Turn the other cheek

Friday, February 01, 2019 - Updated: 2:53 pm

By David Mills

The answer is you, if you indulge them. The Atlantic recently published an article titled “Who Really Gets Hurt by Violent Fantasies?”

We suffer the effects from something psychologists call “rumination,” the article explains. You keep thinking about someone that really upsets you, and that can easily lead to serious depression. It can become obsessive, giving you the kind of thoughts you can’t really shut down.

Here’s the danger with those violent fantasies: You can fall into rumination by thinking about hurting your enemies. Those idle daydreams in which the bad guy who hurt you gets what he deserves? Those enjoyable daydreams of justice achieved? They’re bad for you. The bad guy may genuinely be a bad guy all round. He may really have hurt you. But thinking about him getting hurt will only hurt you, not him.

The article quotes a study that looked at people who wanted to kill their enemies. The study had its limits, as such studies usually do. But I think we’re safe in extending the findings to less violent wishes.

Personally, I find this kind of annoying because I know how much fun it can be to dream of your enemy getting what he deserves. Especially because in this fallen world he may never really get what he deserves. He may only gain from being a bad guy. I need the warning. It’s helpful when psychology backs up what the faith tells us.

Our whole Catholic heritage tells us to love our enemies, and to forgive them when they hurt us. We pray as Jesus told us — “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” — all the time. It’s in the Mass for a reason. Jesus ordered us to turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, forgive those who persecute us and in general to love our enemies. And with our minds, not just our actions. So no violent fantasies.

We should guess from all that that we should love and forgive our enemies not just for their good, but for our own good. The formula is basic Christianity: We should live like Jesus. Living like Jesus is good for you, in this world as well as the next. Not living like Jesus is bad for you, in this world as well as the next.

Just look at the warnings St. Francis de Sales gave us. “The business of finding fault is very easy, and that of doing better very difficult,” he said. And, “We accuse our neighbor for little, and we excuse ourselves in much.” He has our number.

Besides that, we can’t know what’s actually going on in someone’s life well enough to judge him. He may have the same excuses we do. “Since the goodness of God is so great that one single moment suffices to obtain and receive his grace,” St. Francis said, “what assurance can we have that a man who was a sinner yesterday is so today?”

He also offered the answer: pray and repent. He noted that “Those who look well after their own consciences rarely fall into the sin of judging others.” And added: “Whoever thinks well on eternity troubles himself little about what happens in these three or four moments of mortal life.”

Interestingly, the article says that psychologists didn’t always see this. “Psychologists preferred catharsis theory, which suggests that venting anger … could help a person let go of negative feelings by working through them.” In other words, thinking bad thoughts about your enemies could make you come to accept them, or at least not be angry with them anymore.

But recently, psychologists have looked at how aggression works. It doesn’t work the way “catharsis theory” thinks it does. In one study, “participants were provoked with criticism and then asked to hit a punching bag while thinking of the person who criticized them. Relative to a control group that just sat quietly, the punchers felt even more upset after they finished letting it out. If your cup runneth over with anger, you can’t just pour a little off.”

Angry people get angrier when they express their anger. That’s bad for them. Who would have thought? Jesus, for one. St. Francis de Sales, for another.

Mills is working on a book on Catholic dying and death for Sophia Press. Find the Atlantic article at https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/01/violent-fantasies-rumination/580858/.

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