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? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
—Jesus of Nazareth, quoted in Matthew 5:43-48, NIV
Jesus’s injunction to “love your enemies” closes out the Sermon on the Mount. It could be seen as an extrapolation 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.
In our social media age, there are provocateurs who aim to get our goats, enrage us, and waste our time. In the U.S., there’s not nearly enough “content moderation,” and all too often, lies, anger, and hatred can and do go viral, far outpacing facts, reason, and compassion. This parallels what can happen in our own nervous systems. In my book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, I called social media our “auxiliary amygdala,” for its ability to fire up our fight-flight-freeze survival brain responses.
When “enemies” and hatred seem to abound, online and in real life, is loving them something we should even aspire to? And, if so, how can we possibly go about it? Adding love and shared humanity to our emotional ecosystem is a responsible way to put the brakes on hatred and the chances for violence that hatred brings.
Why choose love over hate
Relational cultural theory suggests that suffering is a crisis in connection, and belonging is the opposite of suffering. Hatred and maintaining enemies furthers the anguish of disconnection. Love, and its partners compassion, understanding, safety, appreciation, and a sense of shared humanity, promotes the belonging that is the opposite of suffering.
In other words, love is not just a way to be good, or to follow the teachings of Jesus, but a means of transforming our disconnection and suffering. Love is essential in healing our wounds. Love helps us survive and overcome the distress caused by our “enemies” and the antagonistic and adverse conditions they transmit. Love helps us heal the internal and interpersonal problems caused by abusive power. Love helps us transform our relationship to those “enemies” and conditions. And love may even help us effect change: 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.
This parallels the words of the Buddha: “Hatred does not cease by hatred. By love alone does hatred cease. That is the eternal law.”
Near the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, I relayed a version of this message to a group of young activists. One of them responded with frustration, “Isn’t this asking us to do emotional labor?” “Indeed,” I replied. “Life is about emotional labor.” When we are emotionally exhausted, we may have trouble empathizing and feeling compassion for others. Our minds and hearts struggle with the gap, often producing frustration, overwhelm, a sense of futility, hopelessness, despair, and rage. But doing the emotional labor required to get us back to love, compassion, and self-love is liberating, healing, and necessary.
Still, loving your enemies is a tall order, indeed.
First of all, one has to ask, “Who or what exactly is an enemy?” Is it someone who actively or passively hates you and aims at your destruction? Is it someone who denies your humanity or the humanity of those you care about? Is it someone who pricks your ego? Is it someone who raises issues that offend you? Is it someone who challenges your ideas or self-concept? Some people think an enemy is anyone who doesn’t do exactly what they want them to do. Whom or what do you consider an “enemy”?
Shantideva wrote in “The Way of the Bodhisattva”:
Therefore, just like treasure appearing in my house
Without any effort on my part to obtain it,
I should be happy to have an enemy
For he assists me in my conduct of Awakening.
In other words, an “enemy” can be a teacher and a spur to learn, grow, and do better. A synonym for “love” is “understanding”—so “loving your enemy” can begin with understanding them, retaining curiosity about them, and not simply reacting to them.
Tips for cultivating love
“Love your enemies” is a powerful spiritual, moral, and psychological injunction to advance our better angels—but as a psychiatrist and human, I know that inspiration and injunction aren’t enough. We need perspiration and pathways to work with hatred and facing “enemies” in our relational and cultural worlds. Here are a few places to start.
Be mindful of your emotions. Mindfulness is “awareness of present experience with acceptance.” The first step is to notice, label, and identify the difficult emotions stirred by whatever or whomever we might label an “enemy.” Such labeling and mindfulness tune down the amygdala (responsible for fight-flight-freeze) and the default mode network of the brain (which scans for problems in the past and future and creates a narrative sense of self).
Paying attention and noting what is happening inside your heart and mind gives you a foundation, and allows you to have a dialogue with threatening narratives. By cultivating an experience of yourself grounded in your body and the present moment, you can better take care of challenging emotions instead of leaping to narratives, judgments, criticisms of self and other, and conclusions that fortify barriers to love, kindness, relationship, shared humanity, and your own health and well-being.
