By Thomas Moore
The Biblical exhortation to love your enemy doesn’t mean liking him or agreeing with him. It means that you have a sense of humanity as a family and that you can live without making and sustaining enemies.
An old Zen story tells of a monk about to die. ‘Do monks die standing?’ he asked his students. ‘Yes,’ they said. ‘And how about upside down?’ ‘Never heard of that,’ they said. So he stood on his head and died. The funeral was difficult, with him on his head. His sister was present and was annoyed that once again he was making a nuisance of himself. So she touched him with her finger and he fell over, ready for burial.
It’s the business of religion to turn things upside down. Indeed, the proper language of religion is paradox. Many people think of spirituality as a higher level of the world they know, but the traditions teach that as a person matures, he has to learn about the opposite side of everything he has come to understand. Jesus suggests that the poor are the really rich ones. And according to current Biblical scholars, the story of the Good Samaritan is not just about seeing your neighbor in someone from another culture or race. It shows that the most unlikely and despised people, not we spiritual types, may be the very ones practicing spiritual ideals like compassion. In religion, the whole world is upside down.
Strength in Yielding
The Tao Te Ching of Taoism is one of the most paradoxical sacred texts I know. ‘Yield and overcome; bend and be straight,’ it says. This lesson is not only philosophical and moral; it is deeply emotional. Perhaps you know the experience of having been hurt by a friend. You may pout and distance yourself – a form of passive aggression. You may want to keep the friendship, but the strength of your feelings keeps you frozen and hard. But eventually you may reach a point where you can let down your defenses, relax, and give up the struggle. Your friendship is saved, and your life goes on more smoothly.
It takes emotional maturity and strength to yield. Still, the world around you, not generally mature in its relationships, tells you that you can’t give in. You shouldn’t be a wimp. You must take responsibility for your own life and person and not be taken advantage of.
The idea that there is strength in yielding is not popular in practice. The world will not approve but instead will give you good reasons for holding your ground. I’ve even heard of psychotherapists getting caught in the illusion that fighting for your ego will solve your problems.
A few years ago, when assertiveness training was popular, and people were exploring ways to be independent and self-reliant, I was reading the Tao Te Ching almost daily. I would invite my audiences to workshops on how to be dependent, and they would laugh. They could only laugh because it seemed absurd to value dependence, yielding. Psychology tends to be on the side of a strong ego, the spiritual traditions on the side of the spirit and soul, which follow different rules.
All of this is background to loving our enemies. This teaching has been mouthed for centuries and rarely practiced. Why? Because it is so difficult. It is a challenge to the whole person to revisit old memories, to reconsider old patterns of behavior, and to deal with strong but subtle passions and emotions. It requires nothing less than a major, profound shift in the core self from which we live. The Gospels call it ‘metanoia’, a central transmutation in the way we imagine life to be. A person who has attained this moral and psychological level is a kind of mutant, someone freed from the unconsidered assumptions of his society. He is standing on his head.
Finding common Humanity
Loving your enemies is not an instant achievement or a remote ideal. It is an ongoing process with varying degrees of perfection. And it’s hard work, requiring patience and tenacity.
A year ago, I found myself doing a radio interview conducted by a righteous and overly certain fundamentalist preacher. As is often the case, I didn’t know beforehand who would be asking the questions. He began assuming that I was in the same political and ideological camp he was preaching. Quickly, of course, he discovered that I was the enemy. I determined immediately that I would do everything possible not to let the conversation get polarized. It was a telephone interview, and I sat there on the edge of my seat for an hour, sweating from the effort not to be polarized. At the end, he surprised me by saying, ‘I don’t agree with anything you have said, but I can’t deny that you’re a thoughtful and spiritual person. Please come on my program again.’
People sometimes say that in conversation with your adversaries you should find common ground. I don’t entirely agree with that advice. I try instead to find our common humanity. Ideas will follow, after a basic human connection has been made. I admit that often you have to walk a tightrope between allowing another his point of view and being faithful to your own ideas and values. But the effort can be worthwhile.
It helps me to remember that a number of years ago I held some positions that today I would completely disown. People change. I am also aware that some of my values today are not set in stone. I reconsider them in the light of reading, exposure to other people, and events in the world. This awareness helps me understand that my supposed adversaries, too, are not always as rigid and unchangeable as they appear.
A year ago, my family bought a new house in a beautiful wooded area. We had a modest garden surrounded by tall evergreen trees. We wanted the house mainly for the privacy and quiet it offered. Last month, new neighbors moved in behind us and within two days had clear-cut all their trees up to an inch of our property. We lost our privacy and beauty.
My wife and I were both angry, but she decided to go visit them and find out what was happening. She welcomed them into the neighborhood and asked if they would help us plant a row of trees in the barren area. They refused. Later, we planned on having all our neighbors to our house for a summer gathering, and we made it point to invite the ones who had destroyed our peace.
It doesn’t seem reasonable, but this inversion of the expected, this move away from instinctive emotion, is what Jesus taught consistently and what Mahatma Gandhi advocated. Violence breeds violence. Argument breeds argument. Someone has to invert the situation and go against the pattern. In every case, that person is always you. If you have the idea in your head that there is another way, then you have to act on it.
The paradoxes of religion and the spiritual traditions are not just intellectual surprises; they are a challenge for you to move in a direction that may be far different from the one you know and love. They ask you to have it in mind to consider the opposite of what may seem common sense, or the opposite to what has identified you for years. The flipping over of your vision, metanoia, may be the most difficult thing in life.
In world politics it is clear that following the same old patterns of trying to defeat your enemy achieves nothing. The string of wars is unbroken, and a new enemy always seems to appear from nowhere. But imagine what would happen if you actually practiced the principle of loving your enemy. Maybe the inversion of expectations alone would open some space for change and resolution.
Loving your enemy doesn’t mean liking him or agreeing with him. It means that you have a sense of humanity as a family and that you can live in tension without making and sustaining enemies. You come to expect differences among people and give up the futile and infertile expectation that eventually your vision will win out. You appreciate diversity of opinion and foster it at the same time you are fostering community.
The paradoxes in life also hint at the shadow side of your ideas and values. Every choice you make creates an underworld of rejected values. If you reject secular humanism because you want a religious world view, you may lose your appreciation of the precious ordinary life in front of you, and you may see an enemy in secular humanists. If you are a secularist, you may start treating science and entertainment as religions, and you will see religious people as your enemy. Maybe you need to be both at the same time – secular and religious – and give up the pleasure of an enemy.
Having enemies helps you solve your life situation with relative ease. You don’t have to deal directly with life’s complexity and its shades of grey. You can feel virtuous at the expense of someone else. It is a far greater achievement to live a moral and holy life without enemies, amid complexity, and deep in your own evolving ideas.
Walk with your enemy, feeling fully your differences and similarities. Try to be in the liminal space, the tense in-between threshold, beyond enemies and compatriots, and you will find a new vitality. You may be surprised what it feels like to be released from the burden of an unnecessarily divided world.
Thomas Moore writes about connections between spirituality, depth psychology, mythology, and the arts.
He is best known for his book Care of the Soul.
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