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Love Our Enemies: Getting Back On The Horse

If you fall off the horse, get back on (shouted by coaches and murmured by grandparents to keep us trying after failure...when they can't think of anything else brilliant to say)

The kindness critters had spent an afternoon delivering valentine cards and goodie bags to people around the neighborhood, noticing how good it felt to be doing acts of kindness... and now out ice-skating (thank you, Matt and Sam Morton for the ice-skating inspiration you provided us). 

The moniker “kindness critters” was given to some of our grandchildren and their friends. The name comes from their aim to spread kindness and because they wear animal hats for fun.

So, here we are the kindness critters and me at the ice skating arena.  I’m getting a kick out of what I see.  The kids are making friends with other skaters and increasing their proficiency. But most of all, I’m taking special pride in watching the youngest child, our grandson, Eli, skate over to everyone who falls down and stretch out his hand to help them get up. They look at this little guy with a mixture of fascination, confusion, and delight.

Satisfied that all is going well, I look away at other skaters. That’s when it happens, an accident. 

Suddenly the kindness critters are seething. They have grouped together into a knot…eyebrows pulled together, lips stretched tight…seemingly poised for a fight.  They are protectively holding Eli’s hand while skating together toward where I’m standing. Eli is whimpering.

“Some kid knocked him down.  Then a little girl started laughing at him,” says Joey.

“What did you do?”  I ask.

“I looked at her eye-to-eye and asked her what she was doing?  Why was she laughing at someone who has fallen?”

Everyone is giving Eli a hug, especially his big sister who looks around for the girl who laughed.  She’s out for blood.

My aim is scattered – to comfort Eli - to help him resist the temptation to give up skating forever, to calm his sister down, and to help the kindness critters reclaim their objective to be kind and loving to others – even people who are hard.  I can’t say I made much headway except to get Eli back out skating after a while…trying feebly to talk about getting back up on the horse after getting bucked off. 

Though he did get back out on the ice eventually, he first asked in a bewildered voice if the horse would not have run off.  So much for my attempt at wisdom.

Of course, I really wanted to have some wisdom for how we need to relate to each other.  Not much luck that I could see.  And it didn’t help that I secretly wanted to kick the little girl’s butt (as well as her mother’s).

I wish I had the wherewithal to powerfully convey in this teachable moment the essence of loving your enemy. If I could only have brought to mind and heart an article by psychiatrist, Ravi Chandra, which I read in Greater Good Science Center.  It was about how to love your enemy.

It started off with that famous passage in Matthew 5:43-48 which closes the Sermon on the Mount.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?


Chandra writes that Jesus’ words could be seen as a reworking of the Golden Rule, present in many wisdom traditions: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Don’t return hate for hate, but, beyond that, love—especially when it’s not easy… loving our enemies something we should even aspire to? And, if so, how can we possibly go about it?


First, Chandra considers why to choose love over hate. The idea is that suffering (through the lens of relational cultural theory) is a crisis in connection.  Belonging is the opposite of suffering.  Hatred just keeps us disconnected and suffering.  So love, compassion, understanding gets us back to a shared sense of humanity…it promotes belonging, smothers suffering.


According to Chandra, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi viewed love as the mechanism of “soul force” or satyagraha, which has the potential to transform those “enemies” and conditions themselves. King writes in Strength to Love:


Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. . . . The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we will be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

The “Love your enemies” concept is a powerful spiritual, moral, and psychological call to pull out our better angels—still it IS hard.

Chandra gives a few tips. Be mindful of your emotional state. That means being able to not only notice, but also label whatever difficult emotions we are having in response to whatever the “enemy” has done.  That step tunes down the amygdala (which activates flight-fight-freeze).

Secondly, we can soothe our nervous system by showering ourselves with what many call “loving-kindness” practice. “May I be filled with loving-kindness, may I be well; may I be peaceful and at ease, may I be happy" sort of thing.

Next, keep enemies, hatred, and suffering in perspective Chandra says. Love and hate, likes and dislikes, and fear, insecurity, uncertainty, and feelings of threat are common to our human psychology. Enemies abound, particularly for those who are vulnerable. Our brains were built for survival, not happiness, so we often blow things up in our minds.


Another thing that Chandra said which I liked is something along the lines of “don’t allow your enemies to live rent-free in your mind.”  They take up a lot of bandwidth.  Instead we can fill our minds with some gratitude for whatever is good in the moment.  That little question Eli asked, “Wouldn’t the horse run off?” is a humorous moment to hold on to…fill up my head with and it takes away the sting of what has happened.

Humor IS a great thing to bring in. As Chandra reminds us that sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine when faced with “enemies.” Humor can draw attention to the absurdity of the situation, knock big stuff down to size.


And of course, absolutely, Chandra is right on when recommending that we build communities to share our distress. Chandra reminds us of the Holocaust research which found that the pair bond was the unit of survival in dire circumstances.


I love this wording…”We need to be togethered, not othered, for survival. It’s easier to love when we ourselves feel loved and supported.”


To wrap it up loving our enemies restores our own humanity. And yes, we are urged from all our mystics, spiritual teachers, and saints to forgive our enemies, but here is a little twist. It's a biggie in this radical work. Chandra urges us also to forgive ourselves for being human. We are always learning…works in progress, growing from those interactions, challenging though they may be, with each other.  


Choosing love over hate can be difficult, but it is the path to healing for ourselves and our society. In the meantime, let’s just get back up on the horse that threw us and get at riding again.

And, there’s one question, we could ask the little girl to bring out her better angels, “How do you think this little guy who has been knocked down, hurt, and now sees you laughing at him, might feel? That’s the question which most prompts our empathy…along with the standard, “How do you think you’d feel if…? which helps us at least shifts our perspective and allows us to connect with the suffering of others.


In the meantime, it’s a practice for all of us. Learning, that getting bucked off our horses – knocked off our center, getting a little comfort, taking a little time, and getting back up and going at it again.


How might we take this season of lent and love to committedly call on the better angels of our nature and intentionally aim toward this outrageous act of loving our enemies…while journeying together to The Good Life…continuing our learning – being mindful, finding perspective, focusing on a little gratitude and humor, and tapping into our support systems?



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