I grew up with three older sisters. At times when I felt picked on, I would shout out my hurt feelings, “I hate you!” My mother was often right there contradicting me. “You don’t hate her. Come now, settle down…” Consequently, I have long convinced myself that I do not hate anyone, and I’m never angry. I am completely reasonable and can explain exactly why I am disappointed or frustrated. I will cry, but I am never angry. Except that…when I grew up, I yelled at my kids. I punished them. I rejected their behavior. I sometimes got physical, restraining them and even spanking them. But I do not get angry. And I do not hate anyone.
“That’s not fair!”…“How dare they!” I yelled at the television set, which was uncharacteristically out of its closet and in operation in the living room. “Hush now. We’re trying to listen,” whispered my mother. The story of Kunta Kinte set my 14-year old indignation afire. Injustice is wrong – even I knew that! How could grown-ups in leadership be so obviously abusive? How could I undo the damage that was done before I was even born? How in the world could the balance of power be corrected? “I hate authorities!”
My 31-year old husband was having chest pains. The doctor figured it was probably heart burn, but he finally did some blood tests and cardiac diagnostics. It turns out the father of my four young children had diabetes and arterial blockages and needed bypass surgery. I couldn’t understand why this evil, incurable disease had afflicted my family. “I hate diabetes!” I raged. But a metabolic disorder doesn’t choose a target out of malice. What I couldn’t admit was that I was mortally terrified.
These three snapshots into my awareness of hatefulness show me that I can’t overcome the underlying feelings of anger, injustice, or fear by rejecting or opposing them. Neither can I grow in compassion by being intolerant. I can only transcend hatefulness and grow in compassion by practicing understanding. That includes understanding myself – not passing judgment on my emotions, not avoiding uncomfortable feelings, but engaging with them head on. How can I practice this? I slow down and ask myself: What is it I feel? What triggered those feelings? Where am I hurting? What is it that I want that I’m not getting? I want to be kind to the little girl inside me giving voice to her felt needs. I sit with this idea for a while. I thank those feelings for bringing me awareness. I will use that in my decision-making. Then I look at my desires more critically. Is being attached to that thing, that outcome, causing me pain? What if I let go of it?
The more I work with my own feelings and come to understand myself, the more I can begin to understand others. When I see someone who is angry and hateful, I understand that he is suffering. Can I be present with him in this place of frustration? Can I be kind to that little child in his temper? Can I engage him in a discussion about the real causes of his anger, his feelings of powerlessness, his fear? Can my presence and interaction help him realize that attachment to uncontrollable outcomes may be causing some of his suffering? And finally, can I invite him to let it go?
The Thich Nhat Hahn Foundation blog motto is “planting seeds of compassion”. For the Lunar New Year of the Rooster, 2017, they suggested a practice phrase in the form of two parallel verses: “Awakening the Source of Understanding” and “Opening the Path of Love”. The Plum Village practice is to contemplate the first verse as you breathe in and the second as you exhale, “not (as) a declaration, but a living aspiration we wish to nurture”. Overcoming hate with a practice of understanding and love is a beautiful way to transform the world, I believe. I invite everyone to try it with me.