Getting Revenge and Forgiveness: Science That Liberates Us from Reductive Analyses
by Krista Tippett, host
I first began to gain a kind of respect for the revenge impulse in human life when we worked, in the early days of this program, on a show about the death penalty. I came to understand that revenge was the original “criminal justice system.” For most of human history, prior to the rule of law, prior to structures of justice that transcend the messiness of human interaction, the threat of retaliation has been a primary tool humans possessed to pursue justice and also to deter cycles of violence. I’ll never forget Sister Helen Prejean, a great campaigner against the death penalty, describing anger as a moral response. The question, of course, is where we let that anger take us.
Now, as Michael McCullough lays out passionately, science is able to document how normal, and purposeful, our instinct for revenge is. In the brain, the instinct for revenge looks like a “craving,” a felt need that begs for satiation. We do range into the realms of global geopolitics in this conversation — to the world around Joseph Kony in Uganda no less — Michael McCullough is just as interested in the mundane forms this craving takes: in our reactions to neighbors and irritating co-workers or to our political opposites.
The good news is that Michael McCullough’s research is also revealing that forgiveness is hard-wired in us — purposeful and normal. He says that to think of forgiveness as a trait of the weak and the vulnerable reflects a simplistic imagination about evolutionary biology. We tolerate and excuse the deficits and mistakes of those we know and love and work with — and even those we don’t love but need to work with — many times each day. Forgiveness doesn’t work in real life as it too often works in media portrayals of dramatic stories of conversion and high emotion. It happens constantly, and we rarely stop to glorify it with the lofty word “forgiveness.”
This science, in other words, liberates us from reductive analyses of ourselves and the world around us. If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, and can see what triggers them both, we have more control over both.
On its cautionary side, it offers lucid explanation of why human societies remain vulnerable — physiologically, not merely politically — to falling back on retaliation and violence as a form of justice. When we cease to see our own well-being as linked to that of others, when we feel threatened by their very existence and are only able to see them amorphously as part of an opposing group, the forgiveness instinct becomes less possible and violence more likely.
This conversation with Michael McCullough heightens my sense of what is at stake in the present global and national moment. One the one hand, the interactivity of the globalized world should make it possible — even necessary — for us to know people far beyond our families and “tribes” as necessary to our survival and even our flourishing.
I am also deeply concerned, as we roll through another toxic election year, at how complete the chasms in American society have become. We have divided ourselves in countless ways — between red and blue, between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Such distinctions are surely inevitable. But the utter lack of communication, courtesy, and curiosity across these divides seems new to me. Alarmingly, the religious traditions that have been humanity’s moral respositories are also implicated in some of these divisions. How intriguing to imagine that we might harness lessons of science towards a more reconciliatory, peaceable future.
The Final Words of Texas’ Death Row Offenders Made Visual
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The poet Elizabeth Alexander once asked, "What if the mightiest word is love?"
For the 280 men and one woman executed in Texas between 2000 and 2012, “love” was the mightiest word — by an overwhelming margin, with three out of five saying the word in their last living moments.
Dylan C. Lathrop and GOOD created this graphic with a word cloud generated from the offenders’ final thoughts shortly before they were put to death. The word “love” was used by 173 of the 281 people. That’s more than 60 percent. Nearly half of them mentioned religion in some form, using “God” and “Jesus” and “Lord,” to name a few. And note the petitions of prayer, expressions of apology and notions of family are present in their minds. Some were silent, others were defiant — and I’m guessing that’s why “warden” shows up so prominently.
Animated Shorts on the Lessons of Forgiveness and Repentance for the High Holy Days
by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The son of an Israeli nuclear physicist, the artist Hanan Harchol moved to the United States with his family when he was two years old. And it’s his father’s accent that Harchol impersonates and argues with in these two humorous and enlightening animated shorts for the High Holy Days.
But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:
"I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.
Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.
I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”
Two Friends Who Could Have Been Enemies: Forgiveness and Mercy from a Mother to Her Son’s Killer
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The death of one’s child, I’ve been told by several people, including my grandmother, is something you never get over. My uncle Dennis died of an accidental gunshot wound when he was a young boy living on a farm outside of New Rockford, North Dakota. My grandma once said that she’d rather lose a husband or her parents before she ever lost another child again. Nearly four decades later, the pain is physically present, palpable and thick with grief and sorrow. It breaks my heart to think about it. And Dennis’ death was just an unfortunate accident.
