Michael McCullough —
Getting Revenge and Forgiveness

Michael McCullough describes science that helps us comprehend how revenge came to have a purpose in human life. At the same time, he stresses, science is also revealing that human beings are more instinctively equipped for forgiveness than we've perhaps given ourselves credit for. Knowing this suggests ways to calm the revenge instinct in ourselves and others and embolden the forgiveness intuition.

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is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami in Florida, where he directs the Laboratory for Social and Clinical Psychology. He's the author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.

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Your Stories of Revenge and Forgiveness

Listen to the stories from Caroline Keem who found forgiveness in an email flame chain and Madeline Bialecki who learned that the act of forgiving may be accepting people at their word.

Songs of Revenge and Forgiveness

A special edition of the full-length tracks of the music played in the program. We asked for your song recommendations and chose more than a dozen. Listen and read some of the reasons why these songs were recommended.

About the Image

"Cool Jeweled Dreams (Oceans in the Sky)" accompanied by the photographer's caption: "And suddenly, they could reach out and touch their dreams, for God had made the impossible… possible.

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In 2002 and again in 2004 my dream of becoming an ordained Lutheran minister was shattered by a candidacy committee in the church. Since then I have struggled to find a new vocation but without success. I feel as if some essential and good part of me has been lost because of this experience. Although I am more sensitive now to those who suffer injustice, I am more anxious and less trusting than before. My life has been diminished and I am sad.

As I continue to worship in a Methodist church I struggle with the notion of forgiveness. I am currently reading The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal and the collected essays on forgiveness. I have also found Embodying Forgiveness by Gregory Lloyd-Jones to be helpful. Most of what we hear about forgiveness is psychological gibberish with no theological foundation. To speak of revenge and forgiveness is to present a false choice. There is a difference between vengeance and justice.

I love Speaking of Faith. Keep up the good work!

The world we live in is governed by revenge, and forgiveness is nothing more than a platitude. Witness 9/1/2001: The US could have forgiven those who precipitated this event, but instead chose not just revenge, but "shock and awe" revenge. And we call ourselves a "Christian" nation. And of course there is the never ending cycle of Middle East revenge involving Israel and its neighbors. If there is one core tenet of Jesus Christ's teachings, it is that of forgiveness. Not just forgiving one time, but seventy times seven times. The cycle of revenge is never-ending, just like the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. And we as a nation do not deserve to call ourselves Christian.

My story of forgiving the man who murdered our daughter is on Storycorps. I think you can get it by just finding storycorps.com and my name, Hector Black It's written up in other places if this doesn't work, let me know.

Forgiveness...what a charged topic. Thank you for a sensitive presentation. I've seen the power of forgiveness and its opposite, the life-draining power of refusing to forgive. In 1986 my sister, Linden, was a grad student at Texas A&M. She had been in College Station for only two months when she was killed by a stranger who invaded her apartment while high on drugs. Needless to say, my mother was devastated by this event, as were my brother, my soon-to-be-ex brother-in-law and me. The killer admitted the crime, avoiding the death penalty in a tradeoff for life (which, in Texas, is a minimum of 20 years).

My mother was never able to forgive Linden's killer. Both my brother and b-i-l threatened revenge if this man were paroled.

LSS, here's what happened to our family:
Mother - suffered "mystery" ailments for the rest of her life, spent countless hours chasing medical intervention to help her feel better and lamenting her fate (Why did God do this to me?) because she never did feel better. She died an angry, bitter person. As I read her lifelong journals, I've found 20+ years of angst and complaints directed at God and "the system" for allowing her (Mom) to suffer this terrible injustice.

Brother - now twice-divorced and prefers not to have contact with me. Still expresses outrage that the killer is alive and our sister is not.

B-I-L - suffered health problems for the rest of his life. Died at age 59 of multiple invasive cancers. His sister tells me he hated the killer until the day he died and wished he had gone ahead and taken revenge (since he was going to die so soon, anyway).

So much time wasted hating, desiring revenge. Over the years, I tried to help my family come to acceptance through forgiveness. For a short time, no one would talk to me, saying I was "siding" with the killer. At every anniversary or holiday, even 20 years later, my mother would ask if I even remembered my sister, or if I was now "his" best friend.

But the truth is that I sided with myself. Only by finding the courage to forgive could I get on with life. My husband and children needed me to be there with them, not hanging around in The Land of Revenge and Hatred. Forgiveness was not easy; I struggled to stay balanced. Some days I hated that guy and wished every bad thing possible would happen to him. Ultimately, though, I discovered that forgiveness was not so much for him but for me. Peace is possible when I don't expend my energy hating. Forgiveness is not always perfect. It's just the healthier alternative.

