top of page
  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

Why are People So Mean? Challenge #1: Vengelessness

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

A colleague recently said to me, "We all make so many mistakes in life." Something deep inside resonated with both the sadness and truthfulness of this statement. We make so many mistakes.

Hold that thought.

I'm embarking on a 10-part adventure to challenge myself not to be mean. That sounds strange to those who know me, because I'm not often mean. Still, I see inside myself urges toward meanness that can take my breath away.

Many "nice people" are moving past the tipping point these days, behaving in ways they eventually regret. I'm hoping some of us can help untangle the mess and move toward kinder ways of being in the world.

Why are we so mean anyway? In the introduction to this series, I mentioned five stories derived from an excellent article David Brooks wrote in The Atlantic: the technology story, sociology story, demography story, economy story, and moral foundation story. To this I am adding a psychological story, in ten parts.

I've been pondering this word for a year now, since reading Douglas Murray's The War on the West. Because I lean moderate-to-left politically, it seems important to have friends and read authors positioned to the right of me. Paul, my friend and co-author, recommended Murray's book, which pushed me out of my comfort zone. On the very first page of his introduction, writing about left-leaning people like me, Murray writes:

People began to talk of "equality"... They spoke of "justice," but they seemed to mean "revenge."

The words justice and revenge hit me hard, in part because Murray's critique rings true. For reasons written and unwritten, this concept of "revenge" has been reverberating in my heart ever since.

It turns out there is a robust psychology of revenge, which I now know something about. Here are some highlights:

  1. We are inclined toward revenge when angry about another person breaking a moral norm, especially if we deem it to be an intentional choice. Some call this righteous anger, which is why my next blog post will be about the topic of righteousness. Here's the teaser: we are rarely as righteous as we think we are.

  2. Some personality types are more likely to seek revenge than others. We hear a lot about narcissism these days and, sure enough, those high in narcissism are most inclined to seek revenge.

  3. Anger can easily take over, causing us to fixate and obsess about the wrong done, inhibiting self-control and higher level cognitive processing. Revenge is often followed by regret.

  4. It's not just anger. Feeling shame can also promote violence and vengefulness.

  5. People expect revenge to be sweet, but it turns out to be bittersweet. Revenge-seekers anticipate pleasure in seeing the other suffer and this is exactly what happens. At first. Then the sweetness is replaced with more negative feelings.

This all sounds academic, and it is, but it also shows up in everyday life.

Suppose someone posts something nasty about me on social media. What shows up in my heart? All five of these: (1) my sense of self-righteousness lessens the humanity of the other, (2) my narcissistic impulses tell me I'm special and deserving of respect, (3) my anger boils, (4) my shame does too as I feel a desperate need to somehow save my reputation, (5) and I imagine the sweetness of standing up for myself even if it causes pain to another.

In other words, I nurture meanness in my heart. If I'm honest, I spend more time than I care to admit doing exactly this. And that's not who I want to be.

So here's challenge #1. Can I learn to be more vengeless? In case that's a new word, as it was to me, here's the definition:

Yes, it's a huge challenge, in part because it's not natural. Striking back at our opponents gives us an evolutionary advantage because aggression helps us survive adversity.

Can I do the unnatural thing? Setting vengelessness as a personal challenge beckons me back to those words from my colleague:

We all make so many mistakes in life.

I know I have. Can I use these words to lean toward empathy even when revenge seems the automatic response?

Why would I expect others not to make their mistakes? And yes, some of their mistakes will hurt me, as my mistakes have hurt others. This is no trite matter, and our capacity to harm one another should never be trivialized, but this poison shows up in every human heart, including mine.

Will I spend my time planning or fantasizing about revenge, or will I move toward vengelessness?

Being mean is easier than being kind; vengefulness comes more naturally than vengelessness.

Sometimes life works out best by doing the difficult things.


bottom of page