So what Mary Johnson endured 18 years ago and has seen her way through is almost incomprehensible, but it’s a marvelous story to behold.
“I just hugged the man who murdered my son.”
In 1993, Oshea Israel was a teenage gang member in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One night at a party, he got into a fight with Laramiun Byrd — Mary Johnson’s only child — pulled a gun, and shot and killed him.
Convicted of second-degree murder, Israel was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Twelve years after his sentencing, Johnson asked to meet her son’s killer.
The experience transformed both Israel and Johnson. Now 34, Oshea has finished serving his prison sentence. They are friends working together to share their story.
In this interview from StoryCorps (audio above), they speak in loving terms about one another and talk about forgiveness, pain, and the love and mercy of a woman who embraces a man she could rightfully have hated.
Unnatural deaths caused by accidents are unbearable enough, but to lose a child at the willing hands of another individual, I imagine for most parents, might precipitate into bitterness, anger, rage. For Mary Johnson, it became a redemptive moment, an opportunity to transcend the violence. She founded From Death to Life, an organization that supports mothers who have lost children to homicide, and encourages forgiveness between families of murderers and victims. And, Oshea Israel, he’s going to college.
Compassion comes from the recognition that all of us are vulnerable.
— Fred Luskin, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and an associate professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, from his TEDTalk at the United Nations to mark the one-year anniversary of Karen Armstrong’s launch of the Charter for Compassion. You can watch his entire talk, along with ones from Krista, Karen Armstrong, and others.
[via TED Blog]
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Seeking apology is a punitive urge. Asking someone to be sorry for what they’ve done may be asking that the other, the one who abused or hurt us in some way, understands the consequence of their misbehavior. But it is also a way of asking them to bow down, to beg. You can’t ask someone to beg with love in your heart.
StoryCorps Moms: Nancy Wright and Her Son J.D.
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"I think about two weeks after that conversation, I picked up the phone and a small voice on the other side said, ‘Hi, this is your friend.’"
Many of us on staff have been traveling a lot these last couple of months for the live events we’ve been producing during Krista’s speaking tour. And air travel can lose its luster awfully quickly when I’m separated from my wife, Bella, and our two remarkable boys, Lucian and Rainier, for even a couple of days. For me, this was unimaginable only five years ago.
But, unexpected gifts are delivered during all the waiting, ascending, descending, taxiing — and Dave Isay’s book, Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps, is one of them. I pored over these individual stories in less than two hours. I smiled, I sobbed, I laughed, I paused, I reflected, I remembered.
Somewhat ironically, I was on a flight to the Bay Area of California to attend a conference titled Wisdom 2.0. There were many smart voices from all the tech elites — Twitter, Facebook, Google — and sage roshis and journalists, but very few of their stories compared to the love and experience conveyed in the personal reflections in Isay’s book.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I’ll be posting a few of my favorites and asked Shubha to post several of hers too. We’ll be releasing audio of these stories throughout the day. They’re only a few minutes long. Consider them moments of meditation as you think about your mothers — the joys, the sorrows, the moments of beauty — and what you carry forward as a child and/or parent in this wonderfully crazy world.
Here, Nancy Wright teaches me that sometimes I just need to pick up the phone, or walk to the bedroom and let go of my pride to give my boy a hug, even when I’m upset.
Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.
Forgiving His Daughter’s Murderer
Shubha Bala, associate producer
In response to last week’s show, Hector Black pointed us to this StoryCorps interview. The listener from Tennessee tells the story of his daughter being murdered in her home and his process of seeking vengeance and granting forgiveness:
"I’d never been in favor of the death penalty, but, I wanted that man to hurt — the way that he had hurt her. I wanted him to hurt the way I was hurting. But after a while I wanted to know who it was…"
He narrates the events in detail — from the murder of his daughter to the process of wanting revenge, and ultimately to granting forgiveness. The heinousness of the crime makes me think of Desmond Tutu speaking about forgiveness during the South African truth and reconciliation process. He said you would think there are things that are unforgivable, like the horrendous violence of apartheid. And yet, he says, they saw many people who ought to have been bristling with bitterness and anger but actually embraced their perpetrators when they met face-to-face.
In some small way, it’s a good lesson reminding me that it should take much less mental work to forgive the person that steals your parking spot or cuts in front of you in line.
Science That Liberates Us from Reductive Analyses
Krista Tippett, host
We originally produced "Getting Revenge and Forgiveness" in the bitter midst of the 2008 election season. And when we first decided on the current program schedule just weeks ago, we had no idea that this show would land in another dramatic moment of recriminatory public emotion, over health care and other issues, in an already charged political climate.
