The Human Need for Both Revenge and Forgiveness
Interior of the Catholic Church at Ntarama, Rwanda, where thousands of Tutsis were massacred by their Hutu neighbors
As Anne and I progress further and deeper into middle age (and watch our children enter puberty), we could both tell you that hormones have a lot to do with who we are. The effects they have on our moods, our feeling of physical well-being, our brains, and how we interact with others are astonishing.
I find evolutionary psychology to be a fascinating field because its arguments and constructs explaining the various aspects and motivations for human behavior make eminently good common sense to me... Evolutionary psychologists recognize that the capacity for good and evil is built into every one of us from our ancestral past. We have proclivities towards both altruism and selfishness. Humankind is not totally depraved. Neither is human nature a neutral blank slate which can only express evil if evil is learned from others. As the bible (properly interpreted) indicates, humankind is essentially good but is tilted towards sin. What we call Original Sin is coded into our DNA.
Years ago in school, I remember reading critiques from naturalists and zoologists claiming that homo sapiens is the only species that murders its own kind. That was crap. Intra-species murder happens in nature quite frequently. In fact, cooperative and organized tribal murder, a sort of warfare, has been observed and filmed in chimpanzees (our closest relatives) in recent years.
Understanding is one thing. Whether or not evolutionary psychologists can come up with the solution to the problem of human evil, is a different, and potentially dangerous matter.
The internet is a fascinating laboratory in which to observe transactional behavior in human beings. Without face-to-face contact; without the ability to look others in the eye and read facial cues, activities like blogging tend to emphasize and magnify transactions that either establish or rupture trust between people. It came as a surprise to me, after about 4 years of posting on the web for one reason or another, that I've made almost as many adversaries online as friends, with absolutely no intention of doing so going in. It seems that all you need to do to make enemies (beside having really bad "trolling" manners) is to hold onto your beliefs strongly among a group in which not everyone is in agreement, or to switch your beliefs to a view contrary to those of a group that has been monolithic. Blogging is a microcosm of the isolated village of olden times, full of everything you would find there - alliances, mutual support, bargains, "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours", gossip, betrayals, re-alignments, and ostracism.
Recently, I've been reading John Dear's book A Persistent Peace. He described how in his spiritual journey he struggled with the meaning and full implications of Jesus' admonition to "love your enemies." It's funny how the magnification of internet communication can present you smack in the face with this challenge as well. What does it really mean to love our enemies? We all say we're willing to do it, as Christians, but I suspect that what most of us mean when we say it is, "I won't act in a way that will earn me enmity from anyone else." Well, then... enemies will come regardless, and then what? Do we really wish our enemies well? Truly?
It's this exhortation to undetachedly love enemies which makes Christianity unique. Without it, you really couldn't say that it's much different, or superior to, any other religious tradition... Is is impossible, however, for everyone to do this except saints? Is it impossible, due to it being completely unsuited to our human nature?
As I was driving my son out to Hopkinton for his soccer game last Sunday, I happened to have the radio on and I heard an interesting program on Speaking of Faith. It was called Getting Revenge and Forgiveness, and host Krista Tippet was interviewing the social and clinical psychologist Michael McCullough. Interesting interview. Here are some excerpts cut from the transcript:
Ms. Tippett: This hour, "Getting Revenge and Forgiveness." My guest, Michael McCullough, describes science that helps us comprehend how revenge came to have a purpose in human life. But he also stresses that forgiveness is more instinctive than we realize. We explore ways to calm the revenge instinct in ourselves and embolden our capacity to forgive.
Science…. helps us comprehend how revenge came to have a purpose in human life. Taking that seriously could help us react more effectively to crises from school shootings to terrorism to partisan divides. At the same time, science is also revealing that human beings are more instinctively equipped for forgiveness than we've perhaps given ourselves credit for. Knowing this suggests ways to calm the revenge instinct in ourselves and others and embolden the forgiveness intuition. We explore how...
Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, where he directs the Laboratory for Social and Clinical Psychology and also teaches in the Department of Religious Studies. For his recent book, Beyond Revenge, he analyzed extensive data from social scientific studies on humans and animals as well as biology and brain chemistry.
Western religious and therapeutic mindsets have come to imagine revenge as a disease that can be cured by civilization. It hasn't been seen as a natural, biologically driven impulse to which we all remain prone under certain circumstances. And at the same time, the seemingly colder eye of evolutionary biology has analyzed ruthlessness as an advantage in the relentless arc of the survival of the fittest. Forgiveness in both of these scenarios is a rare transcendent quality, a cure for revenge albeit one that would never help human beings really triumph.
Michael McCullough says this view of the world is based on simplistic understandings of both human nature and evolution.
