From his new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound
By Robert C. Koehler
For all we owe to them, shouldn’t we maybe set aside an Enemy Appreciation Day? Hugs ’n’ kisses, darling, thanks for being you.
I say this less facetiously than you might think. Such a holiday has the potential to be more educational and transforming than any other on the calendar, if on this day we suspended, however briefly, even our most justified shudders of aversion and turned petulance and malice into celebration and wonder. I’m not suggesting that we love our enemies, either personal or ideological, merely that we alter our relationship to them for a few minutes out of the year.
We organize our lives around our foes to a degree we probably don’t fully appreciate. Some of us lavish them with an intensity of preoccupied glee seldom commanded by, well, our loved ones. I know MY enemies do this, because I’ve seen ’em — like that guy behind the counter at the suburban gun shop (I was there doing research) wearing a T-shirt with an American flag in the center, surrounded by the words: TRY BURNING THIS ONE (above) and A —— (below).
Yeow, tough guy. I tried not to stare and activate what may have been a very delicate mental hair-trigger. But in my not-staring (I’m still not staring, six years later) I saw more than I wanted to. If a flag-burning scum bucket had stepped out of this guy’s imagination and into the store, he would have been ready, oh would he have been. Five hairy knuckles in the nose, just for starters. You wear a T-shirt that provocative, you can’t just forget about it. Your day has to be spent scanning the horizon for bearded anar-creeps with Bic lighters. How sad if you never spot one.
Then there’s me, the pacifist, left shaking with rage the other day. Delayed commuter train, packed to the gills. I push in, grab hold where I can. This necessitates reaching around one of the passengers. It’s not my intention to jostle her, but apparently my winter jacket brushes against the side of her face. It can’t be helped, right? It’s no big deal and I’ve got to hold on or I’ll go careening into my fellow riders. But she says “Get your hand out of my face.”
Well, everybody’s pushed and shoved and brushed against — it’s a crowded train. “What do you suggest I do?” I ask in exasperation. I have nowhere else to hold on. She says, “I suggest you move your f —— arm.”
Wrong response, lady. A silent fury settles over me, a life-defining stubbornness: We shall not be moved! I lock my arm in place … and it feels good. She unleashes more profanity and my heart rejoices. Malice glows like a pure white light. Is my arm in your face? Good. The pleasure of vexing her intoxicates me. “You don’t move that arm you’re not gonna have one long.” Joy. Bliss. I say nothing but hold my ground until the next stop, when everyone shifts places. I move down the car.
There was no violence, just the silent, lingering pleasure of hating someone. Only 20 minutes later, as the train approached my regular stop, did I remember that I had driven part way to work that morning and should have exited a dozen stops back. Pop went the rage bubble, back came my senses.
A few days later my better angels were tested again, when a raft of angry e-mails arrived in response to my recent column on militarism, pop culture and homegrown violence. A few were spoiling for a fight: “You are a complete ditz.” … “I suggest that you find a closet to hide in or perhaps a home for the mentally disabled.” … “I am 60 years old and have never read an article that is a bigger crock of s —.”
But this time I was able to see past the insults. That they responded at all mattered far more than that they disagreed with me. They had opened a dialogue, reacting, indeed, to the covert pugnacity coiled in my own words. Now it was time to disarm.
I thanked them for writing, celebrated our common humanity, and felt like I was crossing a bridge.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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