Now, as during that first time, I am grateful for Michael McCullough’s decidedly real-world vigor and clear-sightedness. I’d been intrigued by what I knew of his research, and I was hooked by this line at the beginning of his book, Beyond Revenge:
"I wrote this book for people who want to bypass all of the pious-sounding statements about the power of forgiveness, and all of the fruitless sermonizing about the destructiveness of revenge. It’s for people who want to see human nature for what it really is."
As I’ve said many times before, part of my passion for the spiritual and religious aspect of life is my delight in the fact that here we dwell solemnly not only on God but on what is ordinary and human; we attempt to see human nature for what it really is, and find meaning and possibility right there.
I first began to gain a solemnity about the revenge impulse in human life when we worked, in the early days of Speaking of Faith, on a show about the death penalty. I came to understand that revenge is the original “criminal justice system.” For most of human history, prior to the rule of law, prior to structures of justice that transcend the messiness of human interaction, the threat of retaliation has been a primary tool humans possessed to pursue justice and also to regulate cycles of violence.
The ancient “eye for an eye” teaching of the Hebrew Bible — which is often cited as a justification for extreme revenge — arose in this context. It was not designed to champion extreme punishment, but to limit revenge in terms of equity and fairness — as in, “you may not slaughter the entire family of the person who harmed you or your loved one; you may only take an eye for an eye.”
And now, as Michael McCullough lays out expertly and passionately, science is able to document how normal, and in a sense, how sensible, our instinct for revenge is. It has served a purpose in human life and in the primate world. We are hard-wired for what looks in the brain like a "craving" for revenge, a felt need that begs for satiation. And though we do range in this conversation into the realms of global geopolitics and murderous revenge on a societal scale, Michael McCullough is more interested perhaps in the mundane forms this craving takes: in our interactions with obnoxious neighbors and irritating co-workers or, for example, the political candidates we oppose.
He notes that Americans have a tendency to see revenge as a mark of cultures more primitive than their own. But he points out, provocatively, that, between 1974 and 2000, 61 percent of all school shootings in the U.S. had revenge — often for bullying — as a trigger.
Here is the good news: science is also revealing how forgiveness, like revenge, is hard-wired in us — purposeful and normal. We tolerate and excuse the deficits and mistakes of those we know and love and work with — and even those we don’t love but need to work with — a hundred times a day without ever glorifying these moments with the lofty word “forgiveness.” School shootings, ethnic slaughter, and road rage garner headlines, skewing our sense of our collective character. But, Michael McCullough says, forgiveness doesn’t work in real life as it too often works in media portrayals of dramatic stories of conversion and high emotion.
Actually, he says, we forgive, in good part, because it is in the interests of our genetic pool to do so. The evolutionary pay off for the forgiveness of mistakes by people we are close to or whose work we depend upon, for example, is survival. Michael McCullough says to think of forgiveness as a trait of the weak and the vulnerable reflects a simplistic imagination about human nature and evolutionary biology. And he has the science to give us a more complex imagination about both.
This is science, in other words, that liberates us from reductive analyses of human nature; — that is to say, of ourselves and those around us. If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, we have more control over both. Among the practical tools McCullough offers for moving forward in this way, here is one of the most simple and challenging: we embolden the forgiveness instinct when we come to see others as having value. In this light, religious traditions have more than straight teachings on forgiveness to offer up to our culture. Perhaps more practically, they have rich, ancient, cross-generational resources for seeing, knowing, and honoring the dignity of “the other,” whether enemy or friend, neighbor or stranger.
On the cautionary side of McCullough’s insight, there is a realization that, under the right conditions, we are all vulnerable to falling back on revenge as a form of justice. This helps explain the fact that sectarian cycles of revenge often erupt after the fall of dictatorships, like that of Saddam Hussein; such regimes take all the revenge function on themselves and keep normal human dynamics artificially in check. McCullough’s science makes a sobering case for the necessity of the basic rule of law — in Iraq or in an American inner city — if human beings are to live up to their moral potential.
The need to understand the instincts for revenge and forgiveness, and to govern them, may be attaining a new urgency in a globalized world, and one that is in the midst of protracted economic turmoil. I know that Michael McCullough’s analysis has been ringing in my ears — anchoring both my concerns and my hopes — as I’ve watched that ongoing financial crisis unfold, and as I consider the unabated polarization of American political culture.