An Eye for an Eye

At some point in your life, you probably learned the golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

There is a phrase in Exodus 21:23,24 that many cite as a religious basis for the golden rule “a life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand”. We are taught and encouraged to seek an eye for an eye when confronted with any unfairness. This quotation is basis for how many define fairness and justice. These are principals that we learn for the world and guides society like a compass.

Why is it that despite all our sentimental claims about the value of justice, American culture teaches that insult merits immediate revenge? This makes me think of when I was a teen and sat through a Rambo movie with some friends. I was in the theater watching his muscles tensing, taking the pain of his captures without flinching and silently plotting his revenge against the injustice he has endured. “Oh, oh!” my buddies said. “He’s getting angry. Don’t make Rambo angry!” they all gloated. And then they were cheering as he lifted his huge machine gun, took aim and massacred his enemies. As an adult, I know better. I see how our culture teaches men through ready-made revenge fantasies in movies, television, music, and advertising that violence is justified when the punishment does not fit the crime. Taking matters into your own hands evens the score. Yet, revenge and retribution threatens to break down society, as people take reciprocal revenge one another. Mahatma Gandhi once commented that: “If we all live according to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth mentality and the whole world will soon be blind and toothless.”

Many men who seek anger management struggle with unfairness. They focus on how things should be, rather then how they are. Things should be fair, they often say, but fairness is not some objective fact. When the world doesn’t respond according to what you want, it leaves you feeling cheated, this is the core experience of unfairness. How is fairness defined? I think it is subjective, its something that each of us defines ourselves, but to many men fairness means getting their way.  And when things aren’t fair, they feel responsible for straightening it out by enforcing your standard of fairness on others. While its truly understandable that unfairness will lead to anger. Anger leads to other painful problems. 

When someone suffers from unfairness, they feel they have been treated with disrespect. It generates enormous personal anger for small things because of what it implies. One study, which looked at 992 employees, found that employees who sensed they were being treated unfairly were twice as likely to burnout. This finding on the value of fairness dovetails work by other researchers showing that humans care a great deal about how they are being treated relative to others. In many ways, fairness seems to matter more than satisfaction. Moe specifically, how well people endure tough times depends on if they have the sense the burden is being shared equally. They quickly become resentful if they feel they are being singled out for punishment. 

Fairness is based on what you believe and perceive as ‘fair’. So when you are angry, you feel resentful because you think this is not meeting my standards of what’s fair. But the real anger comes up when other people won’t agree with you. No matter how much you plead your case, explain yourself and suggesting logical reasons for what is wrong, no one will agree with you. You end up causing yourself a lot of pain and an ever-growing pile of resentment. Those sensitive to the unfairness of life suffers from the mistaken conviction that: 

    (a) Life should be fair

    (b) Unfiarness is awful and intolerable

    (c) There is an objective standard of fairness that everyone agrees upon

    (d) I must act to bring about the fairness I am entitled to

Unfairness is linked to anger, but as mentioned earlier, anger is a secondary emotion, What is felt first, the primary emotion, is powerlessness, disrespect and/or resentment. It’s like pushing a button on a computer. Talking about the problem stimulates emotions and allows them to pop to the surface to see the connection between yesterday and today. Once these connections are made, you can break them. Almost every time we have an unsolvable, emotional problem in the present, we can predict that the answer lies in beliefs buried in early experiences. We can predict that after examining the problem that is occurring today, the client’s internal consistencies can be counted on to bring forth a relevant memory or sequence of recollections that put the problem in a useful perspective. This is how our human consistency works. How we make sense out of events from the past is consistent with how we make sense out of events in the present.

There is nothing unusual about the process of transferring a whole constellation of feelings and beliefs from the past to a similar circumstance in the present. Our emotional system is consistent. We tend to remember painful emotional events and unresolved problems. They nag at us and cause painful discomfort. We strive for resolution to release the tension. When these problems remain unsolved, emotions linger. Our memories of unresolved anger, private guilt, secret shame or paralyzing fear do not go away just because they are not expressed. They lay dormant and are triggered when a situation while a similar feeling occurs in the present. However, we can use this consistency to our advantage in our efforts to solve the mystery of where our problems in the present came from and how they can be resolved by using our adult judgment, which we did not have back then.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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