It is all too easy to complain about the way we have been treated in our lives. It is unlikely that anyone enters adulthood without having seen and experienced some type of deeply troubling injustice or unfairness inflicted at the hands of others, whether we are talking about our families, our friends and neighbors, our brethren, classmates, partners, or the other strangers and acquaintances who fill our lives. This is not to say that everyone experiences equal amounts of trauma and pain and suffering and sorrow, only that none are immune from the capricious hassles and trials that befall us all in this life. We must all face loss, disappointment, unfairness, insults, and abuses in some fashion. No gifts or talents that we possess, no fortunate accidents of birth, and no efforts of our loved ones can keep away the suffering of life indefinitely.
What this does this mean? In our day and age, there are significant sociopolitical trends that try to give some groups permanently favored status as a result of historical mistreatment. Unfortunately, the result of this treatment (which we will assume, to give the benefit of the doubt, was done with good intentions) is not to overcome the wrongs of the past, but rather to wrong those who did not wrong our ancestors, and to give them the bitter taste of victimization and injustice themselves, and the vengeful spirit to avenge the experience as soon and as completely as possible. This is perhaps not what those who seek power to redress the wrongs of past generations intend, but that is the result of their mirroring of the abuses of the past to right wrongs committed against their fathers and mothers by punishing the sons and daughters of others.
As beings of memory, the only way that we can retain our role of passing along our history to others while living at peace with those around us is to forgive others periodically (preferably often). It is a well known cliche that spitefulness and vengeful feelings are like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to drop dead, but there is much truth in it. If we are wronged by a man or woman, to feel bitter is to punish every man or woman for what one or some men or women did. Is that just? Does it serve to increase our own happiness or well-being? Simply because some are racist or sexist or abusive or mean and nasty, does that mean that all are that way, or that we are immune from such wrongs within ourselves? So long as we seek to serve as the judge, jury, and executioner of collective wrongs, we neglect the evil that is inside of us and punish both the guilty and the innocent without mercy, even as we petulantly complain about the wrongs that we suffer because of others.
There was a famous cartoon some decades ago called Pogo where it was said, “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” This does not happen by accident or coincidence. Without reflection and forgiveness, we tend to mirror toward others the treatment that we receive and recognize. We model ourselves on those around us, whether we love or hate them, or (as is common) have deeply ambivalent and mixed feelings. Power and authority in general attract us for the wrong reasons, and suffering from those in authority tends to create in us both a hatred for having authority over us as well as a desire of having that power for ourselves, whether to avenge the wrongs that we have suffered or to protect ourselves from the power of others.
Nonetheless, sadly, the mere experience of wrongs and the interest in power are not sufficient to break the cycles of abuse that exist in this world. Far from it, they are usually the surest means of perpetuating the evil cycles of the past, especially as most of us have learned no better ways to behave than the same old tired and wicked ways of the past. Even if we intellectually know better ways of behaving, these better ways are often not our initial reactions to situations, or habits that have become deeply embedded within us. It takes a lot of time and effort, and a fair amount of divine grace, to overcome the wounds of the past, to forgive others for what they have done against us in ignorance and insecurity, and to refuse to strike out against others as we have suffered.
And is that not the goal? If our goal is to avenge the wrongs that we or our ancestors have suffered, all we will do is to give someone else who did no wrong themselves against us the raw material to fill their own vengeful fantasies. Such a feud may well never end so long as there are any combatants left that still harbor desires to balance the scales. If our desire is for a better future, for mercy for ourselves, for justice for our wrongs, and for peace and harmony in our dealings with others (unless we want conflict and hostility, that is), at some point we have to defeat our enemies and then forgive, refusing to take vengeance here and now for what we have suffered from those who came before us while remaining vigilant in keeping the openly and unrepentantly wicked from being in the position to continue their wrongs against others. We have to be the bigger men (and women). It’s not easy to do, but if you don’t like becoming the enemy, you have to stop the cycle of abuse and vengeance with yourself, and set an example for others to follow, instead of merely giving them more grist for their own mills, and more fuel for their fires.