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Can We Truly Love Our Enemies?

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I’m toward the end — God willing — of a harrowing divorce, so when I heard about Jerome Neu’s On Loving Our Enemies (Oxford University Press, 2012), I knew I both needed and feared it. The title recalled for me the summer I was twenty-one. I had been a kind of neo-Hindu-Christian Buddhist for the previous fifteen years — my father ran a syncretist quasi-cult called the Church of Living Love — and although I had read a good bit of Friedrich Nietzsche, there was one book I wouldn’t open: The Antichrist, a late masterpiece. It was medicine I didn’t want to take. Finally, in the summer of 1988, while on a two-month-long road trip with my father, I read — or rather, misread — the book and found that I’d been right: I soon lost my “faith,” whatever it had been.

It was probably no coincidence that I discovered the Smiths that summer, too. I remember frequently singing in my head the lyrics to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” especially, of course:

In my life
Oh why do I smile
At people whom I’d much rather
Kick in the eye

“Listening For Voices,” December 1886

Okay, I was a young twenty-one. But the sentiment wasn’t entirely trivial. I was losing an ethic I’d been following my entire life — that De imitatione Christi (the title of another of my favorite books, by the fifteenth-century German canon Thomas à Kempis), was how a person should be. That summer, I decided that Christ was plain wrong when he taught “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). And that the Buddhist lama Gyalse Nugulchu Thogme was still crazier when he wrote during the fourteenth century, “If, in return for not the slightest wrong of mine, someone were to cut off even my head, through the power of compassion to take all his negative actions upon myself is the practice of a bodhisattva. Even if someone says all sorts of derogatory things about me and proclaims throughout the universe, in return, out of love, to extol that person’s qualities is a bodhisattva” (The Heart of Compassion, verses 13 and 14).

Freud famously claimed that loving our enemies is psychologically impossible, and perhaps unjust to our friends. Given limited emotional resources, he argued, don’t our friends deserve more of us than our enemies? In The Antichrist, Nietzsche expressed the suspicion that “loving” our neighbors might be a self-deceptive expression of our resentment for them — even of our contempt. If, for example, someone is trying to limit your time with your children, is it sensible to love that person, even if it is possible? Are anger, resentment, even hatred truly unacceptable emotions? Would I be living a better life if I never felt outrage? Or a less complete one?

Twenty-four years later, I’m no wiser about Christian faith or being a bodhisattva, and I still like the Smiths. But a divorce — this is my second, both of them involving children — is the kind of traumatic event that makes you think about love more than does falling in love, getting married, or even having a child. Here’s a person you once loved as much as anyone you’ve known. You became bonded by love, offered promises of love (insisted I’ll never love anyone else or I couldn’t live without you), had children together (sat in a hospital room holding a brand-new baby, a kind of synthesis of the two of you, only better), and now suddenly you’re sitting under fluorescents at the cheap conference table of a balding mediator in a $300 blue suit, and it’s Annie Lennox: “I don’t love you anymore/ I don’t think I ever did.”  Worse still, you’re fighting over the kids, and it’s not just that you’ve lost this love — your partner has become your enemy. Even if you wanted to love that person again, could you? More to the point: could I?

So, here I am, reluctantly and desperately reading On Loving Our Enemies. Jerome Neu is not writing a self-help book. He’s a professional philosopher, made famous by his brilliant analysis of emotion, A Tear Is an Intellectual Thing (OUP, 2000; the title is from William Blake’s “The Grey Monk”). His new book is mostly about Freud, and Freud, as we know, is a bit skeptical about love: he’d like to reduce it to something akin to fear and sex. Fear is part of divorce; sex, of course, has nothing to do with it (ask any adulterer, or better yet, read Norman Rush). But Neu teaches — and I think Freud would agree — that our emotional responses, while not entirely under our control, can be trained, for better or for worse. He uses Diderot’s The Paradox of Acting to support the point that we can seem to feel ways that we truly do not. But it is also the case, he argues, that by pretending to feel a particular way we may incline ourselves in an emotional direction: “The effects may work backward, that is, from standards of external behavior to the shape of internal life.”

If I want to love my ex-wife, in this light, the first step is to start acting as if I love her. But even if this technique makes it psychologically possible to do so, is it the right thing to do? “The distinction between the psychological and the moral (fact/value),” Neu writes, “may be more questionable than it might at first appear.” That is to say, figuring out how I can feel and how I ought to feel might not be as simple as the (seemingly morally desirable) goal of loving my enemy or the impossibility of actually doing it. For Neu, as for Freud, I am probably not even in a position to say whether or not I actually love or hate my ex-wife. Self-knowledge is so elusive that perhaps the best I can say is whether I am speaking and acting in a loving or a hateful way.

My next step, then: smile at my ex. Even as I understand the impulse behind Morrissey’s line.

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