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Learning to Love My Enemies

Glancing around the crowded room, I felt every nerve flip on high alert. Adults and kids from two to eighteen years old in superhero, princess, and animal costumes had stuffed themselves like sausage into this local police station to experience their haunted house. The heat and constant movement in the packed room stifled and overwhelmed me as I waited with my seven-year-old nephew, four-year old niece, and their uncle, for our turn.

The people in charge divided us into two lines of small kids and big kids, but the chaos of so many bodies in a tight space, made it hard to distinguish which line was which and who was in front or behind. All I wanted was to get us through and out, so I fastidiously kept one eye out to protect our spot to ensure no one would cut in front of us. My other eye flicked between my nephew climbing on the stair railing next to us and my niece often going in search of something more interesting than standing in a queue to make sure they didn’t lose me or bother other people.

Then I saw my fear taking shape. From behind, a small woman and her three children inched forward in the line, creeping ahead of others that had been patiently waiting. So now I needed three eyes.

Soon enough, she stood behind me and the uncle of my niece and nephew. I’m skilled in the art of blocking such creep and kept her at bay until my niece needed to go to the bathroom. When we returned, the woman and her three children stood, staring blankly and innocently ahead as if nothing had happened, in front of the kids’ uncle and our nephew.

““Excuse me, but you were behind us. I’m sorry, but I have two very squirrely small kids and I really don’t want to wait an extra ten minutes.” I tried to speak politely, but inside I was thinking, Who does she think she is pushing ahead of all these patiently waiting people?

She moved behind us, saying nothing, still stoic and innocent looking, until we reached the front of the line. Suddenly, she and her kids were standing next to us and the people in charge weren’t sure who was next.

“We were in front of them,” I insisted almost immediately. My tone was perhaps more forceful than I intended because the giant man in charge said, smiling, “Don’t worry. You’ll get in.”

His words set my blood on fire, though I plastered a calm smile on my face. I wasn’t worried about getting in. What I wanted him to tell me was that he had seen me. That we were next because we had waited patiently and politely for our turn. That we wouldn’t be disadvantaged because this other “rude” person had tried to push in ahead of us.

What I heard, however, was that I was being too uptight and should calm down. That I shouldn’t care who went in next. Except those weren’t his words, they were mine. My constant judgment of myself.

As I wrote this story and realized what made me so angry in the moment, I realized that my anxieties sounded an awful lot like the worries of people who want to build a wall on the border with Mexico and who are incensed about undocumented immigrants: it’s unfair; we were here first; we’re worried that we’ll be disadvantaged; we did everything right; it’s illegal.

This event occurred as I’ve been pondering what it means to love our enemies in the current political climate. We’ve become so divided and “love” has become politicized. “We” love. “They” hate. Whatever side we’re on, we pick and choose from the other side’s behaviors that we don’t like to show how awful they are and how great we are. We point out each other’s hypocrisy as we ignore our own. We shame and call each other names. We accuse the others of being Nazis or Big Brother to drive the like-minded into a fearful tizzy defending our version of “right” from the tyranny of the “wrong.” Love has not been trumping hate despite the slogan everywhere on people’s windows, bumpers, and street signs. In fact, mostly when I hear or see those words, I see hate emanating from them.

People on both sides spread information on social media that we don’t verify first and that is often skewed, exaggerated, or even downright false, to make our message more powerful. I’m not talking about the truly egregious fake news. Rather, the day-to-day memes and stories on Facebook and Twitter in which people leave out important facts or state incorrect ones to create a narrative in which perceived injustice appears even more egregious than it already is. We portray complicated situations as simple ones.

We aren’t trusting that the true facts are sufficient enough to show the injustice that may be occurring. But these posts appeal to our emotions and we share them ad nauseum without checking if they’re accurate. We recklessly perpetuate behavior that we complain about from the “other.” The problem with these posts is that they create a situation in which we stop trusting anything we read or we create policy proposals around emotions or incomplete information rather than addressing the real problems.

