Insult, Revenge and Captain Ahab

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the whole world would soon be blind and toothless.”  Mahatma Gandhi

“Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.”  St. Augustine


“Live well. It is the greatest revenge.”  The Talmud

The Tragedy of Revenge:

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In the novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is obsessed with seeking revenge on the white whale, Moby Dick. His long struggle results in the death and destruction of the entire crew, except for Ishmael, the storyteller. Unfortunately the destruction described in this fictional account is too often an accurate account of revenge in the real world.

Have you ever felt humiliated, insulted and injured by something someone said? Perhaps it happened at work. Perhaps it was a neighbor who made a remark that you found demeaning. Perhaps a perfect stranger made a sarcastic remark as the two of you passed one another in the street.

I have seen these things happen. For example, a bearded orthodox Jew in black hat and robes is called a “Dirty Jew” by some young punk who passes him in New York City. A  black family entering their car hears someone call out a racial slur from a passing car.

These and other types of scenarios conjure up dark passions and vengeful fantasies of violence against the perpetrators. In the moment after the offensive act occurs, we think we want bloody revenge because, at that moment, we suffer wounded pride. However, most of us “cool down” and let the incident fade from memory. Others cannot let go and want to fight for revenge.

Captain Ahab suffered the loss of his leg when he and his crew were whale hunting and came across the great white whale, Moby Dick. Not only did this whale escape from Ahab but he took Ahab’s leg with him. Thereafter, Ahab swore revenge against Moby Dick. In fact, he was completely obsessed with finding Moby Dick and killing him. The image of Ahab is of a ship’s captain who has a scarred face and limps on a peg leg as a result of the struggle with Moby Dick. In all, this image is of a man who is twisted by hatred.

There are many ways to understand this classic novel by Herman Melville and one of them has to do with the struggle between good and evil. In this case, it is Ahab who is so dominated by evil that he takes his ship, himself and his crew to their deaths.

For purposes of this essay, it is important to see how lusting after revenge can be enormously self defeating.

There are some who will insist that consequences make no difference in the quest for revenge. However, I believe these vengeful people are thinking in terms of physical consequences, such as imprisonment. As portrayed my Herman Melville, the consequences suffered by Ahab were not that he lost his life but that he lost his entire perspective on life and over estimated how it would feel to succeed.

Some pieces of recent research show that revenge does not help the vengeful person to feel any better.

So, why do some people become obsessed by thoughts and fantasies of revenge while others do not? The answer lies partly in how resilient a person is and how firm and intact their ego is. In other words, the more a person feels humiliated by an injustice committed against them, the more likely they are to become obsessed by fantasies of revenge. This is because the person feels as though his/her very dignity as a human being has been compromised and feels so defeated that they cannot let the notions of vengeance go.

In this lies the problem of revenge. While it might seem that a vengeful act would restore one’s pride, it doesn’t because that pride was not damaged by the insult. That damage was inflicted long ago, probably in the way that person was raised as a child. Growing up with abuse, authoritarian parents, conflict at home, chaos, deprivation and neglect are some of the ingredients that help produce a human being with limited resilience and poor ego strength.

Today, as part of the movement called “Positive Psychology,” the focus is forgiveness. The process of forgiveness is not only directed at the target of one’s anger but, even more importantly, at onesself, as a way of letting go of angry, depressing and hateful feelings.

What are your experiences with suffering insults, wanting revenge and becoming obsessed with hatred?

Your comments are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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