A Flourish of Hate Redux

What would have to happen before you could love your enemy?

I was asked this question several months ago. Is it possible to get beyond my own resentment against a person to find their humanity, and thereby demonstrate my empathy, sympathy, or even kindness? Could I love my enemy?

Many religions preach the virtue of forgiveness, of practicing peace, of turning the other cheek. I get it – it’s a good thing to do, it’s the right thing to do, it’s what a loving God does, yeah yeah yeah, I get it. But I’m not God and I’m entirely mortal and sometimes I just want to revel in my flawed humanity and be pissed off and judgmental. And, as I have previously written in this blog, sometimes I just want to hate.

But the question remained: can I ever show love for someone I have chosen to hate? Can I rise above the animosity and resentment and reach a level of grace or kindness for someone I absolutely despise?

I had thought no, I can’t demonstrate kindness to my enemy. I thought the best I could do would be to just leave him alone; to not wish him any particular harm; to just see him and his actions another way. I thought that was the best I could do, and I was pretty sure I was right – I could never do more than that. Not creating any “wreckage of the present” by saying or doing things I will regret was the highest level of my ability to show any courtesy, acknowledgment, or respect to my enemy.

I call him my enemy, but that’s a bit of melodrama. He’s just a man. An average, everyday, flawed creature just like me. I’ve called him other names — boy, have I called him names. I’ve called him just about every name in the book. But he’s just a man. Any greater significance assigned to him by me is just a measure of my own obsessive thoughts. My “enemy” is just a man. I used to call him my friend.

The details are unimportant, and the data is simple: a friendship that spanned 20 years was undone by one man’s choice. One man made a choice, and another man was hurt by it. Unremarkable, really – happens a million times a day on this planet. The only thing “remarkable” here is that it involved me – and since I’m the one writing this blog, I can blow it way the hell out of proportion and add all manner of dark and sinister shadows to the story to spin it in my favor, to cast the other man as the villain and provide multiple forms of character assassination, but when you take away the smoke and mirrors, you basically have two men, one choice, and a 20-year friendship that was collateral damage.

It’s probably obvious that I was the one who experienced pain as a result of the choice made – I don’t think anyone reading this blog is surprised by that.  In my earlier post, “A Flourish of Hate”, I wrote about the burning wrath that nearly did me in. That deadly sin poisoned my mind and turned my world to black. A “sin”, says my friend Rich, is simply something that takes us away from God, and I saw firsthand that there was no room in my heart for God when I was dwelling in wrath. “A heart cannot be grateful and hateful at the same time”, I heard it said, and I came to know this as the truth.

The flame of that hate was directed at this man who was no longer my friend, but I was the one who was torched by it, who was burned from it, who tasted bitter ashes as a result of it. I finally reached a point where I realized this was  happening, and I decided that I was not going to let that one choice burn me anymore. I was given the power to see it another way, and I finally let go and moved on. But the man –while finally seen as being nothing more than the ordinary man that he is– was still banished to the dark corner of my heart, and he was locked there like a political prisoner in a gulag.

Days passed. Weeks passed. Months passed. Life got up, and life went on, and eventually I reached a place where I no longer thought of the man with venom and fury. I was actually starting to recognize that, while I would not have made the choice he made, I benefitted from his choice. I could see how the man had actually done me a favor. Sunlight entered the dark corner of the heart, and while he was never officially released from the gulag, the door was unlocked and he was free to go.

Today I learned that this man, who was once my friend but is now just a man, has leukemia.

The news shocked me, and much to my surprise, the news saddened me. I had thought that I was beyond all sense of caring for this man, that I was past anything resembling concern for his well-being. I had stopped denying his humanness, but I hadn’t started affirming it. He was just in a sort of limbo, beyond reach, out of sight, out of mind, out of heart.

But the sadness I felt upon hearing the news – my first thought was literally, “Oh no, not that”. And despite the nasty voice (the one belonging to Attila, the demonic little pissant that is my lower self) saying things like “Karma is a bitch, isn’t it?”, the true and prevailing voice – the voice of my Higher Self – was one of sadness, of sympathy. I was friends with this man for 20 years – that either means that there is something good in him, or I’m just a really poor judge of character. I’m a good judge of character, and for 20  years I judged this man as good and decent and worthy of friendship.

Is this what it takes? Does it take a potential death sentence to get through to me that life is far too short to hate? Does it require envisioning the grief of his children mourning their Dad to get me to wake up to the fact that every man is deserving of a second chance? Do I need to be faced with sadness and loss before I am willing to forgive as I am forgiven? What more will it take for me to fully and truly forgive this man?

I don’t want to see this man dead, as I once did. I don’t want him to die a painful, agonizing death, as I once did. I don’t want him to vanish from the earth, as I once did. I have been granted the ability to reduce my hatred. But can it be eliminated entirely? Can I empty my heart of the hatred I have held for this man?

A heart cannot be grateful and hateful at the same time…

Can I love this man as my friend, as I had for two decades? Can I forgive him for being human and making a choice that I would not have made? Can I stop blaming him and wrongly identifying him as the source of the great pain that I felt? Can I recognize that God’s will is being done in both of our lives?

