When Vengeance Means Doing the Right Thing

In the 1982 western Barbarosa Willie Nelson plays an outlaw who refuses to allow his father-in-law’s hostility to keep him from looking after his wife and daughter.  As much as his wife’s father wishes to destroy him, or at least drive him away forever, Barbarosa sneaks in every now and then with stolen money for his wife.  His father-in-law wants him to disappear, but this doesn’t stop Barbarosa from fulfilling his moral obligations.

Vengeance Bad and Good

Yes, “vengeance” is a harsh word, standing for something that was supposed to have gone out with the Trojan War.  We’re not supposed to be vengeful; it accomplishes nothing and, as the westerns have taught us, vengeance perpetuates evil ad infinitum.

I’m here to propose a kinder, gentler form of vengeance, a kind of payback that’s difficult but that could be a real boon to the world if more of us could put it into practice.

I’m talking about refusing to cave to someone else’s moral weakness, ignorance, or folly.  In this case, the refusal may be perceived as a slight when in fact it restores and maintains moral order instead of setting it further off-kilter.

Have you ever — ?

If you think you’re immune to giving in to another person’s weakness, ask yourself at least one the following questions:

  • Have you ever allowed someone else’s anger to keep you from your responsibilities as a human being? Did their anger help you deal with the guilt that followed?
  • Have you ever allowed a child to destroy a peaceful dinner with loud complaints about what’s on their plate? If so, you’ll know that silencing the protest and insisting they not get dessert until the green beans are gone isn’t cruel; it’s a way to restore your peace and keep a bad habit from developing.
  • Have you ever slept with someone you didn’t like just because they seemed to want it so badly? If so, how did that work out for you?
  • Have you ever helped a friend get into a relationship you knew would be toxic to them? How proud were you of yourself when it all went bad?
  • Have you ever contributed to a cruel gossip fest just because it made you feel more like one of the gang?

The list goes on an on.  The fact is, life grants us ample opportunities to stand firm in what we believe to be right, but most of the time we’re just too discouraged, scared, needy, or tired to do the right thing.

Or we’re confused.  We’ve been conditioned, most of us, to be acquiescent, to put others first.  If we need love from someone, and that someone really, really wants us to help them do something illegal, immoral, or foolish, we must do it.  Giving in to them is how we show love, right? Uh, no.

There are times when we have no control over this process.  Many of us, for example, have had painful experiences as children because of what adults demanded of us, and we must never blame ourselves for giving in when we had no power.  But as adults we’re more often free to choose what feels right for us, and exercising this right can correct the balance of harms inflicted on us in the past.

There’s ultimately no reward for you in compromising your moral integrity, even on someone else’s behalf, and the person who asks you to do so is letting you down in a big way.  If you think back you may realise that they’ve let you down before.  In any event, their demand that you take part in their moral weakness is a letdown par excellence.  Your refusal to comply constitutes payback in full.

When You Give In, It’s You That Suffers

On one trip from Vermont to Montreal I sensed trouble as soon as I got on the bus.  An agitated woman dressed in jeans, a tank top, tattoos, and a cowboy hat stood in my way, loudly trying to persuade the bus driver to stop and let everyone out for a bit.

“Come on!” she repeated.  “This is a great town!”

“Sorry, ma’am,” the driver gently replied.  “We’re already running late.”

Finally she saw me waiting to get by and snapped, “You can’t sit there,” pointing to the seat across from the driver.  “That’s where he keeps his stuff.” Eventually she let me by, continuing to harass the driver.  She went back to her seat but yelled orders at the driver from the back, becoming more belligerent as time went on.

It eventually became clear that the good-natured but inexperienced driver had allowed the woman to board the bus with no money and no ticket.  She’d told him she would get the money en route, and he’d given in.

He was finally saved at the station near the Canadian border.  The Quebecois agent came out and told our driver, “She wants to get into Canada with no money, no passport, and no identification.  We’re not letting her back on the bus.”

The driver sighed with relief.

“When you let someone like that onto your bus,” the agent pointed out, “you’re the one who suffers.”

Refuse Gently and Make a Quick Getaway

When you’re faced with this dilemma the best solution is a patient, firm, “no” and a hasty retreat.  Get away as soon as you can, because you have no idea what weapons they’re ready to pull out to get you to see it their way.

If they do reject you, don’t waste a second questioning yourself and feeling guilty.  They let you down, not the other way around.  Sacrificing yourself on the altar of someone else’s moral failure isn’t noble; it’s a way of breaking off a little piece of their weakness and making it your own.

The next time someone wants something from you that doesn’t feel right, stop and reflect.  If you conclude that doing what they ask would help neither you, them, or anyone else, gently excuse yourself and be on your way.  Then pat yourself on the back.

You’ll have won that gunfight, pilgrim.