How you choose to respond to the people who’ve wronged you can say more about you than the good deeds you’ve done for others.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Stranger Things 2.]
Stranger Things 2 opens with a wild car chase in Pittsburgh and the reveal of another test subject from Hawkins Lab — Number Eight, whose real name is Kali. We learn she shared a room with Eleven when they were younger and, like Eleven, she went missing as a child. The two share the same trauma: human experimentation, being taken from their families at a young age and becoming an outcast of society.
Initially, I felt uneasy about Kali. Was it because the show trying to cement her role as a potential villain? I kept watching and realized the weird feeling I got was because she actually reminds me of myself.
As we get older, it gets harder to keep friends. We move away, forget to reply to texts, leave phone calls unanswered and only exchange a few “Happy birthdays!” when Facebook reminds us. When faced with someone who seriously hurts you, you learn to deal with the realization that you won’t always make up. All of this makes retaliation easier, more justified, but does it actively help you feel better?
This is the question Stranger Things 2 poses for a couple of its characters. Sure, Kali can hunt down the people who used to work at Hawkins Lab, but what happens after that? Nothing about her childhood or the suffering she went through will ever change.
In Stranger Things 2’s seventh episode, when Eleven sees the giant bulletin board of Kali’s targets, she recognizes one man: the lab technician who administered electroshock therapy to Terry Ives (Eleven’s biological mother). They track him down in his apartment, burst in and attack him. It’s in this moment, when Kali and Eleven are standing over a bloody man pleading for his life, that the “You hit me, I’ll hit you right back” mentality splinters off into two lines of thought: it’s either delivering justice or perpetuating the cycle of anger and pain.
“Don’t you want to avenge your mother?” Kali asks Eleven.
Kali yells “think of all the pain they caused you!” over and over to encourage Eleven to tap deeper into her telekinetic abilities. And while that anger does have power, it’s ultimately self-destructive.
I once read that hating someone is like grasping a hot coal in your hand with the intention of throwing it at someone; you might want to hurt the other person, but you’re the one who ends up hurting the most. Anger festers; it spreads like rot and keeps a steady flame. After a while, it’s comfortable to be angry. It’s easy. It becomes familiar. You stay angry.
Does it really make you feel better, though? Are your problems gone now? Watching Kali say these people “deserved it” made me think that we’re not any different.. It’s so easy to say that Kali is being extreme (part of that may be true in this case, since, y’know, she is actually killing people) but we’re always so quick to brush it off with saying that this situation is different. It’s always “different”.
It’s the raging, burning need to achieve justice that twists us the most. Revenge is not the same thing as justice. It solves nothing. We grow up seeing superheroes right wrongs, no bad deed going unpunished; but the harder lesson that I’m still learning is sometimes you can’t do anything about it if someone hurts you. Sometimes, standing your ground for what’s “right” ends up causing more anguish than just letting it go. And look, I know, it doesn’t feel good to let go, especially when you think you have nothing to apologize for.
We see this trope all the time in villains. They were wronged, tortured or have undergone something traumatic that colored their perception of the world and all the people in it. Think of Star Wars’ Anakin Skywalker or Kylo Ren — all that anger and hatred with nowhere to go. They eventually learn to embrace it, cherish it and use it as a source of power.
But Kali isn’t a villain. She might initially seem like one, what with the cops chasing her and her friends, and hiding out in a creepy, abandoned warehouse, but when Eleven and Kali finally part ways they are both on the brink of tears. They both recognize they’re dealing with the same thing in different ways.
I expected Kali to somehow get even angrier at Eleven’s decision to leave, thinking that she’d see it as yet another abandonment. She’s sad to see Eleven leave, not because she could’ve been a useful tool in her revenge quest, but because she really did care for Eleven.
Nothing is ever black and white, Kali isn’t “good” or “bad”. We all have different ways to cope with hard times. Staying angry, though, keeps you trapped in an infinite loop. You never move on, and you never feel better. You have to let go even when it’s the last thing you ever want to do. Eleven could’ve stayed with Kali and tracked down every single person who has ever hurt her mother. In the end, she chose friends and family over living a life of hatred. Letting go of being angry does not forfeit your reasons to be hurt. It doesn’t invalidate the pain you’ve gone through — it’s simply choosing to shed yourself of a parasite that eats up your insides, draining your mental energy with every passing day.
Your anger may be justified, but it’s how you choose to live and deal with that anger that really defines you.