How to Love Your Enemies (Really)

Although a devotion to Christianity is often required in modern-day American politics, one of its central teachings, to love your enemy, is overlooked. Former President Bill Clinton has commented on the virulence of the political atmosphere that seemed to drastically increase during his time in office. Instead of winning against your opponent, he observed, the new attitude was that the other side needed to be destroyed. As a result, the sense of being colleagues or of reaching across the aisle was lost – and remains lost. The other party is nothing less than the enemy.

The difficult question of how to love your enemy goes much deeper than this. Many teachings in the New Testament clash with psychological reality. To love someone who hates you, like turning the other cheek when someone hits you, seems like a spiritual ideal that can’t be attained except by saints. Who among us is a saint?

We could turn the issue around, however. Saintliness becomes realistic by seeing it as a state of higher consciousness. Christ was talking about personal transformation. That much seems to be beyond doubt.  “Higher consciousness” isn’t a religious term, however, even if Christ does point to the kingdom of heaven being within. My purpose isn’t to argue that personal transformation is specifically Christian. But it is the key to loving your enemy.

An analysis of the problem would go something like the following:

1. Anger is a natural emotion, but when it turns to hatred, a natural emotion becomes distorted. Anger is bottled up and feeds on itself. Ideas of revenge, retribution, and violence build up over time. People who have injured, opposed or offended you start to turn into enemies.

2. The rationale for hating an enemy can become quite complex and convincing. Long-held grudges always tell a story in which the wronged party is in the right. But behind these rationales the fuel is bottled-up anger.

3. Even when someone commits a horrendous offense against you, which would seem to justify seeking revenge, you are doing harm to yourself by harboring built-up anger. This insight, which is hard for many people – and nations – to arrive at, is key.

4. Once you see that the problem is built-up anger, and that anger is irrational and destructive, there is an incentive to release it. An emotional debt to the past creates suffering in the present. In cases where horrible crimes have been committed, the higher goal is to seek justice, not revenge. The two aren’t the same thing.

5. Paying old emotional debts can be done in various ways. A person can begin to cross the divide, talking to his enemy and realizing that both share a common psychology. Empathy can be cultivated. Letting go of pride and ego is worth pursuing. Yet much of this letting go happens only at the mental level, which isn’t adequate to the hot, violent feelings being held inside. In fact, when anger management training brings up old hostility without giving a way to release it, attempts at controlling anger fail miserably.

6. Releasing the hot, violent energy of anger can be done. Under the rubric of “energy work,” there are now many practitioners in this area. If that seems too arcane, it needn’t. Sit down and revisit a memory that arouses your anger. Generally these are memories where you feel that an injustice has been committed against you. Your mind is filled with reasons for how you were wronged. Now pause and feel the actual energy of your anger. Your body may be tense, your skin warm, breathing ragged, heartbeat increased. The physical side of anger is the key to releasing it, because rationales go on forever. They are all-consuming and self-consuming at the same time.

7. Once you have contacted the physical side of anger, there is a pivotal moment. If you express your anger by acting it out, mentally or physically, none of the energy will be released.  Feeling your anger and expressing it still holds the energy inside. You must want the anger to go, which can be tricky. Like every strong emotion, anger believes in itself; it wants to stick around and keep telling you its story. To get past this allure, stop paying attention to the story and the rationales attached to it. Instead, focus on making the angry energy leave. This may require an experienced guide, because the pivotal moment is psychologically slippery.

Slippery or not, people have gotten past anger, first addressing their personal grievances, then moving on to attack the whole issue of anger at its root. The root cause of destructive rage is holding on to the past.  Why do we do that? Anger gives a secret sense of power; it leads to overblown fantasies of violence and revenge. As long as these seductive elements appeal to you, there is no hope of loving your enemy. At best you will reach a simmering truce.  The reality is that Christ’s teaching cannot be fulfilled in an ordinary psychological state. Rising above the level of the problem is the only way to find the level of the solution. This is practical spirituality, and if you explore its methods, they work.

Published by The San Francisco Chronicle