Personal Happiness and Wellbeing, Positive Politics and Government

Loving Your Enemies, Loving Yourself

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Over the past several years, public displays of division, hate and intergroup violence have reached levels that remind many of the days of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. On the day that we honor his memory, my thoughts continually come back to this quote “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear”. Sticking with love in times like this can be challenging, but not only can it make the world around us better, but it lightens our own loads. Hate not only damages those we might despise, it damages us when we harbor it in our hearts.

This is not hippy-dippy wishful thinking. Scientific research shows that fostering compassion makes you happier and healthier. Simply practicing loving kindness meditations has been shown by researchers to increase daily happiness and life satisfaction, reduce depression and fear of suffering, boost immune response and overall physical wellbeing, and to improve empathy and attitudes of helpfulness 1

As chronicled in the book Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them, some of the world’s top neuroscientists met with and ran tests on Tibetan Buddhist monks and found that indeed, cultivating lovingkindness had profound positive effects and helped neutralize some of the damage done by harboring emotions like anger and fear. So science is converging with what the great faith traditions have told us for millenia. Dr. King was a Christian, and one of his greatest sermons (which I highly recommend listening or reading if you get a chance) hearkened back to what was perhaps the most challenging command that Jesus ever gave his followers. In that book, Jesus said:

[27] “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, [28] bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. [29] If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. [30] Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. [31] Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Jesus certainly had enemies, and frankly, outside of some of our more sadistic dictators his foes were more brutal than most that exist in the world today. Watching the Romans torture people to death in public forums – sometimes for days or weeks at a time – was a reality with which Jesus and his friends and family would have been intimately familiar, even before he was crucified. And even though Jesus must have already known his own brutal fate, when it came to confronting these dealers of inhuman suffering, his commandment was to love them. Think of it: he says to do good to them. Even as they tortured him to death, he commanded his followers to forgive them.

Loving our enemies does not require approving of their words or actions. It does not require being passive. As Dr. King emphasized over and over in interviews, sermons and speeches; love and non-violence are active forces. We can stand up against those we believe are doing wrong without demonizing them and without wishing or doing them harm. What this approach requires is seeing those with whom we disagree as fellow human beings who desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering.

Over the past couple years, I have been trying this simple practice: when I’m confronted with a person who stokes my anger I silently offer up a wish for their happiness. It helps me be less reactive, engage in more productive dialogue and lowers my stress level. It also helps me remember that when people enjoy their lives, feel fulfilled in what they do, and have healthy relationships they are far less likely to be hateful or angry or divisive. If those we disagree with find happiness, they are less likely to be someone we would even consider an enemy.

January 15 | Ryan Rynbrandt 

  1. See for example Barbara Frederickson et al (November, 2008) Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources,  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95:5, 1045–1062; Olga Klimecki et al (2013) Functional Neural Plasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect After Compassion Training, Cerebral Cortex 23:7 1552-1561; and more
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