Live well. It is the greatest revenge.I have to admit that when I first heard that saying, and first saw it on the hand-lettered plaque at a kiosk in the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, NJ around 1980, my interpretation of it was pretty much along the lines of the fortune in Devra's cookie. My parents had been through a nasty divorce, not only leaving me having to find a way to put myself through college, but also resulting in a lot of my belongings being given to people on “that” side of the family. In addition, I had found out that some people who I thought were my friends, actually thought very little of me and figured that I would never amount to anything.
As a result, I saw Hillel as saying “Get better stuff than the people who screwed you over and made fun of you.”
After all, isn’t that what “living well” is all about? Getting better stuff? It was to me at the time. And so while I was furious that my piano that ended up with one of “those relatives,” Hillel and I decided that I’d get an electric piano, one that never needed to be tuned.
Hillel and I also decided that I’d become a famous singer-songwriter, with enough money to ostentatiously shut up everyone who had ever given me grief, or turned me down for a date because I wasn’t good enough or cool enough.
Well, I've had a succession of electric pianos, each one better than the last, but what about everything else? What happened to the famous singer-songwriter? And what am I doing teaching computer literacy at a small school in Central NY?
The answer is that I grew up. And as I grew up, I saw both life and Hillel in a whole new light.
I slowly learned that Hillel wasn’t really talking about getting more stuff and better stuff than the people who had hurt you in the past. I learned that Hillel wasn’t talking about stuff at all, and that as long as I was focusing on the stuff, I was missing the point altogether. He wasn’t talking about what you have, but what you are. He was talking about the quality of your life and the character you possess. He was talking about a certain graciousness that enables you be a better person than those who have hurt you, and even to those who have hurt you, and how this is the greatest revenge.
Ideally, though, you get to the point where you’re not even thinking about “them” or revenge anymore. And once you’ve done that, you’ve accomplished what Hillel was really talking about. When you live an honorable life, and no longer care about those who have wronged you – that is the greatest revenge.
But you’re still wondering what happened to the famous singer-songwriter. Well, when I was a teenager, I saw a man sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, and thought to myself, “One day I’d like to be the guy sitting on the front porch that everyone comes to for advice.” Later on, as I thought carefully about the toll that being famous or trying to become famous could take on my life, and as I thought about what I really wanted in the long run, I came back to the guy on the front porch.
For the past 17 years my porch has been the computer lab, and my rocking chair is a big comfy blue chair that I let very few other people sit in. And from my chair I’ve given advice about a whole lot more than computers. I have the greatest job in the world. I teach in a place where I am not just respected, but loved; and where people value my advice.
And that, my friends, for a kid that some people thought wouldn’t amount to much, is the greatest revenge.