Know thy enemy

Copyright Eckhard Pecher/CreativeCommons

“I’m a spiritual person,” the man on the bicycle declared. He’d stopped me on the road to ask a question I didn’t catch, and proceeded to offer an unsolicited character profile. “You got potential, and if you focus you gonna go far. But you have trouble with friends and man. You got enemies.” The smile faded on my face. “I don’t think I do,” I said warily. “Yes man, you got enemies,” he insisted.

He’s right, of course. As unpleasant as it is to think about it, we all have enemies. You may know them. You may not. Perhaps they just took a disliking to you for no reason. I’ve done the same. The other day I was irrationally irritated by an American man chatting at a cafe, talking loudly and being disingenuously friendly, I felt, to all around him. I’ve never spoken to the man and couldn’t really catch everything he was saying. But I projected onto him some sinister mix of money, power, influence, superiority.

Knowing (grudgingly) the street psychic’s words to be true, I spent the rest of the day feeling uncomfortable, sure that every passerby was looking at me with barely veiled hatred. One lady narrowed her eyes. Another ignored my greeting. One man threw his arms up in disgust and muttered something after I smiled while walking past.

Accepting that not everyone will like you in life isn’t easy. But why do we assume or hope they will? With so many different value systems, outlooks, tastes, cultural backgrounds, chemical reactions… it’s inevitable that you will clash with some people you meet in life. You’ll say the wrong thing in their eyes. Laugh in an irritating way. Wear clothes they hate. Annoy them just by being you.

And so trying to adapt to make everyone like you is a recipe for disaster. It involves too many compromises. So many, in fact, that you could end up forgetting who you are – and just being a mirror for people to project themselves onto. Imagine what that funeral would be like. Everyone wandering around puzzled, asking: ‘Are we talking about the same person?’

While doing things for other people is a real joy, when you start doing it just to be liked or make yourself out to be a martyr – the milk and honey has a tendency to curdle. In your head you may be close to saintly, but others could find your behaviour cloying and sickly or disingenuous. I’ve experienced both sides.

“A man with no enemies has no character,” Paul Newman is quoted as saying. Maybe we should stop being afraid of having enemies. Maybe we should be more afraid of having no enemies, because doesn’t that mean we’re either deceiving ourselves or surrounding ourselves with only people who think and behave like us?

Perhaps it’s the ferocity of the word that scares us. Enemy. Unless it involves violence, really we’re just talking about the devil to our angel. The thorn to our rose. The fire to our wood. The challenger to our cheerleader. We shouldn’t run away from our enemies, but run too them – and come away either understanding them more, or knowing ourselves better.

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