Your Enemy, Your Teacher

There is a fine line between vigilance and paranoia. A poem by the German-speaking poet Rainer Maria Rilke depicts that best. The narrator is describing Orpheus’ journey into Hades to retrieve Eurydice:

In front the slender man in the blue mantle,/ who mutely and impatiently looked straight ahead./ Without chewing his stride ate the road/ in huge bites; his hands hung/ heavy and clenched out of the falling folds/ and knew no longer the light lyre,/ which had ingrained itself into his left/ like rose tendrils into an olive branch. And his senses were as if split in two:/ for while his sight raced ahead like a dog,/ turned around, came and again far away/ and waiting stood at the next turn,-/ his hearing stayed behind like a smell.

I have developed an uncanny sense that tells me when something is amiss, an attack is coming, a lie, a deception. But at what cost? Even most of us Westerners have come to believe that prolonged stress–fight or flight response–affects our health, perhaps even causing serious illness. Orpheus looses Eurydice, of course. He glances back. With my sight racing ahead like a dog to the next mean turn that will be done to us, I strain to hear backwards as well, for the ambush from behind.

I know how to deal with enemies straight-on, but this approach has been denied me, for my enemy is a coward. So protecting has meant waiting and responding. Tiring. We are taught to build bridges, to forgive, in eastern traditions to remember we are all one. But we are also told we should sever our relationships with toxic people, especially after we have tried to help them and reason with them. If only that were possible in the strict sense, but if you share children with a toxic person–as many divorced people know–the relationship has to continue on some level.

There is also a line of thought which says that just such a person can be our greatest teacher. I have struggled to reconfigure what fighting and protecting mean. As a driven, type-A, proactive personality, I have had to consider alternatives, like separating the human being who is obviously a very unhappy individual for whom I feel empathy at times from the individual who is causing great harm to those around her. I have tried to learn to wait patiently for the legal progress, but have done this poorly. I have worked to pick my battles and encourage others to fight for themselves when necessary. I have learned I’m not cut out for this. I’m a tomboy at heart. Duke it out and move on. And here I am again, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So I have learned that by nature my mind chews up a lot of ground, analyzes, worries, often a great expenditure of energy with little positive return. I am reaching for tools that calm my frantic dog-like senses and thought-processes to help me focus on what matters and on doing the things well that are in front of me in the moment. That said, I have a hard time with the concept of my enemy as my teacher. I don’t think of others as enemies in the first place. When this does occur, I want to clear the obstacles out and move on. I am astounded that someone can declare you their enemy and fuel an imaginary adversarial relationship over a long period of time, years. Advice to learn  from this situation still feels like powerlessness cloaked as wisdom. The so-called high road is oh so unsatisfactory.


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  1. PhiloPsycho says:

    I’m giving you major props for not framing that whole “enemies are teachers” thing the way most people do: As if those people are placed in our lives for a reason. One, I don’t think it’s particularly ethical to view others as existing for us (for our use). They could as easily (or logically, rather) say that we are placed in their lives for their use. Two, when does the other no longer have something to teach us (and vice versa).
    Certainly, we can take from the experience some lessons, like how we don’t want to be like them because we have known suffering. Empathy’s great and all, but do we need to be hurt to know that it’s wrong to hurt others? And three, who is placing them (or us)?

    I get that we all want to make sense of the world, which isn’t easy when bad or unfair things happen. What I don’t get is why everything has to be framed as a lesson for our own good, even when it isn’t good at all.

    • Wanda says:

      I couldn’t agree more. The idea of enemy as teacher does seem to come from wanting it all to mean something, doesn’t it? Of course, we can learn from any situation. But that’s not the same thing as elevating the person who is hurting you to a purposeful status. ~Wanda

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