Is Taking Offense Defensible?

Photo by Colin Marshall

Can taking offense ever be helpful? When we are offended, it is because we find someone’s behavior morally repugnant or a violation of our values. It is more than just feeling hurt or disappointed, although these emotions may underly it. More often there is a sense of being insulted or disrespected in some way.

For most of us, our original conditioning has taught us that taking offense and the resulting afflictive emotions are necessary ingredients in effecting a needed change. But is it possible to recognize harmful behavior and effect a change without being offended?

In order to feel offended, we have to make an interpretation of events. Its not enough that we or someone we care about has been hurt, we must also feel a wrong has been committed. If a tree falls on your house, you might feel a lot of things, but it is unlikely you will feel offended by the tree. Mere blame is not enough. There must also an assumption of neglect or ill-intent – we have to believe the offender should have known better. If a toddler says something rude, we might not like it, but we are unlikely to feel offended. Its not the act itself that is offensive – rather it is the assumptions we make about the act.

When we take offense, our unexamined reaction is often to go on the offensive, which usually means we attack. This can result in all out war and many sages over the years have concluded that peace cannot arise from fighting.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes we instead go on the defensive by fighting back or closing ourselves off, protecting ourselves from further harm. When we respond to pain with anger, the focus shines on our own aggressive behavior rather than the heart of the problem. When we shut down, we are no longer open to important information. We are no longer listening and the truth remains obscured. Our hearts are closed and the potential healing power of wise compassion and love cannot do their work.

It can be helpful to notice this feeling of offense at is arises, and instead of reacting instinctively, attend to it with curiosity. How does it show up in the body? What thoughts accompany it? Are there some subtler or more vulnerable emotions that hide underneath? An impulsive reaction may give you a few moments of righteous indignation, but is unlikely to provide lasting relief or cause needed change.

Remember that love isn’t always soft and gentle – it can also be fierce or resolute. Perhaps you will discover there is skillful, compassionate action that can be taken instead of resorting to aggression. Or maybe, in some cases, you may find it better to do nothing at all. I invite you to experiment for yourself and see!

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.Dhammapada, The Pairs, Verse 5


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