THE BLOG
05/10/2011 11:56 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Compassion for Our Enemies: Necessity or Naïveté?

Last Monday, I wrote a little about my response to Osama bin Laden's killing. Upon hearing of his death, most people expressed heartfelt and understandable relief that our hunt for one who wished to destroy us was over. Others participated in "celebrations" that seemed tinged with what could be described kindly as poor sportsmanship.

Feeling relief and even joy at not having to worry about one particular enemy makes a lot of sense, of course. But what I was upset about was our collective inability to think of others as similar to ourselves and to see our victory not as a winning touchdown but as a regrettable necessity that, while bringing us relief, causes others fear and rage. If we are to be true victors, it will be by demonstrating our humility. It will be by acting boldly and doubtlessly to neutralize enemies by peaceful means when possible and, certainly, non-peaceful means when necessary as a final resort. It takes a lot of wisdom to know when to do what here.

I got a lot of feedback that I was being arrogant, judgmental, delusional, and/or some kind of wimp. This really confused and upset me.

What I was calling for -- and will continue to call for, most of all from myself -- is compassion; certainly for those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and for our whole country which has suffered deeply, but also for our "enemies." This is not because I'm some super nice kind of person. I'm not. It's because only by cultivating some kind of empathy rather than hatred can we begin to create lasting change in our world. I want my children and grandchildren to live in a different kind of world, one where they are not in fear of terrorist acts. Escalating violence and retaliation as a matter of course do not lead to this world.

On a scale of one to 10, my certainty on this score is 11.

I believe that the only route is to develop compassion­ate relationsh­ips, even with our enemies.Th­is is a very complex thing and requires the ability to act according to long-term concerns, not short-term ones, which unfortunately lets out almost all politicians who have to be elected or re-elected; short term concerns if ever there were any. Still, someone has got to go first. I suggest that we be that someone. We. Us. You and me.

But how do you do find compassion for someone who wants to kill you? Is it even a good idea or the stupidest thing ever? Some commenters have said things like well, when cornered by a rabid dog, you don't want to say, "Please don't hurt me" and hope for the best; others said that I'm incredibly naïve and probably some kind of Mac user. (Really, that was one of the accusations.) (How did they know?!)

Of course we want to protect ourselves from violence and danger. I'm not counseling stupidity, or what has been called "idiot compassion," which is the idea that you're always supposed to act nice and be some kind of touchy-feely loser.

Compassion is synonymous with skillful action, action that is rooted in seeing reality from the largest perspective possible. When you are able to pay attention to the reality that exists beyond your thoughts about reality, you know what the next right action is. If you need to love, you love. If you need to avoid, you avoid. If you need to cut, you cut. There is a sense of precision and elegance and kindness in all cases. You know how to end violent situations, not escalate them.

To do this, it helps to put aside your assumptions, judgments, and projections -- and simply look. You open, even to what and whom you dislike. This doesn't mean forgiving or liking anyone -- it simply means taking them in as flesh-and-blood human beings, not as cardboard cut-outs who have no reality beyond your judgment. You let go of concepts, again and again. You give up what makes you feel safe, secure and right in order to do this. Thus it is an act of extreme daring.

True compassion is a profound skill, one that has much more in common with fierceness than softness. Compassion arises when you allow someone else's pain into your own heart without a personal agenda. This is what so many of us are terrified of doing, and understandably so. To view our "enemy" as part of the human family rather than a scourge to be obliterated means we have to take on their pain as our own and most of us are already full up when it comes to pain. Nonetheless, we must do it anyway. It requires fearlessness and and a sense of genuine power, and is in no way some kind of lefty do-good politically correct emasculating double talk.

Please remember: If we open our hearts, we can change the world. The truth is that there actually is no other way.

So, I'm going with "necessity."

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.