Enemies Near and Far
Odd Company -- April 11, 2022
Dear Friends, Family, Neighbors, and Those of You I Don’t Yet Know —
It’s been an interesting and busy day here, with rain, high winds, small craft advisories, and unseasonably low temperatures. I have spent much of it trying to keep my tender young peppers, cucumbers, and cantaloupes alive. We have five or six more days like this ahead, so the jury’s still out concerning their future in this plane of existence, Mother Nature teaching me a little lesson in humility. I did take time out to right an upended potted lemon tree — quite a feat. It’s a huge pot, and lemon trees have big ol’ thorns! Luckily a friend helped me out. But I’m pretty sure there’s quite a bit of lemon curd in my near future. I’ve been around long enough to know we can plan all we want; calculate probabilities; place bets or stay out of the game. But in the end, anything can (and does) happen. Plans are meant to be shredded and offered to the wind with as much good humor as we can muster while we scramble to change course.
Speaking of plans, mine for this issue of Odd Company is to consider some of the finer points of anger, contempt, and the Buddhist concept of “near enemies.” Anger reminds me of a matryoshka doll — you know, those hollow wooden dolls that split apart, revealing a smaller doll, which also splits apart, and so on, till at last you reach the innermost doll, which is tiny and solid. I have several of these dolls, collected in my travels. The largest matryoshkas have forty or fifty dolls nested within each other. Most of mine have eight or nine, and are painted to look like stout Russian women. Some are quite beautiful, intricately hand-painted. The most interesting matryoshka doll I’ve ever owned was an eight-piece Mikhail Gorbachev, complete with birthmark, which I picked up at a flea market outside the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1992 or ‘93, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. I’m sorry to say the Gorbechev matryoshka is currently missing and has been for some years, misplaced or lost in a move, or pocketed by someone who fell in love with it.
The question is, why does anger remind me of matryoshka dolls? Here’s Brené Brown’s definition of anger: “When you look across the research, you learn that anger is an emotion that we feel when something gets in the way of a desired outcome or when we believe there’s a violation of the way things should be.”1 Which is to say, anger is an expression of suffering. Remember our definition? Suffering is any moment in time when our experience is other than we would prefer it to be. If you can get someone to talk about their anger (that is, if you can get them to take it apart for you), you usually find other emotions inside it — something like hurt or frustration. And inside those you might find still other emotions — maybe fear, or betrayal, or disappointment. An angry person is usually experiencing a veritable matryoshka doll of emotions. Anger is complicated in that respect. But it’s simple in that it’s almost always about unmet needs. The need for respect, the need to be listened to and treated fairly, to name a few.
Where does contempt come into all this? When, in our anger, we lash out in a way that is deliberately disrespectful or even cruel, we have given in to contempt — one of the most corrosive of emotions. Think of how it feels to be the object of mean jokes, to be mimicked, to be called a fool, or told that you’re disgusting. In a relationship where one party has lapsed into contempt, the partners are no longer equals. In the eyes of one, the other is a lesser being. And connection, if it ever existed, ceases.
For an example of contempt portrayed musically, I’ve chosen “Get Out of This House,” by the singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin. If you listen to the whole thing, you’ll find the last couple of verses particularly revealing.
In today’s world, it is common to speak of those with whom we disagree in contemptuous and insulting terms. “What an idiot!” The phrase comes so easily. I’ve said it far too many times in my life. Lately, I’ve been striving to at least notice when I’m doing it, but habits are hard to break.
The Buddhist notion of “near enemies” and “far enemies” is helpful here. It isn’t what it sounds like at first. Some states of mind are opposite (far) from others. Cruelty is the far enemy of compassion, for example. “Far enemies” are usually easy to spot, because they’re…well…opposites. Other states of mind are similar (or near) to the state of mind we’re trying for, but they actually undermine it. So, for example, sympathy (“Glad it’s not me, but I do feel sorry for you.”) is the near enemy of empathy (which is more like, “Oh damn, that’s horrible. I understand completely!”) Sympathy deliberately puts distance between me and the person who is suffering; while empathy is an effort to understand things from the sufferer’s perspective.
Contempt, like cruelty, is the far enemy (or the opposite) of compassion and loving-kindness. It’s easy to spot in others and in one’s self, at least when we’re paying attention. It takes even more attention to spot the near enemies of compassion, like pity and sympathy, which might *feel* something like compassion, but which actually place emotional distance between us and the sufferer. In the case of pity, it’s mostly focused on me, not you, poor thing, in as much as it’s designed to make me look good and feel good about myself without actually understanding or helping the person who needs love and connection.
Modern virtue signaling is a near enemy of compassion. It isn’t the real thing. It’s mostly an effort to make the signaler feel superior, and it never involves meaningful action. Only when virtue signaling combines empathy and meaningful action does it become true compassion — something we should all keep in mind when tweeting indignantly about this or that transgression on someone else’s part.
And now I’m tired after my epic battles with the Gods of Weather and Chance. So tired that I’m failing to find a good-bye poem tonight. So it’s a simple “adieu.” I shall return. See you in two weeks, with good news about the garden and life in general, I hope.
"Atlas of the Heart,” Brené Brown, Random House, 2021.