Today’s letter touches on the darker side of every great story. Every great story involves many of the same moments—setting out on from the ordinary world, meeting friends along the way, even the occasional epic suit-up scene. But they also include something darker, something more sinister: every protagonist has an antagonist. Every hero has a villain.
That villain may be a dragon guarding stolen treasure, the evil ruler of a distant land, or in the case of some certain elderly mentors, it may be figuring out exactly how all the buttons on this computer works. But in most cases, the villains of the story are all too human. Which raises the question: what is a heroic way to treat a villain?
I think it’s short-sighted to say that villains are just heroes on their own journey in the opposite direction. Because as much as I want it to be true, I too often see those villains acting in the most un-heroic ways. In fact, the similarities between heroes and their villains are far from accidental. In most great stories, the villain serves as a mirror to the hero, showing them the cost—and power—of giving into the shadow self. It’s the quintessential temptation to “come to the dark side.” Because Darth Vader represents who Luke Skywalker would be if he did!
But all of this raises a hard question: in a world where there are villains, how should heroes treat them? Because make no mistake: there are villains. And the hard reality is that most of you don’t need me to tell you that. You’ve already experienced not just the ordinary pain and suffering the world has to offer you, but pain and suffering as the result of somebody else’s actions—not just accidental actions, but those of choice, where someone intentionally hurt you, often in profound ways. And in the face of that you, like so many heroes before you, are given the choice of a dark, dangerous power: the power of revenge.
I’ve seen many heroes skate that line, that thin line, coming dangerously close to becoming villains themselves. But unlike many others, I don’t discourage revenge. I think it’s necessary. Instead, I turn to old writings, to ancient magic. To paraphrase the writings of Marcus Aurelius, “The best form of revenge is to be unlike your enemy.”
To be unlike. To be different. To face someone or something that made you experience loss, that bitter rival, and to let that be the end of the cycle. Let your revenge be the ultimate form, the ultimate attack, insult, and disgrace to the way your enemy acts: to, with your life, be unlike the people who have hurt you.
So the next time you encounter some villainous thing—be it in the world or just within yourself—and you find the need to act, ask yourself this question: will I, by nature of the choices I am making now, become like the thing I am trying to defend against? Or am I choosing the most powerful form of revenge: that of being unlike my enemy.
May the road rise up to meet you!