How Do You Become My Enemy?

By Sharon Strand Ellison

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 wound 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 pain?

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.

Whether I officially name you as my "enemy" or not, at some moment in time, if you become one, I cross the line. If I want to hurt you and/or I take pleasure in your misfortune, I have made you an enemy. Do I wish you harm while I watch you reach toward the sky to hang your white sheets? Do you wish harm on me while I sing a lullaby to my child at dusk?

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 husband, 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.

How much harm to do you have to inflict on me for me to make you an enemy? Does it even need to be directed at me at all? Or do you only have to have won the position at work that I wanted? Might I see you as an enemy even if you are my friend? King Lear saw Cordelia, the daughter who loved him most, as his enemy because he mistook her honesty for disloyalty.

How much harm do I have to do, or want to do to you, for you to be my enemy? Can I treat you as an enemy without even knowing it? Perhaps when I am angry, wishing you pain or discomfort of any kind, to prove you wrong in an argument and take pleasure in your discomfort, to water down your arrogance, your unwillingess to listen, or to give me what I need? Might I be be a little rejecting, to show you not to take me for granted? Do I treat you as my enemy any time I want to hurt you, or take you "down a peg?" If so, does it happen only if I take pleasure in these little wounds I pass out, or also when I'm feeling just hurt or anger?

Can you still be my enemy if we parted ways and have taken separate paths? Perhaps I have forgotten to forgive or to let go, 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? Do I think you need punishment? Is that why I will you to have pain?

I wonder how many soldiers can kill without being fueled by images that inspire hatred, or whether it’s possible to hate your brother without seeing him as an enemy. It seems likely to me that hatred and the vision of the other as enemy seem to go hand in hand. Whether I use the word "enemy" or not, any alienation so severe that I wish you an ounce of harm — even for a moment — makes you my enemy.

If 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? 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. When I actually name you as an enemy, then I perceive you as destructive and calculated, intentionally cruel or hurtful. I make you into a bad person or even "evil" person and I defrock you of all humanity. You cease to be mother or son, friend or spouse, and if I do not see myself as a "bad" person, then I must protect myself from being your victim.

I may gather others around me, to help keep me safe or to bolster the power I have to retaliate against whatever you have done that hurt me. My protectors may bond with my pain, and make you their 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. Tribes. 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. Like when the storekeeper in Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye looks at the Pecola, a little girl, with hatred lodged even in his eyelids. Does the man see the child as his enemy? 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 like you? Or at least in the likeness of my image of you?

I agree we must protect ourselves. I just don’t think we have to be an enemy to avoid being a victim. I wonder what kind of new solutions I would find if I didn’t become an enemy. What would it take for the storekeeper to feel tenderness for Pecola? For you to see me sing a lullaby to my child at dusk and feel my love? For me to see you reaching into the blue sky to hang your white sheet and feel the bond of our humanity?


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Powerful Non-Defensive Communication is a trademarked name. © 1994-2016 Sharon Strand Ellison

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