For example, instead of becoming an antagonist in the storyline of an “enemy,” you could take a deep breath, name the emotions being stirred in you, and have more space to choose a response that recognizes the humanity, human needs, and suffering of those who threaten you. When someone tries to make you a “fight buddy,” you could bring attention to that process, rather than being drawn into becoming their sparring partner.
Loving-kindness practice. When enemies shower us with hatred and antagonism, we can feel eroded and threatened. Loving-kindness practice helps us soothe our nervous system and improves our sense of well-being. Loving-kindness also downregulates the default mode network. The practice consists of repeating phrases such as these for several minutes:
“May I be filled with loving-kindness, may I be well; may I be peaceful and at ease, may I be happy.”
You could imagine a benevolent or spiritual figure directing these phrases toward you, and silently directing these phrases toward a stranger actually helps us feel better, as well. This all helps us detoxify, deconstruct, and deactivate hatred as it lands on us. This practice is part of cultivating a healthy sense of self to cope with trauma and life.
Keep enemies, hatred, and suffering in perspective. 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. But our brains were built for survival, not happiness, so often they collect negative information and dangers, and give them disproportional weight.
It takes work to keep things in perspective, and not succumb to catastrophic or engulfing emotional narratives. This work doesn’t make the threats “go away,” but it allows us to bounce back and keep going as we find ways to deal with challenging situations and “enemies.”
As we face threats, we can savor what is good and sustaining in the moment. We can cultivate gratitude. This keeps us grounded in times of peril. For example, don’t just allow your enemies to live rent-free in your mind. Remember friends, benefactors, loved ones, and neutral people, as well, and all the good they’ve provided.
Cultivate the “umami” of loving-kindness, friendliness, and compassion. As King wrote, “Hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.” We have to work with our psychic contents, and not mirror our enemies. When one is distressed, adding a dash of the extra “flavor” of loving-kindness, friendliness, and compassion to our inner lives (perhaps with meditation) makes our inner lives and relationships more tasty and delicious. We suffer less, and our “enemies” lose their potency.
This umami and self-care might help us take a social media break, not engage with a provocateur, or find a way of interacting that promotes a sense of shared humanity and love. Sometimes, “clapping back” is necessary, but it usually leaves an aftertaste that needs our umami. Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
Cultivate humor. Sometimes, laughter is the best medicine when faced with “enemies.” Humor validates our identities when “enemies” invalidate us, and validates reality when they spread disinformation and lies. Humor can draw attention to the absurdity of the situation that “enemies” create. Humor can knock grandiosity down to size. But enemies can use their brand of humor to “punch down” at vulnerable people. It’s fair to be curious about what kind of humor we lean into. Rod Martin’s Humor Styles Questionnaire can help you see if your humor is more constructive or destructive.
Build communities that share distress. We all depend on co-regulation—regulating our emotions together in companionship and community. Holocaust research found that the pair bond was the unit of survival in dire circumstances. Therefore, enemies who try to divide us are issuing a survival threat. We need to be togethered, not othered, for survival. It’s easier to love when we ourselves feel loved and supported.
Loving our enemies is a way of restoring our own humanity when “enemies” have dehumanized, distorted, and oppressed us, and also remembering that our “enemies” are human, too. King wrote of love requiring us to forgive our enemies, while not letting them off the hook. Forgiving means letting go of our own grudges, resentment, and bitterness, while we continue to pursue accountability and justice.
We also need to forgive ourselves for being human. Love, especially the boundless love Jesus, King, and the Buddha spoke of, is always a work in progress, and we are continually learning from each other, and our “enemies.”
I can only hope that our “enemies” can learn and grow, as well, and remember that those they have hated are human, too, and we are all connected. I hope we can all choose to disempower hatred, fear, and suffering in our politics, culture, society, and minds, and instead empower love, compassion, reason, and shared humanity.
A version of this article was originally published at East Wind eZine.