Sometimes the biggest challenge in loving others is when we don’t actually want to connect at all. Without a desire and a choice to connect, we can’t give or receive love in any real way. But how do we connect with others in ways that deepen our love? And how do we find a reason to connect with those we think of as destructive, unjust, or even enemies?
In this episode of the EvoFaith podcast we explore what it means to connect with one another, how we can make the daily choice to connect, and what it means to connect with and seek to love our enemies.
Like so many people around the world I’ve been deeply moved by the story of Nelson Mandela. The way he forgave those who persecuted and imprisoned and hurt him won’t be new to you. We all know the grace he expressed when he was released from prison, even befriending his prison guards.
But what fascinates me is the way we all applaud his forgiveness and grace. We all acknowledge that his capacity for reconciliation and for remaining kind in the face of abuse is a mark of a truly good person and a truly good life. And yet somehow we struggle to adopt this same grace and forgiveness in our own lives. When we are faced with the challenge to forgive those who have hurt us, we are pretty good at finding reasons not to.
And that’s why two quotes from Madiba continue to speak to me. And the first is this one, he says:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
And then he said:
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he [or she] becomes your partner.”
It may seem obvious, but a key foundation for love is the desire to connect in some way. How we connect depends on the person, the relationship, the environment and all the other things that influence our lives and relationships. But without some sense of connection, it’s impossible to love another person. And without a desire to feel that sense of connection, to reach out for it, to nurture it and seek to fulfil it in some way, we cannot ever love and be loved authentically and deeply.
Now connection is easy with friends and family. But what about a difficult neighbour or colleague? What about someone you would think of as your enemy? What about the person who bullied you at school? Or the boss who humiliated you? What about a Vladimir Putin, for example, or a Donald Trump? You get the picture.
When it comes to loving our enemies, love isn’t about letting them off the hook or defending what they do. It’s not about having to choose whether we love them or ourselves. It’s not that in loving those who do harm we automatically fail to love the ones they hurt. How we love the marginalised and abused is very different from how we love the powerful and the abuser, but we can still love both in their own appropriate way. Loving ‘unconditionally’ doesn’t mean that we accept, condone, or support what people do. It just means that our capacity and our choice to love is not changed or influenced by who they are or what they do.
Loving someone who is toxic or abusive is not about refusing to resist what they do. On the contrary, resisting evil is a key quality of those who love deeply and unconditionally. And resistance needs to include at least two features that are an important part of how we love those who we would consider enemies or antagonists.
And the first feature is this: We need to refuse to become what they are even as we resist what they are. Friedrich Nietzsche said this: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he [or she] does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” This means that as we resist those that bring harm or injustice into our world, we still need to seek the humanity within them. And we also need to be aware that there is the potential of a monster within us, and so as we resist what is evil, we avoid becoming that which we despise. And that’s a key facet of loving our enemies. When we hate them, when we refuse to love them, we essentially become what they are—we become that which we despise.
And the second feature of resisting evil flows out of the first one that we’ve just been speaking about. It’s that when we fight evil, we need to refuse to do so using evil means. Too often those who fight oppressors become oppressors, just watch the Hunger Games trilogy or read the books for a brilliant reflection of that reality. But rather we want to fight evil, abuse, oppression and injustice, but do it in ways that don’t perpetuate these things. And that means doing it with a view of love, of seeking the best possible outcome for all concerned. And in terms of abusers and oppressors, that means not allowing them to enjoy the fruits of their evil, because that would simply drive them more deeply into the darkness. In a sense our resistance to evil, when we do it well, and when we don’t allow ourselves to adopt the means of evil, become a potential way to save destructive people from themselves. That’s the best case scenario, obviously it doesn’t always happen like that, but that’s what we hope for.
So how we do find connections with people—friends, enemies, loved ones, neighbours? In a moment I’ll share my thoughts on this question, but right now I want to remind you to subscribe, like, activate notifications, and share this podcast as widely as you can. It really helps my work and it helps people who would find a space like this helpful to discover EvoFaith. So thank you.
We’ve spoken about loving our enemies, I want to focus now on loving those that are a bit easier to love—our friends and family and neighbours. But we’ll touch on the enemy thing again as we go through his podcast. Connection requires two significant mind shifts. Sometimes they happen naturally, especially with people where there’s an instant ‘click’. But even when a ‘click’ seems the furthest thing from reality, we can still nurture our sense of connectedness. And when we do, we realise that connection isn’t something we choose, really. It just is. We are connected, whether we see it or not. But what we need is to recognise those connections, to nurture our awareness of our connections. And then to nurture our desire to live out of that sense of deep connectedness with others, with the world, and with God (however we may understand God). And that’s where these two mind shifts that I mentioned are so helpful and important. So what are they?
The first is to learn to identify and work with the systems that impact our lives and relationships. And the second is to make the choice to stand with others and not against them.
Let’s start with Systems Thinking. It’s important that we recognise our connectedness, the systems that we are part of that connect us with others. Have you ever done something that’s had completely unexpected results? Well the reason that happened may lie in the systems of which you are a part. So stop for a moment and identify some of those systems. There’s your family system, there’s an extended family, your system of friends, perhaps you’re part of a sports club or a church, there’s the system of the place where you work, and I could go on. All of those systems are connections that you have with others. And systems are never isolated, your family system isn’t disconnected from your work system. we live within systems of systems, and these systems all connect to one another, overlap with each other and affect each other.
