Is Happiness the Best Revenge?

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February 13, 2019 by lucieromarin

You’ve probably heard it said that happiness is the best revenge – meaning that, if someone undoes your life, the best revenge is not to burn down his house, or even to seek compensation for the ruin. Rather, it is simply to build your life again out of that ruin, and, somehow, your happiness will crush him better than any prison sentence could.

Well, this makes sense in cases where the perpetrator’s intention was that you should be unhappy (think of a bully, for example.) Where someone actively seeks to rejoice in the sight of your unhappiness, happiness is certainly the best revenge. The bully wanted one thing, and you gave him the exact opposite of that thing. Dandy!

However, anyone can see that under other circumstances, happiness can only be considered ‘revenge’ in the most elastic and pious way. If your child dies because of medical malpractice, the best revenge is have the doctor to be removed from practice. Having the doctor see a picture of you smiling on Facebook is not revenge. The burden is not upon the grieving parents to find ways to post smiling pictures on Facebook, and, even if they do, the only effect would be to imply that the doctor’s crime was less than it really was. Here, “Happiness is the best revenge” is stupid advice.

Where the injury is the discovery that a trusted friend really only found you useful for a time and then discarded you, happiness is not a vengeance plan. Someone who doesn’t care if you live or die is entirely indifferent to your happiness or unhappiness equally, so neither can constitute revenge. Revenge means giving the perp the opposite of what he sought, so, just as the best revenge against ‘intention-to-see-victim-unhappy’ is ‘make-you-see-me-happy’, then the best revenge against ‘I-don’t-care’ is ‘you-will-care’.

You can see the problem here. If you’re trying to force someone to care, you’ll necessarily be a) chasing that person and b) constantly at war with somebody else’s attitude or mind. This is sometimes unavoidable. It can be necessary, and it can even be good. Think of someone who takes legal action against a perpetrator of a crime. The time and energy spent in seeking justice or compensation isn’t the same as ‘being happy’, but, where it is successful or leaves an impression on a culture, it sets a precedent that makes the world a safer place for others. This is a good thing. Similarly, the legal vindication of the victim gives her more closure than any pious aphorisms about happiness and forgiveness ever can, and this is good, too.

But what about in cases where the means of redress are not so clear, where the chasing and the combat is against not just one person, but against a culture, or where the process must be drawn out, painful, and possibly inconclusive?  First of all, chasing vengeance of any kind in the interests of making-him-care implies that a liar and a user can change. This has never been proved to be possible (have you ever read the life of a saint which involved a conversion from lying or from using people? Nope. It’s never happened). Also, sorry, but it’s not really caring if you forced him into it. So, seeking happiness in the hope that it will give you the closure of vengeance against him will be a complete waste of your time, because, as we just saw, your happiness is only relevant to your perpetrator if you are relevant to him.

In some cases, it might be worth expending years fighting for acknowledgement. In other case, it won’t be. Sometimes it will be worth yoking ‘happiness’ to ‘revenge’ and ‘acknowledgement’. Other times, you’ll really really really need to make sure that you’ve separated ‘happiness’ and ‘acknowledgement’ and, if you must pursue them both, are pursuing them separately. I can’t give you a list of examples under each heading; you’re the one in the situation, so you have to decide what you can live with. My point, though, is that you might have to choose.

You can force a kind of acknowledgement/caring (such as by suing the perp) and have a rough time of it sustained by the hope of closure, or you can accept that in a culture where there will be no acknowledgement of injury, you’ll have to renounce that culture (if you can; a fraught decision in itself) and seek happiness elsewhere. Renunciation, where is is possible, is not the same as losing any more than it is the same as false or pious forgiveness. You can choose to renounce revenge for the sake of happiness just as much as you can pursue happiness with an eye to vengeance. The point is that it is a choice. So I’m not saying don’t pursue happiness; I’m just saying be aware that that happiness is not always revenge and will not bring you the closure that comes with being acknowledged. Happiness-without-closure is imperfect, but it can still be happiness.

You actually can live with an open wound. And seriously, there are worse things. Losing the concept of happiness as something you find for yourself, and turning into something you achieve to prove something to someone else, is pretty awful. The pursuit of a single objective can make of you a pioneer. It can also turn you into a psycho.

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