Is it Really Possible to Love Our Enemy?

09/21/2011 10:48 am ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011
  • Dr. Cara Barker Author, Analyst, Keynotes, Founder of The Love Project, Love Fests and Retreats

Sure, it sounds like a good idea to "love your enemy" as one master teacher did his best to model. But, when "the rubber meets the road," what does this mean? Loving those who love you is one thing. Sometimes, especially on a "bad hair day," doing a decent job loving anyone is quite the task.

The National Scene

Despite rhetoric about caring for one another, there is disturbing evidence that talking the talk is not walking the walk. To name two: When candidate Rick Perry said he never lost sleep during well over 200 executions in the state of Texas, the audience applauded. When Ron Paul was asked, in the recent debate, whether a young man in a life and death situation should receive help if he could not afford it, Paul said no. Not even if it meant the young man's death, said Ron Paul. Without eros, an awareness of the imperative of connection, our situation will only worsen. Without opening to this injunction from the sacred feminine, mankind will continue to operate at the reptilian brain level, which commands "kill or be killed."

A Broken Pledge

Not only did this call to mind the Hippocratic Oath physicians take, including the words "I hold my art as sacred," but it also promises to "do no harm." Paul, a physician, pointed out, by the discrepancy between this vow and his behavior, that we are at risk of forgetting the fundamentals, for which everyone pays the price. Who are we, as a people, when it is so easy to shrug off one another's suffering? Who are we, as a nation, when we pretend there is not a price tag for indifference? Who are we, as the family of man, to pretend that we can skate through life without a fee for learning?

Enter a Wise Man

Howard Miller, the dad of one of my closest friends said something I shall never forget. Shortly after the death of his wife, Giselle, to cancer, he'd come to Kensington for rest. Gathered in the kitchen, Wendy and I were discussing the fact that my husband's work required a move, and we were lamenting the fact. Overhearing, Howard poured himself a cup of coffee and pulled up a chair. "You know, girls, in life we pay. We should be so lucky if its in money!" Howard's words rang true. I could relate to loss. I knew, as must you, that living our life as we do exacts a toll. A hefty part of it comes if we are brave enough to risk the vulnerability love brings, be it in a close relationship or with a stranger at our door needing help.

The question is what kind of lives do we wish to live? This is not such an easy question to ask or answer when you have been the recipient of unfair treatment at the hands of "the enemy." I recall one such example:

A woman with whom I have worked, we'll call Sharon, was informed by her son, Pete, that he planned on marrying a young lady who had quite the past. Now, her son had been raised to give folks a second chance, and so this was his inclination in pretty much every situation. In fact, he became an advocate for the downtrodden, a social worker.

Prior to the wedding, her son and "Hannah" confessed that her past included a significant bout with drugs, both using and dealing, prostitution and, subsequently, prison, after pleading guilty for theft. She had served her time. It seemed that Hannah had used the time to reflect on what she wished her life to be. Shortly after her release, she met Pete, got engaged and became pregnant. Her in-laws, sympathetic with her plight and her desire to do better, handled the wedding expenses, (her parents refused) and, when she lost her part-time job, they paid for the couple's shelter and other expenses. Eventually, Hannah began to ask, through her husband, that her in-laws provide for new cars, childcare for the twins, new clothing, jewelry and so forth. When they said this was not possible, Hannah subjected her groom's family to accusation of being non-loving, and withdrew the babies from the grandparents.

Of course, Grandma Sharon and Grandpa Ralph were dumbfounded. They admit freely that they did too much to help. Their motivation was clear: They wanted to give their son and his wife a break, a chance to save funds, to build a life, rather than get stuck in the past. The fact is that we get into trouble whenever we go to extremes: underpayment or overpayment. Hannah feels entitled to get a free ride. Her in-laws give too many.

What would you do? If these grandparents came to you for advise, what would you say? As it turns out, both were willing to do their work of taking responsibility for creating a trap for themselves. Each performed a scrutiny on just why it was that they felt the need to save their young, rather than allow them to stand on their own. The two did meet with the young couple, drew up some boundaries for their relationship and did what they could to begin anew on more solid ground. So far, so good.

However, the question that arose was, "What do you do when you've been attacked by someone for whom you have felt love and compassion?" What then? Sharon and Ralph, understandably, felt treated unjustly. They found it difficult to reengage with their daughter-in-law, and the relationship with their son was now strained. Although they talked out their situation, hard feelings remained. Their hearts were troubled. I asked them: "What does your heart need?" The answer was swift: "To feel better." Next question: "What would make your heart feel better?" Pause.

The answer came slowly. Both mama and papa knew they could not change their daughter-in-law, who had come from an abusive background drenched in addiction. They also knew they did not wish to lose their son, nor their grandchildren. What their hearts needed was to find joy again, lightness and warmth. They needed to unload the stone in their hearts, which Hannah's enraged attacks had brought into their home. Yet how could they feel better, when the situation seemed lousy?

Good point. Who cannot relate? How do you move on? How do you love your enemy? Below are a few pointers:

1. Remember to give yourself a little credit. You have done the best you could, given your understanding of your situation.

2. Ask yourself this question: If you gave up trying to change your "enemy," what would this free up in you? For the parents, they realized it would free up their fear that they would lose their son and grandson.

3. Ask yourself: What would free you up to love yourself more sincerely, through what has happened? In this case, mama had been a "do-gooder" much of her life and spent too much energy working too hard to do so. Dad felt guilty for working such long hours and guilty that he'd not spent enough time with his boy growing up. Each had to develop patience with themselves to make new decisions about who they needed to be in order to be loved.

4. Do what you must to forgive yourself for whatever role you may have played, for whatever story you've been telling yourselves that is simply a fairy tale. In their case, the elder couple had hoped that their son's marriage would produce a "happy-ever after" scenario, if they just fed the young couple funds and unconditional support. It was time to tell themselves the truth and forgive themselves for being human. The truth was that they'd raised their kids with the "love your enemy" dictate but had forgotten to emphasize the imperative of boundaries and self-care when dealing with those they did not know well. The truth was that they were very disappointed at their son's selection but did not know what to do. Instead, they overcompensated by doing too much. What story have you been telling yourself that is untrue?

5. Accept that you need not be for everyone. No way is everyone going to love you. No way is everyone going to appreciate you or your good works. The question is: How can you accept yourself as you are more, give up trying so hard to be liked (when you catch yourself doing this), and how can you appreciate yourself more by setting stronger boundaries with those who need them?

6. Readjust your focus. In their case, the parents realized they could put their focus on their son and grandson and stop trying to appease their daughter-in-law through endless giving. They communicated the error of their ways to the young couple, told them that things were changing and they hoped they could build a family foundation based on truth. It is taking time, but there does seem to be improvement, slowly but surely.

7. Making amends. This couple began awakening to the fact that this long-time habit of over-doing, seeded from guilt and insecurity, needed to be uprooted. Reframing their situation, they recognized that they had drawn in a character from central casting, named Hannah, to get their attention. The first "enemy" they needed to begin loving was the one within their own thinking. Since then, they have what I have learned to call "tendered their resignation" from the futile attempt to buy love. They are breathing much easier these days. How about you?

Your turn. What does "enemy" mean to you? What have you learned about dealing with the enemy? What helps? Let me know your answers. I'm listening and learning from you, my teachers.

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