband told her to lose weight and get plastic surgery so he wouldn’t cheat on her with his receptionist any more, she ran him over with his car, twice. At trial, members of the jury openly wept as they delivered a guilty verdict, and begged that the judge give her the most lenient sentence possible. Whether that is a just result is up to you.

Clearly there are some treacherous pitfalls along the way, but don’t despair. It may not be the nicest way to go about your business, but in some cases revenge is a damn attractive choice. Even fantasising about trashing your philandering lover’s car—or in the case of one study, stabbing a voodoo doll—can vent those angry feelings. Revenge is a way for us to feel less like a powerless victim, and more like someone who still has their pride and dignity. Even if that restoration of dignity involves dialling a sex-line on someone’s phone and leaving it off the hook for nine hours.

If you want to plan the perfect act of revenge, not only should you avoid the potentially disastrous consequences outlined above, but according to Mario Gollwitzer you should also tailor your revenge to suit what has been done to you. The most curative revenge is that which makes you feel as though you have taught your enemy a lesson, and really made them feel as though they know exactly what they did wrong.

Feeling vengeful is nothing to be afraid of, but bear in mind that payback is a powerful tool. Done right, it can be entertaining, fulfilling and cathartic. Done badly, it can lead to pain, sadness and nothing but trouble. Clearly, revenge is indeed a dish best served cold. So please, I beg of you, tread carefully out there on your quest for vengeance.

***

The Rules for Revenge

1: Don’t Break the Law
This is fairly obvious. It’s hard to have the last laugh from a cell in the Rimutakas.

2: Keep it in Perspective
There’s really no need for disproportionate retribution. You probably don’t need to ruin someone’s entire life for borrowing your shampoo without asking. That’s just going to lead to further conflict.

3: Think about the Consequences
This is a big one. Don’t jump into anything without thinking about who or what will be affected by your own personal brand of Justice. Revenge plots can backfire spectacularly.

4: Don’t get stuck with the Bill
If you cause someone financial damage, you don’t want them to be able to hand you an invoice. This overlaps with Rule #1 and Rule #6.

5: Make Sure they Learn Their Lesson
The most important factor in making yourself feel better is teaching the other party what they did wrong. A generic punishment won’t always do this.

6: Cover Your Tracks
If you’ve had to do something you aren’t proud of, then maybe it’s better you don’t let anyone know it was you. Especially keep it off the internet, and stay the hell away from Facebook.

7: Be Creative
This is important. Not only will it make for a better, more entertaining story, but it will also help you in not looking like the bad guy. It also helps with Rule #8.

8: Have Fun
Taking revenge too seriously is not ideal. Being funny about it will avoid turning you into an aggression machine. You’re probably not trying to actually tear down somebody’s world, and someday they too will see the funny side.

9: Move On
The whole point of taking revenge is to get it out of your system. When it’s over, it’s over. Don’t let it consume you, and remember that the best revenge is living well.

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