Thanks for listening.

My husband and I have seen several people on the newsw who have abandoned spouse, children, everyone they love who is still alive, to spend YEARS chasing wisps of rumors in a fruitless attempt to find the body or the killer of one family member who has disappeared or been murdered. Your experience, though truly sad, is far more healthy. I'm sure it was a nightmare for you to lose your sister in her prime as you did (I'm assuming she had gone there for college.) But to abandon those who are still alive and - as you pointed out - to live the rest of your life in hatred and in bitterness rather than to honor the short life she did have by going on with your own, that is even more tragic in many ways than the actual loss which everyone had mourned.

I feel for children whose mother or father essentialy abandon them (even if they still live in the same house with them) because the parent makes the rest of their life a memorial to the one child they lost, instead of acknowledging that the ones they still have left are still on this earth, still need their parents, and still deserve a life here on this earth.

Krista and Staff,
I catch your show for about 10-15 minutes while driving on Sunday morning. I plan on listening to today's show on the podcast as it spoke to me in many ways. I am a special education teacher and have experienced the human dynamic of what I refer to as "demonizing" groups who do not share your same beliefs, needs, or concerns. I am guessing it is a regular occurence for administrators and teachers to be at odds, for teachers to be at odds with various groups of parents, etc. I have thought the saying "absence makes the heart grow founder" is quite often not the case. It is the face to face contact on a regular basis, the active listening, and the true desire to put yourself in the other person's shoes which develop trust and real solutions.

On a separate note, I write and perform music as a hobby and recently co-wrote a song called "Sorry Don't Change the Weather". Born of the frequency of the use of the word sorry without any meaningful change in behavior.
Lyrics below.

Raised me well all these years
Watched many sunsets disappear
Played you like a wishing well
But still you steered me clear
Now you stare with dying eyes
As autumn trees begin to cry
Kneeling down in front of you
I apologize
I apologize

Sorry don't
Sorry don't
Sorry don't change the weather

Loved me sweet, loved me strong
Loved you bad and loved you wrong
Searching through all my fear
To find where we belong
Now you star with loving eyes
Summer winds begin to sigh
Kneeling down in front of you
I apologize
I apologize

Sorry don't
Sorry don't
Sorry don't change the weather

What the Prodigal Son never had to say
Keeps rolling off my tongue
Every single day
Every single day

Life can sting
Life can fray
Sunken ships don't sail away
With St. Peter at the gate
I wonder what he'll say
Now he stares with righteous eyes
As all my sins cloud the sky
Kneeling down in front of him
I apologize
I apologize

Sorry don't
Sorry don't
Sorry don't change the weather

Last July I lost my father and instantly become a suicide survivor at the age of 31.

He took his life in Southern California, placing my sister and I in the position of flying from Minnesota in mere hours to hope for the best even though we knew what the outcome would be. We got there and he was still connected to machines so it was up to us if we wanted to say good bye.

Once we got there, due to the bullet in his head, we had decided not to see him because it was probably not the way we wanted to remember him. This feeling changed immediately in me because I didn't want him to leave this earth without someone holding his hand. He deserved more despite what he had put our family through. Then immediately this sense in my being told me to "forgive him, the chance will not be there again". Rise above the anger, stop questioning his actions, no begging and pleading with God. Just go in there and forgive him.

My sister, aunt, and I went into the room to see him. After a few minutes my sister and aunt left the room. I went over and stroked his beautiful brown hair, when we were kids my sister and I used to brush his hair and he loved it.

I said to him out loud, "I love you. I forgive you. I love you, dad."

Doing this I believe helped me to not seek revenge on myself in this darkest time in my life. I didn't beat myself up about seeing warning signs. It was something I had to do.

I loved listening to this broadcast today and find reading about forgiveness is part of the healing process 8 months after the forgiveness of my dad.

I wanted to share my reaction to Krista's comment that the concept of forgiveness may have a Christian flavor to some people. As part of that conversation, she noted that a Holocaust survivor once told her that the idea of tikkun (healing the world) was more meaningful to him than the concept of forgiveness. I think we need to be careful not to over-generalize here: the Holocaust was an extraordinary evil which may be beyond forgiveness for most people. In this context, the concept of tikkun may well be a more meaningful response for many. However, I believe that in most other contexts, the concept of forgiveness is as relevant and meaningful for Jewish people as it is for Christians.