How do these systems affect us? Well the first is something that’s become known as The Butterfly Effect, it’s that small actions have big consequences. Or to use a quote from the Biblical book of the Song of Songs: “It’s the little foxes that destroy the vineyards.” You may have noticed how sometimes you’ll do something that seems insignificant and yet the ripple effect of, the repercussions, the way it affects people around you and affects your own life, ends up being much bigger than you expected. Or sometimes something will happen in your world, or someone else will do something and the impact on you is much more than you would’ve thought it would be. that’s the butterfly effect at work. And that’s because of systems. Things sometimes get multiplied by the systems within which they operate.
And then linked with that is something you could call The Boomerang Principle, which is that whatever you do comes back to you. Or to put it in the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:2: “However you judge another is how you will be judged.” Often we will do things not realising that again those things send ripples out into our system, and then somehow it comes back to us and it affects our lives again in unpredictable ways. I’m sure you’ve experienced that.
So how do we work with these systems within systems, with these boomerang effects and these butterfly effects that operate within systems? Well to begin with, we need to identify the parts of our system—who is involved? How are they connected? What are the power dynamics? What is this system? And then we can identify the relationships—the behaviours, patterns and consequences that operate within that system. It’s just about being mindful of what you see happening within your systems. Once we’ve got a sense of how our system operates and what it looks like, we can find our place in it, we can identify where we fit in and what our contribution to the dynamics in the system is (for good or ill). And then that sets us up to be able to explore possible changes or whatever we need to change, in order to help the system to function in a healthier, more life-giving way.
So what relationships are you struggling with? What systems are these relationships part of? And how might these systems be impacting these relationships? How can you begin to work with these systems? So that’s the first principle we need to work with—systems thinking. It’s a mind shift that we need to be intentional about developing.
The second one is to stand with other and not against them. Now that’s easy when it’s a family member or a friend, or someone that we cooperate with, someone that we resonate with, someone who has similar values and behaviours and approaches the world in a similar way to the way we do. But what happens if we go back to talking about our enemies, those that we need to stand against? How can you stand against someone and at the same time stand with them, and not against them? Well, in that case we’re standing against the evil they perpetrate while still trying to identify and stand with their fundamental humanity. Because the moment we refuse to see their humanity, the moment we treat them as less than human, our own humanity suffers. And so we need to learn to stand against injustice and destructiveness while standing with humanity, while standing for building a world of justice and love for all. And that means in a sense even for those that fight against building a world of justice and love. But of course that will be less of our energy and time than the work we put in to standing with those that we love—our friends, our family members, our partners. And so here are thoughts, and it’s going to focus mostly not hose positive relationships and less on dealing with enemies, but thoughts on how we can stand with those that we need to stand with, and not stand against them. It’s really about not turning them into an enemy, not creating a division between us and them and making them a problem, but rather standing with them and dealing with whatever problem we may be facing together. So here’s some thoughts on how we can do that.
The first is what we could think of as a kind of Reverse Projection. You know projection is when we take negative things that we don’t want to admit in ourselves and we project them, we see them in others, and then we judge them or even scapegoat them for those negative characteristics. Reverse projection would be doing something different than that, it would be looking at the good that we like in us and projecting that onto the other, looking for the good in them. And also being aware that whatever we see that is bad in them, we may find there’s an echo of that in ourselves that we aren’t acknowledging. And so we want to observe ourselves–our feelings, our judgements, our reactions (whether good or bad). And we want to observe the other–looking not just for the things that we might think they’re doing wrong, but looking for reasons to admire them, looking for points of common ground, looking for things that we would see as positive in them. And then we employ this practice of reverse project–finding the other in ourselves and finding ourselves in the other, and then standing with them, identifying with them.
And then alongside the practice of reverse projections e need to think about our language, the way we speak and the way we think in relationship to other people. What words do we regularly use when we’re speaking to another person, or when we’re speaking about them? Are they words that connect or words that divide, words that draw us toward each other or words that push us away? Most psychologists will tell us that you want to avoid absolutes—always, never, is, are, you must, you have to, words like that. We want to always recognise that we have a perspective and others do, and that nobody has the absolute truth. And then we can employ “we” language rather than “you and I” language. “We are trying to resolve this problem”, rather than “You are the problem for me.” Now there are times when we’re taking responsibility or we’re trying to clarify roles or feelings or perspectives, that we might want to say “well I see it this way and I have a sense that you see it that way, is that correct?” And we might want to use you and I language in that kind of situation. But a lot of the time we want to try create language that helps us to see ourselves as allies working to connect more deeply together, rather than antagonists working against one another. We certainly want to avoid using you and I language as a way to reinforce judgements that we’re making about others.
So think about one significant relationship in your life. What differences are there between you and the other person? What do you most struggle with in that person? And where might you see that in you? And how can you exercise a bit of reverse projection toward them? What words do you regularly use in this relationship and when talking about this relationship? Are there better words you could use that could connect you more effectively?
We really need to be intentional about choosing connection with others. Even in good relationships, that daily choice helps to keep those relationships strong. And so we want to be aware of the systems within which our relationships work and how those systems affect those relationships. We want to identify the way small things can lead to big consequences and the way whatever we do ultimately comes back on ourselves. And we want to learn to stand with one another instead of standing against each other, reverse projecting intentionally and positively and thinking about our languaging. And when we make this choice, this intentional choice to connect with others, we find that we can love them more easily, our connection deepens, and our lives are enriched as our relationships grow stronger.
In the next episode we’re going to talk about how being thorough, particularly in our communications, can be one of the most loving things we can do for another person. We’ll talk about slowing down and making sure that we set the best environment we can for our interactions so that we can connect and communicate with others as helpfully and completely as possible. So make sure you join me for that one. It’s going to be well worth it!
But that’s all for now. Thank you for listening. Thank you for watching. And I’ll catch you next time!
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