I’ve always been confused by what Jesus commanded about loving my enemies.
You see, I’m pretty good about loving those who love me. That feels right. It feels fair. And it’s easy. Surely Jesus wasn’t serious about loving the people who didn’t love us. He didn’t know these jerks I have to put up with. He didn’t know the drivers I want to yell at in traffic. He didn’t know the idiots I have to put up with at work. And he certainly didn’t know these jerks on Facebook who disagree with me.
If Jesus knew the people I hate, he would hate them, too. Right?
For most of us, love is a transaction, just like a transaction at a store. When I buy something, I get a product or service and I hand over something of value. It’s an exchange. That’s the way we tend to see love.
“If you love me — and if you‘re good to me — I’ll love you and be good to you. But if you stop loving me, I’m going to hate you.”
We might or might not admit that, but it’s how we mostly act. For those of us who are Christians, we might try not to hate others. We might try to force ourselves to love those we don’t want to love. We keep promising ourselves we’ll do better.
But we can’t do better — because the ego that is making the guilty promise is the entire problem.
I’ve slowly come to realize that any time I feel hatred for anyone — and most of the time when I feel angry — it’s because my ego feels threatened.
When I can set aside the needs and desires of my ego, I can feel love and empathy for others, even those who hurt me. My selfish ego is often too concerned with my own needs and with what I can get from others to love effectively.
That might sound like high-minded gibberish, but it’s grounded in some realizations I’ve had recently from reading about experimental brain research. That might sound boring, but please stick with me. This matters.
I recently learned about something in our brains called the “default mode network,” which is a network of brain systems which seem to make up most of the fearful ego that we tend to see as “me.”
When something can quiet the default mode network — the part of us who stubbornly clings to our notion of “me” the most — people often have deep spiritual experiences and become profoundly changed by realizations which feel like new knowledge, even though they consciously know that what they’re hearing is what they already knew.
The more I’ve thought about this, the more I realize that it’s when I’m in the clutches of my own default mode network that I’m most likely to be angry, fearful and even feel hate toward others.
That default mode network can become quiet by the use of meditation, breathing exercises or certain drug therapies. I am becoming more and more convinced that the parts of us which hold us back — and the part of myself which I feel is most unloving — is that part of us which is all about maintaining our egos.
When that part of the brain is temporarily shut down or made quiet, people lose their sense of fear, they feel their sense of ego dissolve, they feel united with everything and everyone around them — and they become more aware than they’ve ever felt in their lives that love for all is the answer to everything.
It’s when we can let go of that part of ourselves that we can feel connected to others and genuinely learn how to love. But the ego is terrified of letting go.
Those who have experienced these sorts of therapies report that they are afraid until the ego starts slipping away. Then they don’t feel fear. They feel love and connection.
I am attached to my sense of ego, because it’s my defense against being hurt. It’s a layer of personality and social behavior that I constructed to stop people from emotionally hurting me. It’s a child-like layer which is scared and irrational. And it’s that ego which keeps us locked into destructive patterns which hurt us and which hurt others.
Why do we continue to deceive ourselves and others? It’s because the ego won’t allow us to see the truth. We’re more comfortable lying to ourselves. Complete self-honesty is rare because so much of the truth is threatening to the illusions which allow us to make it through each day. Reality is terrifying to the human ego.
Why do we fail to do things with our lives which we know we ought to do? Something in our ego is afraid. We might be afraid of failure. We might be afraid of what others would think. So we lock ourselves into paralysis — and refuse to make the changes we need.
Why do we fail to make tough choices to end toxic relationships and to enter into the loving relationships which we need? We’re afraid of being wrong. We’re afraid of what others would think. We’re afraid of losing status.
We’re afraid of losing things which matter only to our egos.
Human beings are at their most insane when we allow ego, fear, social convention or anything else to keep us apart from the ones we honestly love and who make us feel loved and understood.
When I was reading about the research involving people who achieved these altered states of consciousness, one of the striking things reported by people over and over was that they suddenly were willing to make changes which they already knew they needed to make.
After one woman had this profound experience, for instance, she knew immediately that she needed to leave the partner she didn’t love. She told him this on the way home from the experience. She followed through with her intention and was peaceful and happy months later knowing that she had done what her ego had been afraid to do before.
As long as ego is in the way, we will continue to make up excuses to justify the same mistakes we’ve always made. I can see this in myself, although I don’t want to admit this to you.
Ego can get in the way of backtracking when we’ve made mistakes. Who wants to admit to others that we made a bad decision? Better to keep plugging away at miserable failure than to admit what’s obvious to everyone who’s paying attention.
The more we learn to set ego aside, the more we reduce fear and take away even the desire to hate others. We’re no longer afraid of what others think. We’re no longer afraid of others hurting us, because we’re focused on what’s right and good and best for everyone — not on the negative consequences that keep us afraid and paralyzed.
I can’t claim I’ve already learned to set my ego aside. I’m just a baby in this practice. The most I’ve learned so far is to recognize when my ego is doing these things to me. I can now see it while it’s happening. I can recognize the fear. Something deeper in my soul can now calmly point to my egotistical justifications for myself and say, “You really don’t have to live this way — and you’re not going to be happy as long as you do.”
I’ve ignored what Jesus commanded about loving enemies simply because it didn’t seem reasonable. It didn’t seem possible. It seemed like one of those things to talk about at Sunday school — and then to ignore.
I’m seeing now that we can live in a completely different way — if we choose to do so — but it requires that we learn ways to let go of our fragile and terrified egos.
We cannot live the way we always have and expect to have anything different from what we see in the culture around us today. We can learn to love — but we have to be committed to radical new ways of thinking and living and seeing.
When we are mature enough to quiet the ego, we can learn to truly love as Jesus taught. Until then, love is nothing but buying and selling — and we can lose that kind of love at any moment. It’s a terrible way to live.
Real, unconditional love is the only path to peace and oneness with God.