Compassion in the face of our enemies

This has been another rough week. I’m not going to go into why, but I wanted to talk about compassion, because I think it’s relevant. Sometimes compassion and love are used interchangeably; Buddhism actually defines them as two separate things. I actually mean both compassion and love when I’m talking about it here.

My Buddhist lineage defines basic compassion as the awareness that another person is suffering, and the belief that they should not be suffering. They go on to say that there are three degrees of this type of compassion:

  1. Simply recognizing the situation and recognizing that it would be better if the suffering were not there

  2. Based on this recognition, having a wish that the situation would change for the better

  3. Taking personal responsibility for making the situation better.

My lineage defines love in a way that is remarkably similar to the fulfillment of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: every material desire taken care of, every wish for personal success taken care of; every good personal quality that is wished for, attained, and so on. Beyond the traditional peak of the pyramid, self-actualization, it goes to the point that Maslow reached later in life. In his later writing he talks about going beyond self-actualization to transcendence of self.

But whom do we love in this way? For whom do we have this compassion? The tendency is to see people who are less well off, and who are if not good, at least relatively harmless, and wish these things on them.

The problem is, that’s not actually where compassion’s power really lies. There’s a verse in Matthew where Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In Mahayana Buddhism we’re told to have compassion for our enemies as well. But it’s hard to do, and part of the reason that it’s hard to do is that it’s hard to see the benefit in it.

So I wanted to talk about the benefits of having love and compassion for our enemies, based on my experience. There are two basic reasons that I have for thinking that this is good advice, and not just some sort of moral imperative from on high that doesn’t make any real sense.

The first is that if I can have compassion for my enemy, then I can be free of my enemy. When I have hatred or disgust for my enemy, what is going on internally is that I have some idea of how my enemy should be. And I am noticing that they aren’t that way. This is a lot of work, and it’s a kind of work that creates real suffering in the mind.

What this has been like for me is that for a while I did a practice where I would just go through a list of all the people I knew, and I would try to generate love for them. It wasn’t always easy—even friends sometimes are hard to really love, and it can be interesting to discover that. It also turned out that generating love for someone I’d wronged was hard; I had to forgive myself for having wronged them, and that was surprisingly challenging.

Generating love for people I considered to be enemies was actually easier, but what was interesting was how much of a relief it was to just let go of that mental representation of how they should be and accept them as they were. Not to be okay with their behavior, but to realize that they see their behavior as being just as authentic as I see my behavior being.

The effect that this had on me was that I was able to see their negative behavior as a pathology rather than a personal flaw. It’s not that it’s not a personal flaw. It’s that what matters about it is that it is a pathology, not that the person suffering from that pathology (and making us suffer with them) is a bad person.

This leads naturally into the second reason, but I just want to emphasize what a big deal it is to be free of having to think of the “enemy” as “the enemy.” It’s a lot of work to hate someone. It’s a lot of work to be angry at someone. But it’s no work at all to want to change some thing.

Think about the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. The current estimate is that 230,000 people died in a single event on that day. It brings tears to my eyes to remember it. What a horrible thing. And yet there was no war against tsunamis after the Christmas Tsunami of 2004, because it was just a thing that happened. Whereas the World Trade Center attack three years previously started a war which has definitely killed more people than the tsunami did.

Why? Because when there is a person responsible, we have to punish the person. It’s literally human nature. So learning to habitually love the enemy short-circuits that drive. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have justice anymore; it just frees us of that rather painful emotional response.

Why is the emotional response painful? Two reasons. First, because I can’t actually punish most of the people my drive to punish would wish for me to punish. So there is a constant experience of pain and frustration when I watch the news, if I’m in the thrall of this human drive: so many people who are so clearly behaving in ways that demand punishment, and no ability to punish them. I could go on a long discussion about how this drive to punish turns into pathology, but let’s leave that for later.

Doing that practice of systematically reviewing everyone I know and generating love for them broke something inside of me, that habit of feeling like I had to punish people. I still see the pathology; I still want to do something about it. I just don’t feel the pain of needing to do something about it and not being able to. This has eliminated a huge source of unhappiness from my life.

Now let’s get to the second benefit of compassion. This is that when you have compassion for your enemy, it makes it possible for you to understand why they are doing what they are doing. If they are just evil, things are simple: they need to be punished, and until they are punished, there can be no satisfaction. This just doesn’t work; maybe it did in a small tribal setting, but even there we see that it doesn’t work well.

In a democracy of 300 million people, the drive to punish just creates division, and we see it in our politics. A huge segment of the population wants one thing. A different huge segment of the population wants another, incompatible thing. Each segment wants to punish the other segment for being evil. No progress can be made, because it’s about people, not about phenomena.

What actually motivated me to write this article is that I was thinking about the problem from that hard-won place of compassion for people whose behavior really seems quite evil to me, and I realized that they have a very good reason for behaving the way they are behaving. And in all likelihood, until that reason is understood and acknowledged, the battle will continue.

I really don’t want to get into what it is that I realized in this article, because what I realized might not be your truth, and my goal here isn’t to convince you to agree with me about what I realized. It’s to convince you that we need to see how our enemies see things. When we respond tribally to pathologies, it just makes things worse, and things are bad enough already. We need to respond intelligently (dare I say wisely?) now. In order to do that, we need to have compassion for our enemies.