We are going to talk about something extremely important today, and that’s America’s obsession with punishment and vengeance.
But before we do that, we’re going to talk about stories. In particular, fairy tales. As every little kid knows, all good fairy tales follow a pattern. They start with “Once upon a time”, and they end with “and they all lived happily ever after”. And these two things are important because they provide two crucial aspects to any story, and that is point of view and frame of reference. These two things might sound like the same thing, but they aren’t. Let’s start with point of view.
Point of view, in the context of a narrative, refers to who is telling the story. In the case of most fairy tales, this is a nearly omniscient narrator. But it’s a narrator with an AGENDA. A biased narrator. You can tell by the way the story goes. It’s always a brave hero, a pretty princess, an evil witch. You can tell what kind of story the narrator is trying to tell by the adjectives and adverbs that they use. And there is almost no such thing as an unbiased narrator.
Frame of reference, in this context, refers to what particular group of events the narrator chooses to focus on. Again, the clue comes in the wording. “Once upon a time”. The narrator chooses where to start the story, and where to end it. “And they all lived happily ever after”. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never had a happily ever after. The problem with real life is that events never stop. Fairy tales wrap up a set of events in a neat little package. They snip them out of the real world and present them as if they are the only things that ever occurred. Rarely do you hear about what happens before the hero sets off for their journey, or after the princess gets married.
I’m far from the first person to point this out. Stephen Sondheim wrote a hit musical turned Disney movie about it called Into The Woods (probably my favorite musical ever) where Act 1 has all the fairy tales playing out, with Act 2 showing the consequences. Unsurprisingly, both handsome princes turn out to be unfaithful (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”), with an entire song in Act 2 about how much they want to go woo their newest pretty girls instead of going home to their wives. The Wizard of Oz got this treatment too with Wicked, another hit on Broadway as well as an amazing series of novels.
What does this have to do with vengeance and punishment? It’s simple. Punishment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not like a fairy tale, where the so-called wicked witch gets their supposed just desserts and everyone goes home happy. That wicked witch has friends and family who have to watch this punishment happen. They see their friend and family suffer and watch the smug looks on the faces of those people who think themselves righteous in their justice. And they remember. They go home, and those memories fester, and they pass the story of what happened to Aunt Joan or Uncle John down to their kids. And that becomes the start of a new fairy tale, only this time the villain is someone different. Those heroes leave home to defeat their villains, inflicting their justice on those they perceive as unrighteous, and the cycle begins anew.
If I learned anything from fairy tales, it was this: never trust the narrator. There’s never any happily ever after. The witch is rarely wicked, the hero is rarely just. They are all just people, doing what people do. Everyone believes that they are the hero of their own story, fighting their own wicked witches. Does that make them right? No. Does that make us right? No. It makes us all people.
So how do we break the cycle? We start by changing how we look at punishment. Buddhism does not recognize the concept of evil. In fact, it sees breaking the world into “good” and “evil” as a terrible trap. Seeing others as evil gives us justification to do them harm, which is the only real evil in Buddhism. Since Buddhists believe that everything in the world is connected, doing harm to anything is really doing harm to yourself. And indeed, any harm done to something in this world will eventually be reflected back to you. We are all connected, not in a metaphysical sense, but in a very real way. Any action taken has consequences that move through the world like a wave, and like a wave in a closed pond, those ripples will eventually reach back to their origin point. That’s why the idea of vengeance is just wrong. Not only is it rooted in anger, which is harmful to the self, but in harming another, you set up a chain reaction that will cause even more harm.
Let’s look at a more concrete example. The cycle of violence in the Middle East has been going on for centuries, making it a perfect laboratory for the study of radicalization. And people who study the subject have found that one of the fastest routes to radicalization is a personal grievance (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09546550802073367). Having something bad happen to you or someone close to you can radicalize someone in a heartbeat. In fact, having a personal grievance was found to be one of the only valid predictors of future activism (https://osf.io/xnh73/wiki/home/). The solution? Trade punishment and vengeance for understanding and bridge-building.
I realize this is a hard pill to swallow for many people, especially those who are at risk or angry. But the cycle will never end unless someone ends it. If not us, who? If not now, when?