Transforming Fear to Joy

Adaptive Instincts — Forgiveness & Revenge

To understand the human potential for peace, we have to learn three simple truths about forgiveness and revenge.    Michael McCullough

In his article titled, The Forgiveness Instinct, Michael McCullough stresses these three truths about human behaviour:

•  The desire for revenge is a built-in feature of human nature

•  The capacity for forgiveness is a built-in feature of human nature

•  To create more forgiveness and less vengeance, don’t try to change human nature — change the social conditions!

Supported by a century of research across multiple disciplines, McCullough suggests natural selection endowed the human mind with a ‘forgiveness instinct’.  Just as humans respond instinctually from a flight or fight capacity, depending on their circumstances, they also respond instinctually from a forgiveness or revenge capacity.

Revenge-based systems for retaliation (military), punishment (penal) and reform (rehabilitation) evolved as humans adapted to various social problems in their environment.   Fortunately, the capacity for forgiveness is every bit as universal among humans.  Human capacity to forgive and repair relationships increased our evolutionary adaptability because we benefited from cooperation between and among social groups.  Forgiveness-based systems for human rights (truth and reconciliation commissions), peace (mediation) and faith-based teachings (ten commandments; yamas and niyamas; etc.) provide formal codes for governing and adapting social behaviour.

Inherent in McCullough’s third truth is the importance of understanding when it is appropriate to forgive and when it is appropriate to avenge.  As a pacifist, my inclination is to opt for changing our social conditions to promote and support choices based on forgiveness.  However, global society currently operates more from an instinct of revenge with pockets of forgiveness being the exception rather than the norm.  If we are to make our social environments more abundant in factors that elicit forgiveness, we need to create these conditions —

    • Interdependent complex networks of cooperative relationships
    • Safe, secure and trustworthy policing and justice
    • Atonement systems that bring victim and persecutor to resolution
    • Processes that enable us to act as if peace is possible

Creating social circumstances that support forgiveness and peace does not preclude the internal personal work for which each of us is accountable.  From that personal perspective, I wrote the following poem, as my own tribute to the human forgiveness instinct.


So many outer battles won and lost
with intimidation and fear.
So many inner battles waged
between false bravado and self-doubt.

The time for fighting is over.

Lay down the impenetrable shield
masking the forgiving soldier.
Retire the conquering warrior’s
need for triumphant revenge.

Uncover the joy residing beneath
the armour of angst and ambition.
Float upon the waves of liberation,
and don’t deny yourself to the world.

26 June 2012

For more on transforming revenge into peace, love and joy, click here.

Picture of Author: Helen Maupin

Author: Helen Maupin

Helen is passionate about transforming fear into love — from her, for her, for all. She expresses her commitment to transformation through writing poetry, self-awareness and yoga books, co-designing organizations into adaptive enterprises and deepening her daily meditation and yoga practices.


Recent Posts by Helen Maupin