Mr. McCullough: One study that really got my attention was a study on chimpanzees, which showed that if a chimpanzee is harmed by an individual that it's living with, it has the ability to remember who that individual is and target aggression back at that individual in the 10 minutes, 20 minutes, hour later. And for most people, and certainly for me when I started working on this, I was surprised to know that chimpanzees had these kinds of mental abilities, right? I had to learn more. I wanted to know where else do you see this in the animal kingdom. You see it in other kinds of primates, such as one type of monkey that I like a lot, a monkey called the Japanese macaque. They're very intimidated by power. So if you're a high-ranking Japanese macaque and you harm a lower ranking Japanese macaque, that low ranking individual is not going to harm you back, right? It's just too intimidating. It's too anxiety provoking. But what they do instead, and this still astonishes me, is they will find a relative of that high-ranking individual and go seek that low-ranking cousin out or nephew and harm him in retaliation…. So it's as if they're saying, 'You know, I'm not powerful enough to get you back, but what I'm going to do is I'm going to go harm your nephew.'
Ms. Tippett: Now that does sound like human behavior, doesn't it?
Mr. McCullough: Right. And here's the kicker, is when they're harming this nephew, most of the time they're doing it while the high-ranking individual is watching. They want the high-ranking individual to know that, you know, you can harm me. I know you can harm me. I know you're more powerful than I am. But rest assured, I know how to get at what you care about and what you value…
Ms. Tippett: And I think you're also saying in your research that — and also in terms of what we know about the brain — that the emotions, the reactions, that arise in response to grievance are also — we are hard-wired to have those reactions, that they serve a purpose. I mean, I remember St. Helen Prejean saying to me when we did that work on the death penalty, you know, she's a great opponent of the death penalty — she said, "Anger is a moral response," you know?
Mr. McCullough: That's right. It certainly is. Anger in response to injustice is as reliable a human emotional response as happiness is to winning the lottery, or grief is to losing a loved one. And if you look at the brain of somebody who has just been harmed by someone — they've been ridiculed or harassed or insulted — we can put those people into technology that allows us to see what their brains are doing, right? So we can look at sort of what your brain looks like on revenge. It looks exactly like the brain of somebody who is thirsty and is just about to get a sweet drink to drink or somebody who's hungry who's about to get a piece of chocolate to eat.
Ms. Tippett: It's like the satisfaction of a craving?
Mr. McCullough: It is exactly like that. It is literally a craving. What you see is high activation in the brain's reward system. So, again, this is one of the messages it's important for me to try to get across. The desire for revenge does not come from some sick dark part of how our minds operate. It is a craving to solve a problem and accomplish a goal.
Ms. Tippett: And then I guess what is especially intriguing about your work as well, and perhaps even more surprising, even kind of takes us out of our boxes, than the fact that revenge is natural is that you are really suggesting also from a scientific perspective that we have a forgiveness instinct, an aptitude for forgiveness, and that has been crafted by natural selection just like revenge.
Mr. McCullough: I expected to find, frankly, less research as I dug through hundreds of scientific articles on the naturalness of forgiveness but, boy, was I wrong. As it turns out, a lot of biologists have been trying to figure out what allows human beings to be the cooperative creatures that we are. We're cooperative with each other in a way that really makes us pretty unique among mammals for sure. You know, we cooperate with our relatives, but lots of animals do that. But we go further and we cooperate with people we've never met. We cooperate with people that we're not related to. And by virtue of our ability to cooperate with each other, we can build magnificent cities and radio stations and do all kinds of wonderful things. But one of the ingredients you have to have to get individuals to cooperate with each other is a tolerance for mistakes.
You know, we think of forgiveness as these heroic acts and there are always these heroic examples of forgiveness. But you said we think of it as this balm for great wounds. But you said, "Yet, in daily life, forgiveness is more often like a Band-Aid on a scrape and at first glance perhaps only slightly more interesting. But, of course, uninteresting doesn't mean unimportant."
Ms. Tippett: One of the most high-profile figures of public forgiveness in the U.S. in recent years was Bud Welch. His 23-year-old daughter Julie died in the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. Here's a statement Bud Welch made prior to the 2001 execution of Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist responsible for the bombing.
Mr. Bud Welch: The first month after the bombing, I didn't even want Tim McVeigh and Terry McNichols to even have trials. I simply wanted them fried. And then I finally come to realize that the reason that Julie and 167 others were dead is because of vengeance and rage. And when we take him out of his cage to kill him, it's going to be the same thing. We will keep the circle of violence going. Number 169 dead is not going to help the family members of the first 168.
Ms. Tippett: You do talk about some amazing examples of forgiveness, of public forgiveness, one of them being Bud Welch. But I sometimes think that those kinds of examples that do make the news, like the bombing, also exalt forgiveness as something that's really beyond the reach of most of us most of the time. You know, we hope that we would be that gracious, perhaps, but it almost feels superhuman.
Mr. McCullough: Right. And if you look at Bud Welch and you look at that story from the outside and you ask yourself how can this man whose daughter was killed in this terrible explosion ever get over his rage, from the outside we have a really hard time imagining that. But if you look at the story of Bud Welch, actually what you find is he had a lot of help along the way. And if you look at the story very carefully, you can actually learn a lot about how the human mind evolved to forgive and what kind of conditions activate that instinct in human minds, because a lot of those conditions ended up falling into place for Bud. In fact, he doesn't talk about forgiveness even for himself in that case as having been some massive struggle.
