Loving our Neighbor’s Enemies
With any close relationship, be a friend, family member, spouse, chances are that you’ll deeply hurt them at some point. Whether by negligence, anger, or spite, your words are almost irrecoverably bound to cause serious damage, probably sooner than later. All marriages, friendships, and parenting run this risk, and both sides generally understand this from the beginning (sorry, kids). But what we often forget is that not only can you, but other people can hurt them as well, that words, looks, or cruel silences you have absolutely no control over will likely wound your closest companions while you look helplessly on.
This pain I have found to be much more difficult to deal with than the pain I cause on my own. At least when I am the perpetrator, I can also be the penitent, the shamed sinner that can roll up his sleaves and begin the work of reconciliation. Though the pain I cause is real and fresh, it lies only between us.
But when the pain comes from beyond, when I am no longer the initiator but the gawking bystander, suddenly a friend’s anguish becomes more searing. Now I am cut off from any ability to mend the wrongs, to bind the wounds. “I’m sorry” is meaningless, and my apologies are hollow. My name is no longer tied to that pain, and it leaves me incapable of trying to relieve it.
What do you do when you can’t rebuild the bridges someone else has burned? The answer is quite instictual: you get mad. Really, very mad. Furious that someone else could cause such pain to someone you love, that they would cause such pain, and without even clearing it with you before hand. What’s worse is when that pain comes not in deliberate attacks but unintentionally, as the cruel thoughtless word or the indifferent neglect. At least with a head-to-head collision, the battle lines have been drawn and there’s no moving forward until both sides get out of the way. Yet sideswipes can cause just as much damage but without the hope of reconciliation, as the careless driver tears off silently and unknowingly.
This pain caused by others, inflicted on those you love most, can release the worst in all of us. Caught between helpless passivity and the need to retaliate, we let rage take over, believing that if we can’t make amends ourselves, at least we can churn up some anger on our friend’s behalf. For these situations, we often unleash those the worst vials of spite that we keep bottled up and hidden away inside us. There is a certain ironic freedom that comes with raging against our friends’s abusers that tends to release the deepest anger we hold. Outside of the economy of pain, we bear neither the burden of forgiving nor of seeking forgiveness. We delude ourselves into thinking that outside of these burdens, we can finally let our rage run wild. In fact, our delusion can become so complete that we believe that the greater our anger against the abuser, the greater our love for our friend. Surely I care for them, we say, look at how upset I am! Even as we indulge this spite, we justify it to ourselves: all for the noble cause of a loved one.
This delusion is so often embraced because it is so convenient. Anger, after all, is a far easier emotion to manage than empathy. Nothing comes more naturally than rage; becoming angry at someone is almost as simple as bidding them good morning. I find that with barely any effort at all, I can become angry at six people before breakfast, no problem. It’s the fast-food of emotions: instantaneous and guiltfully fulfilling, if often regretted a few hours later.
Empathy is an entirely different matter. It is not an animal seething and lunging, begging to be set loose, like anger. Nor is it immediate and gratifying, a delicious morsel ready to indulged. It’s not like food at all; in fact, quite the opposite. Empathy is starvation. It is excavating our soul in order to cup the tears pouring out of someone else. Empathy is the hollow space we create within us, tossing out our own feelings so that our friend can set down some of their suffering for a while, even if only to catch their breath. In that cavity, there’s simply no room left for the anger which we believe justifies us, which we vainly believes demonstrates our love, which rails against another in mock-defense of a friend. There’s simply no room. It all has got to go.