Mercy vs The Punisher

Three of my favorite quotes about MERCY:
Karate Kid, Sensei Kreese: “You meet a man on the street he is your ENEMY! Strike First, strike hard, NO MERCY!”
Sensei Kreese appeals to the primal need for power, aggression, and violence as a means to achieve personal power.
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One day, we’re bound to evolve a better way of settling disputes.

In the new series Cobra Kai, the tenacious Sensei Laurence takes a more nuanced approach and re-frames the No Mercy philosophy of the domineering Sensei Kreese to one of perseverance.

Cobra Kai, Sensei Laurence: “You’ve all learned to strike first. To be aggressive… and not be losers. I taught you to strike hard. To put every ounce of your power behind everything you do. But I haven’t taught you the third rule of Cobra Kai: No mercy. The older you get, the more you’re gonna learn… that life isn’t fair.

You wake up one morning feeling great, and then life throws a spinning heel kick to your balls and takes a big steaming shit in your mouth. You get an F on a test. You get suspended. You fall in love with a girl, but some other dude comes and steals her away. Your car gets set on fire.

 Just when you think things are going good, everything falls apart. That’s how it goes. Life shows no mercy, so neither do we. We do whatever it takes to keep our heads above water. We do whatever it takes to keep moving forward. We do whatever it takes to win!
Remember who you are. You’re badass. You don’t give a shit.

    You kick ass. You’re Cobra Kai.”

Johnny is beginning to transform his aggression towards others into a technique used to overcome life’s challenges.   This is the right direction.  Consider the true value and responsibility of personal power as it comes with your martial arts skills and your power to harm others within your own lives.

—“I’ve always found that mercy bears richer fruit than strict justice.” Abraham Lincoln
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    Lincoln reminds us that mercy can lead to growth.  But what about justice? Humans have a visceral emotion of justice founded deep in our sense of fairness.  We share that with our primate cousins. Tia Ghose, Senior Writer of Live Science describes how a new study shows, “In a classic test of fairness called the ultimatum game, apes will dole out an equitable share of their bananas — and when they don’t, their partners will complain.”

Fairness forms the basis of ethics and law.  The guilty will be punished and fairness will be enforced.  We celebrate superheroes as the means of balancing the equation between the oppressors and the oppressed.  Marvel’s character the Punisher is admired.  His white bullet-laden skull is flown as a flag of justified hyper-masculinity in the frame of might will make right.

I’m a long time fan of superheroes and specifically the Punisher not because he gets the bad guys to pay rather because he gets me to think.  What does it cost him to exact his form of “justice”?  He pays for revenge with his humanity while it costs his targets their lives.  He trades aggression for the potential of a better future.  His violence leads to more violence and he remains trapped in a forever war, a hell of his own making.

His ultra violence is an insanely exaggerated expression of seeking fairness.  His fans cheer him on, reveling in watching the bad guys get their come-uppence while the man diminishes behind a prison of hatred.  It leads to the question central to the character, how can he escape himself?


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Until he escapes his desire for revenge he will never know peace.  His war will continue to rage, his hell will continue to hold fast.  Humanity is in a similar situation but there is hope.  Even though wars still rage and they are big business for the merchants of death their frequency and scope continue to diminish.  In our personal lives, we too face the dilemma of re-active anger or restraint.  Resentment or forgiveness.  Punishment or mercy.

As a teacher of modern martial artists, I often encounter these revenge fantasies of young students seeking power to rebalance the fairness equation of their lives.  What I endeavor to teach is that real power is the power to change one’s self and the world in a way that builds rather than destroys.   We don’t change people for the better with our fists of fury.  However, we can change circumstances when we open our fists and extend a hand to help those in need.

The greatest challenge comes to the young student who has developed the power to enforce fairness and must decide to use aggression or restraint,  to seek revenge or forgiveness.  This is something we all deal with in the relationships we have in our everyday lives.

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The power isn’t in using the fist, it’s in choosing not to use it.  True power is overcoming your primal emotions in order to break the cycle of anger, hatred, violence, and abuse. Teaching our youth that personal power is about developing compassion, forgiveness, and awareness despite the desire to harbor resentment or exact revenge.   Mercy is a suspension of justice.  It is forgiveness of a debt owed but not paid or even recognized.  So why should we value mercy and forgiveness? Why should we honor the merciful and the forgiving?
By honoring the merciful we honor their sacrifice. It is those who forgive that pay the debt of mercy.   They bear the weight of forgiveness.  It takes strength to forgive, to let go of hate, and to move beyond the evolutionary drive that pushes us towards aggression, dominance, and revenge.

The value of mercy comes from forgoing aggression in pursuit of what one is owed for the higher value of peace.  The utility of peace frees the forgiver from an invisible prison,  it requires sacrifice, commitment, and suffering in exchange for freedom,  serenity, and the special qualities of peace that transform individuals, raise people up and build nations.

Mercy is much harder to dispense than justice or revenge.  Mercy requires someone to transform the power to punish into the power to forgive.  Watching this season of the Punisher lead me to conclude that a prosperous future grows from the fertile soil formed by forgiveness rather than the soil watered with the blood of one’s enemies.

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