As I mention from time to time, the titular concern of this particular blog is the process by which people and groups determine their identity through conflict. It is the lines in the sand and conflicts and rivalries that we have that shapes our identity to a large degree. While our judgments and stereotypes of our enemies and rivals may often be greatly exaggerated, even in those rare occasions where there is a kernel of deeply uncomfortable truth at the basis of the judgments, I am more interested in what our experiences with rivals and enemies does to define who we are as people and groups. After all, what our hatred and rivalry does to us matters a great deal more than what we think or feel about others.
There are a variety of enemies that we can have. There are some enemies who are rivals or competitors that might in many ways be very similar to ourselves. Indeed, the competition of people for jobs, loved ones, and other desirable aspects of life forces us to seek to differentiate ourselves from others, to show how we are better or better suited for a given opportunity than someone else. While I do not have any difficulty showing that I am a quirky and oddball and different person, I don’t find myself naturally attuned to marketing myself. There are some people who have that skill naturally, and others who do not find it difficult to acquire such abilities, but for someone like myself acquiring that ability is a matter of considerable difficulty. On a practical level, I can demonstrate my personality and character, and occasionally even talk about it, but putting it into terms that are suitable and effective. I suppose it may be possible at some point in the future to do so, but I would have to be a much different person than I am now.
When we look at the sort of people who we are rivals with, we learn a lot about ourselves. Sometimes we learn some things about ourselves that are not very flattering, especially if we find ourselves as rivals of people we ought not to be competing with. Likewise, at other times, we find ourselves to be in a flattering position because of those whom we are viewed as rivals to. Our rivals give us an idea of what sort of level of skill or competence or ambition at a given task we have, whether that is for the better or worse. To give one example that is not too embarrassing to myself personally (as most of my examples would be), there was once an episode of Seinfeld where the character Kramer was dominating a martial arts dojo, only for it to be discovered that he was doing so by competing against a bunch of kids. To be a big fish in a very small pond without any sort of challening competition is a hollow victory that demonstrates a great deal of insecurity and weakness, as someone who is strong ought to wish to seek out other strong people to compete against. It is only in areas of personal weakness where we do not seek to test ourselves greatly.
Besides rivals, though, we face one other type of enemy (hopefully not often) that can help to define us or help us to understand ourselves in ways that can be both good and bad. Often we understand ourselves more clearly when we have to deal with people who have different worldviews than we do. We may not realize the strength of vehemence of our worldview commitments until we are faced with a conflict with people who believe and act differently than we do. As most of us are drawn to spend time around those who are similar to us, we often do not recognize the wide differences that exist between ourselves and others, or conversely we may exaggerate those differences and not realize the basic humanity that all people share (regardless of how decently we act towards others). We may not think that we can learn a lot from enemies, but we really can so long as we are open to learning the sometimes painful lessons that result.
Our enemies have much to teach us. For one, they can teach us the grounds upon which we make enemies in the first place. Speaking for myself, I have learned over many years of a conflict-ridden life that I tend to make enemies among those who dislike my blunt and open honesty and among those who act towards me with disrespect and contempt. Otherwise, I’m a reasonably understanding person, though pretty strong about defending my own thoughts and opinions. Our enemies can also show us how honorably or dishonorably we act towards others. By showing a mirror to our character, our enemies force us to recognize our own fear, our own dark hearts, our own inhumanity, because it is towards our enemies, towards those who hate us, who abuse us, who threaten us, who persecute us, that our character is likely to be its weakest. If we can show love and respect towards those who hate us and who hurt us, then we will behave at least with equal love and respect towards those who are kind and friendly and loving towards us.
We therefore ought to be grateful for the opportunity to learn about ourselves, and to improve in those areas where we need improvement, through understanding our enemies and our actions towards those enemies. I wish I was a better person at making and keeping friends and avoiding enemies or estrangement, but at least life has taught me those areas where I am weak, even if the process of becoming stronger is a lengthy one. Our enemies show us who we are, and point to the true state of our hearts and minds, and because our enemies do not often care if they are helping us out in any fashion, it is easy to gain such benefit as we can from those who will not often show any reluctance for providing unexpected and ironic opportunities for learning and a practice of graciousness in difficult circumstances. And if we are fortunate enough to turn enemies into friends, then we receive the best of both worlds–an opportunity to become better people without permanent hostility and estrangement from those who are won over by our honorable and decent conduct.