Stepping into an “enemy’s” shoes

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

We all experience problems of coming into conflict with others, even if sometimes the conflicts take place purely inside our heads in the form of resentment and irritation.

Finding ways to lessen those conflicts has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of our lives, especially since these conflicts are with people who are close to us.

(I’ve used the traditional term “enemy” above to cover all people we come into conflict with, even though in ordinary parlance we wouldn’t normally use that word for someone we have a generally positive relationship with, even if we do sometimes get into disputes with them.)

One way of letting go of our resentments and of practicing forgiveness is to recognize that the other person’s thoughts, speech, and actions are the result of causes and conditions. This might sound rather abstract, but please bear with me.

We’re all born with genetic and epigenetic predispositions toward certain kinds of behavioral traits. Most of us know that our genes predispose us to be more confident, aggressive or fearful; gregarious, clingy or aloof, and so on. Fewer people are aware that experiences our parents and grandparents have had (and even the food they’ve eaten) can affect the way our genes express themselves right now.

And then we are all subject to conditioning early in childhood. The presence or absence of nurturing, and the kinds of behavioral modeling we’re exposed to, profoundly shape the very structure of our brains, and thus the way we feel, think, and act.

And we’re all subject to cultural conditioning that shapes the way we see the world.

These forms of conditioning affect the kinds of choices we make, and thus what happens to us in life. Some of what happens to us in life may change us in positive ways, but sometimes the effects are to reinforce our early conditioning. So someone who’s afraid of intimacy because of childhood betrayals may inadvertently choose to be with people who don’t care about their feelings or wellbeing. An aggressive person will tend to seek out conflict.

It’s being aware of all this that I mean when I talk about stepping into the shoes of an “enemy.”

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Take anyone you get into conflict with for any reason. It might be a colleague at work who routinely dismisses your suggestions, or a spouse who is often so absorbed in something else that they forget to greet you when you come home, or a child who picks fights with their siblings and drives you crazy.

Now consider that this person has been conditioned since before birth to behave in certain ways, that their brains have been profoundly shaped by early childhood experiences as well as events later in life. That their beliefs and values have similarly been shaped by genetics and life experiences. That it may be very difficult, even impossible, for them to do things you might want them to do, like be more trusting, be less aggressive, cooperate more, be more logical or more emotionally expressive, and so on.

The contemporary teacher Eckhart Tolle wrote, “If her past were your past, her pain your pain, her level of consciousness your level of consciousness, you would think and act exactly as she does.”

So imagine you had been born with the brain and genes of the person you’re having difficult with. Imagine you’d had the same (inevitably faulty) parenting, early childhood experiences, cultural conditioning, education, and life experiences. In all likelihood you’d act exactly as they do.

Tolle points out that this realization that a person is a bundle of conditions, and that if you were subject to the same conditions you’d think and act as they do, leads to forgiveness, compassion, and peace. And he’s right. It’s also true that recognizing our own conditioning leads to self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and peace.

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