Hatred is the emotion few people love. It simmers, its seethes, it corrodes. We might say it is a form of anger, taken to an extreme and tainted with a toxic brew of disgust, vengeful contempt, and revulsion. It is like rage inasmuch as its lives at the extremity of baleful human emotions, but unlike rage that suddenly pounces and erupts, hatred is a slow broth of emotional bile that lurks, stalks, and simmers. While rage acts, hatred waits. Nonetheless, hatred by virtue of its passive nature belies its toxic effects. In the book of Leviticus of the Torah or Old Testament of the Bible, God commands mankind “not (to) hate thy brother in thy heart,” as a testament to its destructive effects on both the human psyche and human relationships. Hatred is a scourge.
Despite its unmistakable destructiveness, hatred contains a certain appeal. Like a guilty pleasure, hatred can be harbored secretly as a kind of revenge that satisfies in perpetuity. William Hazlitt, an 18th century artist and philosopher wrote an infamous treatise on “The Pleasures of Hating.” From the point of view of the protagonist from Edgar Allen Poe’s A Telltale Heart and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikoff from Crime and Punishment, hatred becomes an obsession that almost takes on the dimension of a reason to live. Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello is a sower of distrust and ultimately jealousy-driven murder whose counsel presumably satisfies some kind of sadistic motive by proxy that wreaks tragic destruction. And then, of course, there is the devil. The vengeful schemes of Lucifer, or Satan, sometimes make for more interesting intrigue and drama than the admonitions and even miraculous feats of God.
WHERE DOES HATRED COME FROM?
The answer to this question should take us back to hatred’s nature, viz., it waits rather than acts. In the 1970’s, psychologist Martin Seligmann posited on the basis of studies with animals that when put into situations where they could not save themselves from demise or extricate themselves from danger, animals give up. He coined a term, learned helplessness, to refer to this unfortunate state of being and from it extrapolated that most human depression derives from this same state of helplessness. In other words, when we believe we are in a situation about which we can do nothing we learn to become resigned to the situation; if by virtue of temperament and/or repeated experiences this generalizes or becomes a pervasive expectation toward any problem or life situation, depression will ensue. These beliefs about helplessness may be realistic, such as a child living in a household that fails to respond to its needs or a citizen living under a totalitarian government that grants few liberties or opportunities for justice. They may also represent distortions resulting from low self-esteem and distrust toward others even though these distortions could originate from real experiences in the past.
Hatred can serve as a defense or bulwark against depression inasmuch as it is imbued with power and direction toward a target, in this case the identified perpetrator. This defense thus serves to deflect focus away from a “self” constrained by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and impotence. Its effectiveness as a defense, however, is limited to the extent that unless a conduit for action is formulated a sense of helplessness or self-blame will ensue once again.
Aside from its purposes of defense against a state of helplessness or self-loathing hatred can also be manifest from jealousy, envy, or humiliation, the toxic emotions. In the ancient Greek playwright, Euripides’s play, Medea, the protagonist murders her two sons, her husband (their father), and his new wife, out of revenge for his betrayal to their matrimony. For Medea, “the laughter of my enemies,” humiliation, is a personal insult that justifies her retributive action taken for the sake of restoring her dignity.
Resentment about a threat or violation to one’s physical, emotional, or financial well-being or the well-being of loved ones can also foment hatred. Here, once again, we can rely on Euripides, in his play, Elektra, for a story about murderous revenge committed by a daughter against her mother for the murder of her father which her mother in turn attempted to justify as revenge for the sacrifice of her other daughter, Elektra’s sister. In all these instances, hatred arises from a feeling of violation or threat, real or imagined, to one’s safety, survival, or dignity. To resign oneself to the belief that taking action would be futile leads to a sense of helplessness and depression, but to harbor them and not to act is like drinking poison. Hatred, like anger, is a noxious emotion that harkens the self to take action toward a state of restoration.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO RID OURSELVES OF HATRED?
Retribution: This is Charles Bronson in Death Wish, Keanu Reeves in John Wick, and Francis Ford Coppola’s entire Godfather series, the complete set unabridged. This is the ethic of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, with interest. Revenge is one of life’s sweet pleasures. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come without a price. In the case of Poe’s character, guilt, and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikoff, punishment. At a broader, societal level, we all know the lessons of the proverbial Hatfields and McCoys, and in recent history the endless retributive wars of the Near East or British Isles, as well as, of course, Mario Puzo’s Corleone family. Primal justice doesn’t sit well with our karma.
Restitution: This is the attempt to make things whole, to repair the wrong, to restore the damage done. Reparations and heartfelt apologies often do help as long as they are deemed sufficiently compensatory by the victim and the alleged perpetrator is available and, if so, either willing or coerced to cooperate. Restitution is the basis in our criminal justice system for community service and civil litigation, not so juicy as retribution but in the long run much better for the sake of healing the injury for all parties involved.
Transformation: At a personal level this may be the most difficult to achieve inasmuch as it requires letting go of a wish for revenge or compensation, summoning instead our inner capacity to transcend the need for these kinds of reward in order to “move on.” To do this requires a combination of forgiveness, restoration of the self, and empowerment of the self.
Forgiveness is the art of letting go. We forgive mainly for ourselves in order to relieve ourselves of the burden of resentment. Meditation and learning compassion, first toward ourselves, help to take the force and strength out of the power that hatred holds on our emotions.
“Restoration of the self” entails devoting time and energy to contemplating one’s strengths, virtues, and accomplishments that give one self-worth. We get these from ourselves and from friends and those who care about us; when these are too difficult to produce or procure, psychotherapy is designed to help us learn the tools to do so.
“Empowerment of the self” entails taking action to recover and rise above the injuries and challenges that foment hatred. This might include making the effort to establish new relationships after the heartbreak of a betrayal, taking political action to fight an injustice, confronting the perpetrator in a nonviolent but assertive manner, or learning new skills and taking on new challenges to combat the impotent rage, feelings of helplessness, and injury to the “self” hatred can incite.
Hatred is a state of mind, a human emotion that produces intense energy which either when held inside has a corrosive effect on one’s well being or when acted on foments chaos and destruction. When restitution is either not possible or sufficient to quell its destructive force, we may seize it instead as an opportunity to grow within ourselves by learning how to have compassion for our limitations, pride in our virtues and accomplishments, and discovery of our power and creative potential to establish new ways to find meaning and purpose in life restorative to the self.
Robert Hamm Ph.D