By Sharon Ellison
(Note: this article is re-printed by permission. You can find the original on www.pndc.com, click on LEARNING ROOM, click on “Articles”, click on “By Sharon”)
Laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
the white sheet of the woman who is my enemy.
—Yehuda Amichai, “Jerusalem” in This Same Sky, ed. Naomi Shihab Nye, 1992
How do you become my enemy? Is it because you hurt me? Some pain from which I cannot recover, like an old piece of shrapnel lodged in my brain, which will ache until I die, sending out sporadic shooting pains?
Do you become an enemy in a single moment, or over time? Either, I suspect. But even if I watch you move gradually toward enemy status, there must be a sudden culminating moment. Like when a white Rorschach splash of bird squat hit my car window while I was driving south on a curve at Big Sur, with a thousand feet of green sliding down to the ocean on my right.
Does it mean you wish me harm and I wish you harm? Do you wish harm on me while I sing a lullaby to my child at dusk? Do I wish it on you while you reach toward the sky to hang your white sheets?
What does it mean to be an enemy? Does it mean to hurt the other person as much, or more, than he or she hurt me? Like my friend’s mother, who, when abandoned by her lover, broke all of his pottery, destroyed his art in exchange for her wounded heart. Is it a calculated decision to retaliate, to punish? Or driven by the rawness of my own wound, do I simply roar and strike?
What if your cruelty to me, the urge that drove the knife of your attack, was not held by a hand that felt simple power and pleasure in the act? What if the propelling force was the pain in your own heart? Would you still be my enemy?
Likewise, does that pain, that hurt you imposed on me have to have been intentional, calculated, cruel, in order for you to become my enemy? Or could it be accidental? Like the mother who screamed at the man whose car spun out and crashed, killing her daughter, “You killed her! You murdered her!” Maybe when we see the other as sufficiently irresponsible we can make that person into an enemy as surely as if his behavior was calculated.
Can you still be my enemy if we parted ways and have taken separate paths? Perhaps I have forgotten to forgive; re-living the hurt, locked in the past, failing to live my life now. Is hatred, past or present, the emotional impetus for seeing the other as enemy? Like when the storekeeper in Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye looks at the Pecola, with such hatred lodged in his eyelids. Does the man see the child as his enemy?
I wonder how many soldiers can kill without being fueled by images that inspire hatred; or whether it’s possible to hate your sister without seeing her as an enemy. It seems likely to me that hatred and the vision of the other as enemy seem to go hand in hand.
Is the storekeeper then, automatically Pecola’s enemy? Not yet, anyway. For now, she only knows that as she leaves the store, the inexplicable shame she felt when he looked at her begins to disappear.
So I can be your enemy even if you aren’t mine.
Or you might see me as an enemy even when I am your friend. King Lear saw the daughter who loved him most as his enemy because he mistook her honesty for disloyalty.
Conversely, I have heard certain Christians say they love gay people, but that the lifestyle is a sin and a threat to children. Thus, you might try to pass laws that take away my freedom, treating me as an enemy while saying you care about my well being.
When we both recognize each other as the enemy, does it mean that we have an agreement to hurt each other as much as we can? I think so. Sometimes it seems like a competition to see who can win the prize for doing the most damage. What would we call this prize? What does the winner get?
It seems to me that naming the other as “enemy” has a power that does somehow go beyond even hatred. If I can make your accidental behavior into irresponsibility, then I treat like you as an enemy. But when I actually name you as the enemy, then I perceive you as destructive and calculated. I add in evil and I defrock you of all humanity. You cease to be mother or son, you become evil embodied. And if I do not see myself as evil, then I must protect myself from being your victim.
I may gather others around me, to help keep me safe. If you have already hurt me, they may bond with my pain, and make themselves your enemy too. As they strike out to protect me, you may gather your protectors around you. Now we have group hatred. Groups of enemies. Friends. Families. Races. Religions. Nations.
I no longer have to know you in order for you to be my enemy; I only have to recognize your status in any group I call enemy. Now I can inherit you as an enemy from my ancestors. The storekeeper, a white man, only had to see Pecola, a black child, for his legacy of hatred to spring into action.
I don’t know how the kind of hatred you and I would have for each other as mutual enemies could ever be anything but progressive. Being bound as enemies is as if you have invaded my body and taken up residence, like a recurring nightmare, tormenting my soul with an exponentially increasing force. Likewise, I have invaded yours. Can I make you into an enemy without becoming evil myself?
Once I am your enemy, will I always be? What would it take for the storekeeper to feel tenderness for Pecola? For you, my enemy, to see me sing a lullaby to my child at dusk and feel my love? For me, as yours, to see you reaching into the blue sky to hang your white sheet and feel your joy?
As individuals, races, and nations, what could bring about a sea change large enough to stop us from being enemies? “How can we?,” you may ask. “We have to protect ourselves from those who seek to do us harm.” I agree. And I don’t think we have to be an enemy to avoid being the victim. I wonder what kind of new solutions we would we find if we didn’t name the other as evil, as “the enemy.” If we didn’t become an enemy.
I hope you have gained insights from this Ezine that help to see showing vulnerability as a quality of strength, worthy of being developed.
Author of: Taking the War Out of Our Words:
The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication
Ellison Communication Consultants
4100-10 Redwood Road, No. 316
Oakland, CA 94619
Phone: (510) 655-8086
Phone: (800) 714-7334
Copyright © 2003, Sharon Ellison