June 26, 2012

Is Living Well the Best Revenge? Not So Much.

"Living well is the best revenge*" is one of those sayings that surfaces regularly. When I was struggling with the fallout of a divorce 16 years ago, I repeated it to myself like a mantra. It was a goal for a future I couldn't yet fathom.

Recently, I heard a modified version: "Moving on is the best revenge." At first it struck me as a more helpful variation of the original, which always sounded a little desperate: "I'm going to live well, dammit! I'll show him/her!" 

"Moving on" was more empowering, I thought. It connoted a willingness to let go of the past--in my case, a past connected to someone who was no longer a vital part of my life--and create a more autonomous future.

Yet as I weighed the two phrases, I understood that my issue was with the word "revenge." When I was parting from my soon-to-be ex-husband, there was a part of me, the angry part, that wanted revenge. It wasn't the juvenile notion of slashing tires or transforming into Nicole Kidman overnight, but one that I hoped would be more emotionally gratifying.

I figured that arranging my life into a semblance of happiness would do the trick. I started taking classes in yoga and volunteered with the area's literacy council; I repressed my introvert tendencies and spent most weekends exploring the local attractions with friends and acquaintances. 

Other than fighting my introversion a little too hard, most of what I did was smart and healthy. Less healthy was my wish that I'd run into my ex so that he could see what a "good" time I was having and recognize that I was doing "just fine" without him.

Is it natural to have revenge fantasies? It strikes me as pretty darn human to have such thoughts occasionally, though acting on them is clearly a different story. I doubt I could have traveled the path of my separation and divorce without encountering them, and I don't berate myself for having had them.

Still, what troubles me now about the "revenge" part of the equation is that it keeps us connected to the targets of revenge. Revenge is about settling the score, about punishing, about retaliating. It's not about the joy of living well or the peace of moving on, not really.
When we 'live well' purely for our own well-being instead of to impress others or to try to teach them a lesson we increase our capacity for spiritual and emotional growth. 
We experience our emotions--negative as well as positive ones----without the overlay of what we want from or for someone else. As a result, we start seeing things more clearly. Clarity helps us reinforce the healthy behavior, which helps us gain clarity, which…Well, you get the picture.

Living well, then, isn't anything other the best way to try to live. Why not leave it at that?

*The phrase is attributed to George Herbert, an English clergyman and metaphysical poet, 1593-1633.
Image by JaneArt, at Wikimedia Commons, under a creative commons license.


  1. Beautifully said. Though revenge may feel good for a few minutes, it keeps us living in our own anger.

    1. I agree, Joan. Initially, I think revenge fantasies can serve a purpose if they motivate us to take positive action, but the sooner we lose 'getting even' as a motivator, the healthier we get.

  2. Definitely with you on this one. Living well is its own reward. If anyone else is paying attention, send them light and love and revel in the awareness of sharing our joyous life.

  3. I came across this entry by googling "A life well lived is the best revenge", and you have completely changed my point of view. I recently got out of a long term relationship, and I was headed down the revenge path. Thank you for giving me some much needed perspective.

  4. This is powerful, and correct.

  5. Beautiful thoughts. Whenever I feel like avenging, I try to remember what God has said, "Vengeance is mine." Romans 12:19. I agree with you, living well without motives of revenge is more fulfilling.

  6. Oh, I got here a bit late, but I'm in the same spot.
    I'm not a native English speaker, but I understood that phrase a bit different.

    The best revenge is to live well, would imply that there won't be revenge, I'm moving on and taking out what hurt me. Improving and being happier, that would be `to move on`. That would be the revenge. To move on

    I believe that there is a strong negative weight on revenge, and people tend to think about it on all the negative connotations that it has, but I think that in this particular case, it means that.

    Either way, I know I'm giving my own interpretation of George Herbert's quote, but I'm on the same spot, been through hard times, and I agree with this interpretation i wrote about above.

    Move on, is the best you can do.

  7. After a very painful breakup last year I did the usual makeover, socialized with new people and really took stock of my life.
    He on the other hand perpetrated heinous atrocities towards me. Although he has someone new I am obviously still very much on his mind as he is on mine.
    your article is truly enlightening. To move forward to a new life is far more productive than hanging onto the past by doing things to hurt someone that at one time you obviously cared deeply for.