Ms. Tippett: Well, it was incremental, also, wasn't it? I mean, it gets reported as an act, but in fact it was a process.
Mr. McCullough: Yeah, that's right. And along the way, there were events that he actually made happen for himself that turned forgiveness into one of these things that can be easier. For example, he actually sought out Timothy McVeigh's father and visited him one day at the McVeigh home and had this moment he describes when he saw Timothy's picture on the mantle. It was a high school graduation picture. And they were just making small talk and Bud said to McVeigh's father, he said, "God, that's a good-looking kid." And the tears just began pouring out of the elder McVeigh. And what he realized then was that here was another father on the verge of losing a son, of losing a child. And that immediate experience of sympathy and compassion went a tremendous way in facilitating the forgiveness process for Bud.
So right off the bat, this real human interaction starts to turn forgiveness from something difficult to do to something that's easier to do, because this compassion has happened naturally in the course of real human interaction and then suddenly forgiveness is a little easier.
Ms. Tippett: So this is getting to one of the really important points I think you make with your work, that if we can understand this forgiveness instinct and how, that even understanding in terms of evolution, that we can start to create conditions where it can be empowered.
Mr. McCullough: Right. The first is safety. Human beings are naturally prone to forgive individuals that they feel safe around. So if we have an offender that is apologizing in a way that seems heartfelt and convincing and has really convinced us that they can't and won't harm us in the same way again, OK, that's a point for forgiveness. Point on the forgiveness side. Again, the human mind evolved for forgiveness to be something worth its while, and any successful organism is unlikely to have a mechanism in it that says, you know, 'Just keep stepping on my neck. It's OK.'
Ms. Tippett: Right. Right. Right.
Mr. McCullough: Right. 'But if you can convince me that you're safe, that I don't have to worry about being harmed in the same way a second time, maybe I'm willing to move a little bit forward.'
Ms. Tippett: Well, yeah, we'll get there. So what's the second after safety?
Mr. McCullough: Value. We are inclined to forgive individuals who are likely to have benefit for us in the future. So we find it really easy, as I was saying, to forgive our loved ones or forgive our friends or forgive our neighbors or our business partners because there's something in it for us in the future. And the costs sometimes of destroying a relationship that's been damaged are just too high, because establishing a new one is so difficult to do. So relationships that have value in them are ones in which we're naturally prone to forgive... We tend to view other people who have positions different from ours as having much more similarity to each other than we do. We can see the great variety in our own positions.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, but we can't see the variety in other people's positions.
Mr. McCullough: No, that's right.
Ms. Tippett: That's interesting.
Mr. McCullough: Yeah. We tend to paint them with the same brush. And so we tend to really simplify positions that other groups have or people on other sides of positions. So we have a simplified view. We tend to actually view them as more partisan and more extreme on average than the average really seems to be. And so there's something about how the mind works and how it processes groups, right, when we think about people from over there, that other group…
And so the conclusion I've come to is in many, many cases if you want forgiveness, if you want to forgive or if you want to be forgiven, you need to go out there and get it for yourself. And the way you go out and get it for yourself is by trying to have the kind of conversation with the person you hurt that you want to have. In my family we apologize about a lot.
Ms. Tippett: Apology is an important concept for you. You say that it really, even biologically, is important for us.
Mr. McCullough: Apology is really important, because when I apologize to you for something I've done, you see me squirming. You see me uncomfortable. You see me trying to reassure you that I'm not going to harm you in the same way again. You see me giving you respect as a human being with feelings. And all of a sudden, I've turned on a lot of the slider switches that make forgiveness happen in your head.
Ms. Tippett: You say also that you've made it the next best thing to revenge.
Mr. McCullough: That's right. That's right.
Ms. Tippett: It's fulfilled some of those needs we have.
Mr. McCullough: Oh, there are so many people who, once they see someone who's harmed them cry and experience shame and experience humiliation for the way they've behaved, suddenly it's the forgiver who's doing the healing, who's reaching out to the perpetrator. This happens so many times. All people often need is this kind of vigorous conversation about the past. Now, if this were so easy, people would be doing it all day.
Ms. Tippett: You kind of touch on this in your book, of what religion can do in terms of forgiveness. When I look at all your research and have this conversation with you, it seems to me that in terms of where religion can play a constructive role in this, and religion is often implicated in places where there's terrible violence going on, but perhaps not in the first instance, teaching forgiveness, but some of the teachings that come out of religious traditions about caring for the other, about caring for the stranger.
Mr. McCullough: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the best things we can do with religious faith is give people an appetite for difference. And the major world religions all have the resources for doing this, for getting people excited about people who are different from them…. It's not every brand right that exercises that prerogative, but in the scriptures and traditions of every world religion that has been successful on a grand scale, there is a story there about the love of difference.
Ms. Tippett: Compassion towards difference.
Mr. McCullough: Right. Compassion towards difference. Caring for the strangers in your midst. Being able to see beyond superficial differences toward the essential commonalities.