Just one week into a new Forgiveness Project series, revenge emerged as the subject the group of 12 wanted to discuss. Vent would be a better word, for nearly everyone had a tale of betrayal by a trusted associate or colleague. If seething can be felt, it soon was filling the room as many began to mentally revisit the past.
A high number of federal inmates are convicted, or decide to plead, on the testimony of an informant. Often these informants are business associates involved with the defendant in a legal business or an illegal drug trade. Prosecutors often bring enormous pressure on a criminal’s contacts or business partners to testify, usually in exchange for a lighter sentence. Many do.
The anger felt by those who end up in prison because of such “ratting” is usually very deep. Revenge, though it may never be carried out, is not far from the center of an inmate’s thinking. Today, one man said he thought about it every day since he was convicted.
Others agreed that they have often fantasized about how to repay those who turned against them. At least for a while, such thoughts are quite pleasurable. I described why, mentioning the brain studies that show how the so-called pleasure pathways in the brain light up when the subject contemplates paying someone back for the harm s/he has done. It is the same pleasurable effect cocaine brings to the brain. It’s no wonder the idea of “sweet revenge” has taken root in our thinking.
But, not surprisingly, the pleasure does not last. Not for cocaine and not for revenge. We talked about that today. A surprising number of those who spoke acknowledged that revenge was a dead-end street littered with pain and wrecked lives.
One inmate told a gripping story of joining his brother to seek retribution on a man who had insulted their father. They lured him to a parking lot late at night under false pretense, attacked and beat him, warning him never to so much as look at their father again. Afterward, he said, he had no satisfaction, realizing that his actions showed him to be no better than the man who started it all.
He told of another situation when he was serving time in a state prison. A fellow inmate who was involved with him in Bible studies learned that the man who murdered his brother was also serving time in the prison. He grew enraged and began to heat a cup of water to boiling in the microwave in the cellblock, intending to throw it in the face of the murderer before physically assaulting him.
As he took the boiling water from the microwave, his friend asked him if this was the response he had learned when studying the Bible. The question stopped the man cold. Pressing in, the friend reminded him of what they had learned about forgiveness and asked if that wouldn’t be the better response. The man broke down and wept, as did his friend. Later, he approached the murderer and extended his hand in friendship, saying that he had forgiven him. The murderer was so moved by this that he joined the Bible studies.
Everyone today in the circle was also moved. Several began to tell their stories of betrayal, pain, anger and contemplated revenge. I helped guide the conversation, but could add nothing more than background and context as these men – all of whom have been through the forgiveness classes – helped one another resist the urge to seek revenge and embrace the better response of forgiveness.