If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poet (1807-1882)

That doesn’t mean that we agree that they are correct or they have a right to do what they want. It does mean that we treat them with courtesy and respect, even if we passionately disagree with them. Not that this is easy to do, especially with emotionally volatile topics, such as abortion or same-sex marriage, but to stop the cycle of hatred someone has to absorb their opponent’s vitriol and not return it. Again, that is far from easy; not at all.

Walking home last night, I wondered why it’s so easy to hate or to be angry, in contrast to grieving. I suspect it’s because anger requires us to pay a higher emotional cost. Like grief, anger is a natural reaction but unlike grief, we can become angry at a concept or a person or a group that we aren’t close to, whom we don’t have an emotional connection with. The stronger a connection we have with someone, the angrier we will be at the person who hurt them. That’s because the closer we are to someone emotionally, the more we sympathise we them, and so we are more likely to grieve, and the grief and anger feed each another.

A close emotional bond with someone only develops over time. (This doesn’t mean time will build such a connection.) We grieve because the person we’re bound to, or the relationship itself, has been damaged. The closer the bond, the greater the pain, and the deeper the grief.

So when we’re confronted with injustice, it’s easier to view the offender as “them”, as alien to us, as someone who will never affect our life, and whom we can condemn without fear of reprisal. (That is, if their actions offend us but they haven’t actually hurt us or anyone we know.)

It’s too much effort, in Longfellow’s words, to read our enemy’s secret history, to try to get to know them; to find out why they did what they did; why they believe what they believe. We might find they are people just like us.

Advertisements