What Our Enemies Teach

We can learn, Gandhi-like, from terrible people

by Deirdre Reilly | Updated 25 Nov 2015 at 9:01 AM

Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi, a mild man who stood 5-feet-5-inches tall and weighed just 102 pounds, is remembered worldwide as one of the most influential civil rights leaders of all time. He was repeatedly imprisoned during his quest for India’s independence, but throughout he stood strong, practicing nonviolence and speaking truth to power.

He was equally well-known for his spiritual strength, his unconditional forgiveness, and his serene nature no matter the adversity he faced.

Gandhi was against all form of hatred. He said of enemies, “It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.”

Is there any “Gandhi” in the average man and woman today? In today’s fast-paced, polarized and complicated world, are the lessons of Gandhi applicable? If we can’t love our enemies, can we at least learn from them?

Barbara Markway, in a post on Psychology Today’s website, says we should first look for the hidden need in difficult people. What is this person really trying to gain? What is this person trying to avoid?

What is this person really trying to gain? What is this person trying to avoid?

Each of us can decide what we take away from stressful, taxing relationships that hold us back or drag us down. Here are six stories of everyday people and the insights they gained from difficult people.

Jean P., age 76: Friendships should be reciprocal
When I was raising my children, a friend I had at that time was a “taker” – she would come and sit for hours at my home, read me poetry she had written, enjoy the tea I made, and receive emotional support from me in the raising of her own children. One day, after all my efforts, my kids cut through her yard on the way home from school. This friend yelled and screamed at the girls, scaring them terribly. I realized right then that every friendship should be reciprocal, maybe not 50-50 all the time, but at least have a continuous effort on both sides. I was not honoring myself by honoring a friendship that was just one-way. I discontinued the friendship, and learned to make sure that those I gave so much to were willing to give back to me.

Matt J., age 26: Try your hardest when it matters most
I was a good soccer player in high school — probably one of the best on our team. In 11th  grade, I went to try-outs and was sure I had made the varsity team. I was shocked to find out I hadn’t, and was relegated to junior varsity by a coach who insisted I had not tried hard enough. He knew it would be embarrassing to be the only junior on JV, but he made his decision, and that was that. I was mad at him, but soon decided to make the best of it. As captain of the JV team I worked hard and soon developed into the leader of our squad. I was eventually called up, and was even sad to leave those JVs! I never forgot what I learned from a coach who didn’t care if he embarrassed me. Never take anything for granted. I always try my best when a lot is on the line, even when I think something is a “lock.”

Ginger D., age 46: Find the positive in others
I’ve spent eight years as a residential kids’ camp nurse at an all-boys’ camp. I had to live, work, socialize and eat all meals with the other camp nurse. The first summer, I lived with her for nine weeks and found her to be unkind, non-supportive, jealous, and inflexible. It was so bad I swore I would never go back. Yet, I returned for three more summers, determined not to be chased away by the opportunity to be a camp nurse. I adjusted by working at positive affirmations for myself. I found the strength inside, thanks to this fellow nurse. I choose to remember her love of nature, her infectious laugh, and how she would light up when she talked about her nieces and nephews. I am still practicing positive affirmations.

Kelly J., age 32: Have compassion for difficult people 
In my 20s, I worked with a woman my age that made life miserable for me. I can honestly say I hated her. She stole my paycheck out of my purse to grab a look at it, was constantly trying to trick me into divulging what company benefits I was receiving, and glared at me with disdain every time our eyes happened to meet. One day after work I turned the corner on the way to my car and saw her crying — her husband was bawling her out for some insignificant thing. Suddenly my heart almost broke with pity. Her life away from work was probably miserable. My compassion made things better for us in the office — we were actually pretty friendly by the time I left that job. I always remember that maybe hateful people have horrible home lives or other difficulties.

Janice J., age 51: Maybe your ‘enemies’ are just busy
I worked in a law firm once. The lawyers were difficult and kind of secretive, even meeting behind closed doors, stone-faced as they walked by, seeming to not even like me. They seemed to want to make me uncomfortable half the time. One day I was having an awful day, and when they emerged from behind their latest session I exploded, thinking they were ready to fire me anyway. Instead, after my rant, they burst out laughing — one even brought me flowers later. I ended up realizing that maybe people who I thought were enemies really weren’t. They were just busy and more serious-minded than I was.

John B., age 55: Look beyond the surface
I work with a woman who, upon our first meeting, I immediately disliked. I am a long-haul truck driver, and so was she. She was rude, loud, and generally obnoxious. One day I pulled the truck in and there she was. I waited for some kind of sarcastic comment, but instead she offered me her car for as long as I needed it, since I didn’t have mine available. She is still the same — kind of loud and opinionated, but I learned I needed to look beyond even what all evidence showed me, and leave myself open to the good parts of a person — there’s always both, good and bad, in everyone.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said of Gandhi, “If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought, acted and inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony.”

Learning from our enemies, even accepting them, is not easy, but we can try. The quest for peace — in the home, the office, the playground, or the world — never goes out of style.

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