by Susan Karol Martel

Nowhere is the truth of the phrase “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” more apparent than it has been due to events over the last several weeks in the Middle East. On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and, days later, discovered in a crude grave. Several days later, Israeli youths took their “eye” of revenge by burning to death a Palestinian youth.

As world citizens and as a nation we are both horrified and dismayed. We are at a loss over what to do to make a difference in this region and lack confidence in those who have been empowered “to do.” More purposefully, we might look at ourselves – where do we employ this “eye for an eye” mentality, though in less heinous and brutal ways?

Quite a leap, you say? I uncover this behavior every day, though often more on the tit for tat end of the continuum when working with couples. S/he wasn’t thrilled with something s/he did, so s/he does something consciously or unconsciously to get back. I see it in the proverbial sandbox where one child grabs a toy from another, and then that child throws sand in the other’s face. Likewise, I see it in life’s larger sandboxes – “You did that to me, so I’m going to do this to you!” or students cheating on exams or some Wall Streeters cheating because, well, “everyone else does it.”

Think about it. When have you done something, or thought of doing something, that under closer scrutiny fits somewhere within the eye for an eye spectrum? It helps to understand what compels us to act this way. Beyond not learning how to negotiate the everyday give and take with those around us, most of us aren’t aware that there is a mechanism in the oldest, most primitive part of our brains that, if not properly understood, can take control over our behavior.

This reptilian brain, as it’s called, was designed to keep us safe from danger by prompting us to either fight or take flight. Way back in the day, this mechanism was (and in some cases still is) life preserving, especially when this built- in-reptile kept us safe from tigers or warring tribes.

Today though, when we feel even mildly attacked or unsafe emotionally or otherwise, the fight or flight response seems to sometimes come out of nowhere, before we even realize it. Hence the eye for an eye equation is often the result, whether it occurs as a way of returning verbal slings or more hurtful arrows.

Bottom line: To live more civilly, and to take it one step further, more lovingly, means we need to learn to tame that reptile and put it on a shorter leash. We can do this by knowing what’s happening inside our brains, that we have choices and that if we take the time, we can learn a repertoire of responses more fitting for the kinds of wounds we absorb in daily living.

Rather than an eye for an eye, take heart and learn another way – one based on how to get to a mutually agreeable place by at least one person in the equation being willing to change an old, relationship-eroding and sometimes-dangerous contract. Blindness is an unfortunately lasting condition, rarely reversible.

Though the world has waited a long time, we hope eventually it can be reversible in the Middle East. As far as we’re concerned, with understanding and some practice, the wisdom of learning how to reverse some of our eye for an eye proclivity, however small in comparison, is available to us right now for immediate use within our everyday lives.

Susan Karol Martel, Ed.M., is a psychotherapist working with individuals and couples. She is an author and a clinical fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists. Her website is and email address is

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