Holding the Enemy
My favorite moment in my undergraduate ethics class came one day during this exchange:
- “How many of you feel that killing other people is evil?” (all hands went up)
- “How many of you feel that Hitler was an evil person?” (all hands went up)
- “If you had been born earlier: if you knew what Hitler was about to do, and you had the chance to eliminate him before all that happened, would you have taken advantage of the opportunity to kill Hitler?” (some confusion and mixed reaction)
- “Therefore, back to my first question: how many still feel killing other people is evil?” (mostly confusion)
While the “what would you do if it were Hitler” test of morality is the opposite version of the now trite and hackneyed “WWJD,” both are questions that take us right to the extremes. Would you kill Hitler if you had had the chance? Would you feed Hitler if he were starving to death? Would you operate on Hitler and save his life if he were on your table and you had taken the Hippocratic Oath?
If I am someone who will hold anyone who comes, would I hold Hitler? Fortunately, I won’t ever have to decide that one.
However, in morality, and theology, and ethics, the hard part is never the extremes. The extremes are relatively easy. The hard part is all of the many gray areas in between.
So, look. I’ve gotten past “I’ll only hold people whose face pictures I like.” I’ll hold anyone, and I actually prefer not to see a face picture. Face doesn’t matter. I’ll hold any sort of “look.”
How about holding someone others might perceive as a bigot?
Should I refuse racists? Sexists? Homophobes? (I’m pretty sure I’ve held the first two categories already, whether I knew it or not. And a significant part of my practice involves holding homophobic people; in many cases, they know they’re homophobic, and so do I.)
Who deserves to be held, and what does someone have to do to lose that right? Is it like losing the right to vote? What does one have to do, exactly, to lose the right to be held unconditionally?
What does one have to do to lose the right to eat or to breathe? Are those needs any less essential for us than the need to be touched and held? (Of the five senses–sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch–an infant can survive into childhood deprived of any of those senses except for one. Babies who are not touched will die.)
So: go catalogue the reasons you won’t hold or lovingly touch people of a certain type, a certain class, membership or category. Make your lists, and define your elimination criteria, and check those out (with curiosity, not with judgment.)
And, just in case you reflexively sexualize all touch–as American men are socialized to do–let’s make this easier. Would you hold a newborn baby who needed to be held? Any baby? (Or would you screen them based on looks? Or temperament? What’s the exclusion criteria look like at that point?)
Ok, now slowly age the baby–would you hold a 1 year old? a 2 year old? a 3 year old?
Where, exactly, does the kid lose the right to be held? (If you reflexively sexualize touch, then your answer will be “right around puberty.”) If you consciously desexualize touch (“my nephew, my son, my brother”) can you make it past puberty?
Begin the exercise by holding a baby, and, next, hold a dying 80-year-old in your arms so he doesn’t have to die alone. Then just fill in the gaps, between the newborn and the dying guy. There’s the spectrum. That’s the swath of humanity that needs to be held the way would hold a baby or a dying man, but we apply all kinds of conditions and criteria for the chunk in between. (Remember? The extremes are easy; the hard part is the gray area in between.)
Now, the interesting part: what do I feel when I hold someone who has different theology from me, or different politics, or who is more judgmental (or differently judgmental) than I am about certain things? What do I feel when I hold someone who hates certain kinds of people? What do I feel when I hold someone who rejects entire categories of people, political parties, religions, etc., and suppose, unbeknownst to that person, I happen to fit one of those categories? What about holding a real, honest-to-goodness bigot? What would that feel like?
If I were at a dinner party or a business meeting or a social event with such a person, I would feel an urge to correct, inform, educate, or revise the person’s beliefs. I would feel active dissent, dissonance, a feeling of being at odds with such a person, perhaps even aversion, the opposite of attraction. Maybe I’d just want to get away from them.
Here’s the surprise: when I hold people, if I’m deep into my practice, I feel none of those. What I feel is unconditional love. Brotherhood. Connection, on the deepest possible level. Attraction. I feel like they’re lovely, and I love them.
How is this possible? Is it some fancy form of mind control, or simply blocking out what I don’t want to see? I don’t think it is either; I’ve sat with this for some time, and I think there’s another explanation.
My best explanation of why I feel attracted to, and accepting of, people when I hold them (but not when I’m having an intellectual conversation with them) is that when I hold them, I am holding the child–the energetic, sacred core–not the adult with his belief systems and biases. I’m holding who they were–their essence–before the overlays (this political party, that worldview, this sexual orientation, that religious belief, this early training, that set of experiences.) No one is born liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican; that’s one of the reasons it’s easy to hold babies. There’s nothing to reject, and there’s nothing to be rejected by.
I do know that I have held guys with whom we would have been highly unlikely to make a close, trust-based connection through intellectual or verbal connection. We would not likely have found a common ground in politics, religion, orientation, life experience, social class, but we did make an intimate bond–one that lasted years after the physical connection–by connecting our breathing and our bodies.
In a successfully engaged and grounded Touch Practice, thinking stops, or comes close to stopping. The mind quiets. It is no different than any other meditative practice. Once the mind quiets and we stop constructing stories, there is no story to tell about the other person based on religion, politics, or belief. What’s left is the beautiful baby that came into the world to be held, before the overlays started.
I know that for many brothers with whom I have dissonance–sometimes significant dissonance–around politics, religion, belief, practice, orientation or social customs, we can create a bond with each other that finds us saying “I love you,” and meaning it, on a regular basis. I know it would be impossible for me to willfully hurt one of these guys, ever, and I trust that they would never want to hurt me. I believe it, and I have not yet been let down. I continue to believe if men held each other, it would not be possible to go to war together. Even after just one hour, it seems highly unlikely that two men who practiced together would want to harm one another.
Why should we hold those who might not like us or whose beliefs exclude us? Shouldn’t we protect ourselves from those who ideologically reject us? Don’t we have a right to defend ourselves?
WWJD? “But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)
I am neither so naive nor so insensitive as to suggest that if Hitler got held enough, all of that hell and horror might have been avoided. The thought itself is almost offensive in its simplicity.
Neither do I know for a fact that it isn’t true. For me, I will continue to carry my practice, and go where it sends me.
Brothers, love one another. Hold each other. You may save a life. Your own, or someone else’s.
Have thoughts you’d like to share?
Touch Practice is a sacred practice for me, and part of that is keeping confidences sacred. While a name and e-mail address are required to post a comment, feel free to use just your first name, or a pseudonym if you wish. Your e-mail address will never be seen by or shared with anyone. It is used to prevent spam and inappropriate comments from appearing in the blog. I’d really like to hear from you!