I am not exempt from any of it. These posts and accusations tug at my outrage, sadness, and fear. Occasionally I fact check memes and stories, but notably, I have a tendency to only correct those on the “other side” and not those on “my side” because I’m afraid I’ll be shamed for not being righteous enough. Mostly though, I’ve just stopped getting involved in political discussions on social media because it never seems to end well.

Which is why I find it so hard to know the answer to what it means to love my enemy in this context. I feel helpless. I want to find that silver bullet answer to how to change the things “out there” that I don’t like. How do I push for us, as a nation, to love our enemy and what would that even look like? The problem is, though, I’m not really wanting to love my enemy, I’m wanting to figure out how to “love” them so that they’ll agree with me.

When the Halloween event occurred, it seemed to be a situation of loving my enemy on a small scale. I thought, perhaps that’s the answer. It’s about how I act in these day-to-day situations that matters, not the macro-national level of discussion where I have little impact. I think that’s true to a large extent. And I have several acquaintances doing great work creating dialogue across the divide using food, art, and music. I’ve wondered if and how I could do something similar through my blog because I truly believe sharing our stories is the answer.

I’ve struggled to write this post because I’m torn between believing that my request to ask the woman to stay behind me was justified and not liking how I felt about this woman in the moment. My anxiety and frustration did not feel loving. I wonder how I can feel both angry at and loving toward someone I not only disagree with, but I believe is trying to take advantage of me. I wonder if loving her means just letting her go ahead, but that doesn’t feel very loving of myself. My feelings on the national political level are similar.

Had I come out of the bathroom to find a friend had cut in front of me, however, I would have reacted differently. I would have given the friend the benefit of the doubt and probably just asked what was happening, rather than insisting that she or he move behind me. If I’m fully honest, I may not have said anything at all because I would have been too embarrassed to accuse the person of trying to disadvantage me and I wouldn’t want them to think I was so uptight.

Why am I so ready to give my friend the benefit of the doubt, but not the stranger? I realize that so much of my anxiety in that moment came from a belief that this woman “should” have behaved in a certain way. When she didn’t, I told myself a story about her reasons, all negative. I filled my brain with fears about how she was causing me to be disadvantaged. Yet, in different circumstances, such as with a friend, I’m able to let go of the “should” and tell myself different stories. Can I stay in that same place with my enemies?

Maybe, if I could recognize in that moment where my brain was headed, I could pause, take a deep breath and say a little prayer for this person? Perhaps I could remember in the moment that this person is also just human with the same need for love and capacity for good and bad that I have.

If I could, I might ask her if there was a reason she needed to go ahead. It’s likely she felt the same stress in the room that I was, even more so since most of the people were towering over her. It could be that her taller son, who could see better in the room, was leading the charge and she was just following along. Or, if I’m imagining stories, why not make them really sympathetic? Perhaps she had a sick husband at home, but she managed to get out of the house briefly to give her kids some safe, Halloween fun.

If I could have imagined the room full of beautiful and imperfect humans like myself, I might have spent more time enjoying my niece and nephew and less time zealously protecting my spot in line. Would it really have mattered if we entered ten minutes later if we had been enjoying ourselves?

Most notable for me about discovering my internal motivations was how, when the circumstances are right, I can leap straight to the same fears and frustrations that I hear from people who disagree with me politically. It’s easy in the abstract for me to ignore their anxieties and paint them as unloving, uncaring, and selfish. Yet, just as I wanted the big man in charge of entry to acknowledge my concerns, those who disagree with me may want me to acknowledge theirs.

It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change my opinions about who I would like us to be as a nation. Nor is my intent to trivialize matters of injustice. But how I view my enemy does change how I listen and engage in the conversation. Admittedly, this is not an easy place for me to rest in, especially when I rarely have a chance to engage my “enemies” in conversations in real life. And, knowing myself, I get pretty passionate about my opinions. I’m not sure I’d be able to stay in this loving place even if I had the chance. Yet, I need to try. Because I believe that it is the only way forward.

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