What Can Our Enemies Teach Us?

Please note: This is a delicate topic. If you’ve suffered major trauma at the hands of another person, feel free to skip the article, or at least read with care.

 

I don’t like using the word loathe. I don’t want to admit I can loathe. But three people in my past inspire something like loathing in my deepest self. They all—unintentionally, I believe—caused me a great deal of hurt.

There’s a hitch, though: every one of them contributed to who I am today, and what I can offer the world.

Two of them are brilliant thinkers, and their insights are now part of my foundation. The third was the first person to suggest I become a writer. Writing has become like oxygen to me, so I owe her a lot.

Can I value these people for what they have given to me, even though I’d cross the street to avoid them?

*  *  *

Fast-forward to today. Circumstances have forced me to regularly see, and do things with, someone whose life appalls me. I have watched him shame people and shut down important conversations. For various reasons, I’m also stuck with him. Even weirder, when we must collaborate, we do rather well.

Can I work with and dislike this person at the same time, with integrity?

*  *  *

People like these, I suspect, come to all of us. Perhaps it’s been worse in the past year, with all the drama in our public life. Maybe your most faithful friend offered her full-throated support to Donald Trump, and he makes your skin crawl. Or your loving sister revealed a racist streak you never knew she had. Or you suddenly realized that your adversary on that hot-button issue has taught you a life lesson you cherish.

Right now, in the Western world at least, we’re not well-equipped for this. Our increasing polarization, our default to “us vs. them,” the sheer intensity of rage over the past year: all of it shoves us toward simple, black-and-white, up-and-down decisions on people. We can’t handle the tension, so we run toward the poles. You’re with me or against me. Friend or foe.

This kind of behavior is understandable. The tension is brutal, after all. But if we dismiss people outright, we may miss the gifts they hold for us.

Now for some people in some situations—particularly where abuse is involved—ending the relationship may be the only healthy choice. Self-care is essential to survival, and if our ability to function depends on shutting certain people out, then we owe it to ourselves to do so.

For the rest of us, may I suggest that we not try to resolve the tension. What happens if we hold it instead—if we simply let the pain and the contribution of such people live side by side in our hearts? What if we just let the ambiguity be?

Here is where I think a deep, daily connection with the One—whether God, Spirit, Buddha-nature, whoever or whatever you conceive the One to be—is invaluable. In two spiritual direction trainings I attended recently, the presenters emphasized the necessity of doing our inner work before we can fruitfully engage the storms of the world in this new, populist era. That’s what I’m trying to say here. Most of us, I believe, don’t have the fortitude to hold this tension alone, by sheer force of will. We need help. We need the strength to turn away from outrage and toward openheartedness. We at least need the sense that we are not alone.

And from there? By holding the tension, I think maybe we give love the chance to do its work. Delaying a final friend-or-foe decision opens space to what these people have contributed to our lives, or the areas in which we can appreciate them. It keeps a channel open between us and them: a possibility of open communication, perhaps even reconciliation, in the future.

And here’s the big thing: with every person who can hold this tension, we get one step closer to a society that can hold this tension—a society of people who approach their “loathed ones” with a somewhat more open heart. That one step is tiny, to be sure, but it’s not negligible. And oh, how our world could benefit from a little less polarization, a little less loathing.

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