I was intrigued by Michael McCullough's discussion regarding the human nature of revenge and forgiveness. It amazed me that some animals exhibit traits of revenge. He presented one example of a type of monkey that possess status levels where a monkey with higher status may cause harm to the monkey with lower status. The monkey with the lower status knows that the monkey with a higher status can over power it, but as a way to get revenge, the monkey that was harmed will harm one of the monkey's relatives with the higher status that has a lower status then the monkey harmed by the monkey with a high status. The monkey will harm the higher status monkey's lower status relative in front of the monkey. This definitely shows how revenge can exist in our everyday nature.

My personal stories of forgiveness also relate to some of Michaels. I find myself forgiving family and friends everyday for little mistakes, but find it harder to forgive someone who I don't know at all for something significant. I do find myself sometimes looking at ways to get pay back (revenge) if someone seriously hurts me intentionally rather than forgiving right away.

What a beautiful story about human capacity. I enjoyed listening and as usual it was a thought provoking program. One of the many things it brought to mind for me was the cycle of domestic violence, particularly when listening to what circumstances that must be in place for a person to forgive. A person must feel safe and that they will not be harmed again. It must also be a situation that is important or meaningful to them. It struck me...that is why women go back again and again. They are somehow convinced it will be safe this time and the abuser will not abuse again. Also, the abuser is most likely an important person in their life...usually someone they love. I was recently with a friend who, not for the first time, has separated from her husband who has abused her. They have an 8 month old baby now. Intellectually, she knows this is the right thing to do for herself and their daughter, but she still struggles with her decision. I am hoping she is strong enough to walk away and stay away this time. In my deepest places, I am not only hoping this for her and her daughter, I am hoping this for myself because my sister was not able to escape. Although she tried, her boyfriend and father of their 6 year old son found them and brutally murdered them. I am hoping that if I can help my friend then maybe I can find it in my heart to forgive myself for being incapable of helping my sister and nephew so many years ago.

I struggle with Michael McCullough’s “forgiveness theorem” in the case of Bud Welch. As was stated in the interview, "it was a process." His desire to “fry” McVeigh and Nichols was indeed his search for revenge, but he realized that revenge wouldn’t resolve his problem, since it wouldn’t bring his daughter or the other casualties back. I believe his compassion for McVeigh was part of a healthy healing process and a way of coming to terms and accepting his loss and the loss of others.

I sincerely believe that there are things in our world today so terribly bad in which there is no way the perpetrators can or should be forgiven – take 9-11for example.

From an ethological approach, revenge and forgiveness is just one side of the die. But when this side is cast a whole new spectrum of ideas come forth. Revenge, according to Michael McCullough is a part of who we are; an instinct that reacts to the feeling of injustice toward us. At times, revenge is compensated by its counterpart forgiveness which allows ourselves to alleviate the once boiling bowl of anger to a chill cup of sympathy. But forgiveness doesn’t come so easily when directed at those we truly despise.
With a semester worth of knowledge in the matter of Ethics, I have come to believe all morals of past, present, and future to sustain the biological approach “survival of the fittest”. For those unfamiliar with this phrase, what is deemed crucial for survival will be the adapt trait required. McCullough started his interview by using an example of his favorite animal, the Japanese Macaque. These creatures when threatened by another Macaque will seek out the family member of the other Macaque’s family and threaten them. A revenge mechanism that shows, “hey, you can’t just push me around without consequences”. With forgiveness, we only seem to forgive those whom we know we will benefit in some way later. According to McCullough, your wife, husband, friend, or parents are such cases we often forgive easiest. Overall this was a great broadcast of further proof of the underlining matter that morality is biologically innate.

I found myself reflecting on everything Michael McCullough said in the context of what is for many people the most difficult act of forgiveness: self-forgiveness. We all have regrets about things we've done or haven't done and the challenge is that we judge ourselves from where and who we are now, not recognizing and honoring who we were then. The concepts of safety, forgiving those we are in relationship with, and finding ways to foster compassionate understanding can all be applied to ourselves. And I think that being willing to offer ourselves those gifts makes it possible to in turn offer the same to those who hurt us. Traveling the inner landscape of forgiveness makes it easier to separate a hurtful act from the actor and to acknowledge within ourselves that we've acted similarly, or the potential to do so in different circumstances.

Thank you for yet another inspiring, thought-provoking show.