I don’t  know. I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. But the truth is, today I don’t want him to die, and that is progress. I have been shown this far – I can ask to be shown the rest of the way. More will be revealed.

I do know this: it is time for me to lay down the heavy baggage that is hate, and just watch the blinking lights.

Just Another Day (after)

I admit that I had pre-conceived opinions of the idea of a “Tribute Band”. I judged them as musicians who could not make a name for themselves on their own merit and thus rode the coattails of a well-known artist in order to gain some small amount of celebrity without having to find a “real job”. Herbert Spencer correctly labeled contempt prior to investigation as a principle that would keep a man in “everlasting ignorance”. I now see my old ideas on the subject were completely flawed.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a concert featuring an Oingo Boingo tribute band called Dead Man’s Party. I went with two guys I’ve known since high school, Lee and Larry, whom I had only seen once in the last 20 years. When I got to the theater and saw them, I was amazed at how quickly we fell into the old familiar rhythms of humor, wisecracks, and good-natured jabs at each others’ expense. I asked myself several times why I had not seen these men in so long, for I felt so glad to be with them, it was good for the soul.

We made many jokes about the opening act, featuring a lead singer who could not have been more than 12 years old and the courage to belt out a few AC/DC tunes. When his voice changes, he might have a future – an original song they performed that this young kid wrote showed promise.

The next act was a Misfits tribute band, and I was horrified to hear myself saying “all these songs sound the same” – but they did. We laughed heartily at the bass player’s intro count – “ONETWOTHREEFOUR!” – to every song, and were forced to watch the lead guitarist -sporting a black leather vest- shred on the guitar in a manner that caused his gut to vibrate like a coin-operated bed in a cheap motel. When they announced, “This is our last song”, we shared a collective cheer.

When the headlining act came out, Lee – who has seen Dead Man’s Party on multiple occasions and who organized the evening’s get together – shot out to the pit to express his inner rock fan. I was immediately impressed by the bands tight sound, and how incredibly alike they sounded to the actual band. The lead singer had all of Danny Elfman’s good-natured-yet-creepily-psychotic expressions and mannerisms – and also a hell of a voice. He absolutely sold me from the first song.

Sitting at our table on the outer ring of the theater, the band launched into “Private Life” and I couldn’t take it anymore — I had to get up and dance. So I told Larry I was going out there and I hit the pit. Seconds later, Larry was right behind me.

Getting to the center of the pit, I found Lee and tapped him on the shoulder as I joined in the singing and the fist pumping. Lee turned and saw me and the look of joy on his face was worth the traffic I sat in to get to the show – he embraced me in a big, joyful hug and we joined in the singing, with Larry taking up position on the other side. The three of us bounced, jumped, shook, slammed, singed, screamed and laughed through song after song.

This will sound trite and cliche, but I was transported back to the days (or nights) of my youth, attending Boingo shows at Irvine Meadows and doing all the bouncing, jumping, singing to the same songs. The effect was surreal — it wasn’t Boingo, but it was a Boingo show. The band nailed every nuance of every song, and played selections from the catalog that went further back than even I remembered. The band were clearly having a great time themselves, and the atmosphere of fun spilled over the edge of the stage and enveloped the audience of thirty- and forty-somethings who were all there for the same reasons we were: to hear music that we grew up with, that harkened back to a time when life was a party and the biggest concern we had was whether we would get seats on the terrace or end up on the lawn.

The band played over 2 1/2 hours and played nearly every song I could think of. The party atmosphere increased as the night went on and the strangers in the audience became friends as they stepped on each others feet and apologized, only to be met with an “It’s okay dude!” and a pat on the back. I was jumping like a coked-up gazelle during my favorite songs and more than once bumped into someone I didn’t know. Never was it met with anything other than a good-natured smile and a wave of dismissal to say “don’t worry about it.”

I don’t know where the energy came from. I am twice as old as I was when I would attend the Boingo Halloween shows, and recently the concerts I’ve attended have had the mellow, relaxed vibe of John Mayer or David Gray or Natalie Merchant – even the U2 show I went to at the Rose Bowl last year –where I stood the entire show and danced occasionally — couldn’t match the frenzy of wild abandon I reached as the band launched into “Grey Matter”. I was sweating buckets and knew that I’d be paying a price for all the leaping and bouncing and slamming I was doing, but I didn’t care: at that moment, I wasn’t a fortyish single dad getting a rare night out with adults; I was a free and vital young man who was living life like it was 1989, and I lost track of any care or concern I had.

After the show ended and we were in the Denny’s next door, I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt high, though I was stone cold sober. I was giddy, and couldn’t stop laughing. I felt like I had just been through a transformation of some kind, and in a way I had been: I’d been transported back to my youth, where I partied for a few hours, and then transported back to the present where the effects still lingered. The smile is still on my face as I write this nearly 24 hours later.

A tribute band wields magical powers. I imagine those powers are proportional to how much an audience member loves their music, or what kind of memories that person associates with the original band. For me, Dead Man’s Party hypnotized me into thinking I was 21 again and enjoying a kick-ass New Wave show, and they did it all while singing and playing instruments. That’s no easy task – I’d say that’s a “real job”.

By the way, I am so not 21 anymore. I am paying the price today with sore legs, no voice, and impromptu napping. Magic spells seldom last long.