The laptop bag weighed heavily on my shoulder, the consequence of once again refusing to leave anything in the car, so it was with some relief I spotted the two empty tables. Finding a spot at this particular Chapters/Starbucks was usually a hopeless endeavor, and even if you waited, there was no ‘official’ lineup. If you sensed movement you rushed towards it. And if the person was actually leaving, you made sure that your bag was down and your things were on the table as quickly as possible. Today however, there was no need to rush, and I put my head down as I walked over. Another woman had seen the open tables as well, and she bustled past me, nearly clubbing me with the huge, reusable shopping bag slung over her shoulder. I barely noticed though, as I was just happy to find a seat. I grabbed a chair from the table on the right, and though she’d laid her things down at the other table, she made a noise as if she objected to my sitting down. Well, whatever, I thought. I dropped my bag beside my chair, ever amazed at my own ridiculousness in packing so much. Did I really need two novels in there? What was the second one for, anyway? I’d already forgotten about the woman when she stood up and looked at me.
“It’s a good thing I sat at the table first.” The woman said.
At first I thought I’d misheard her. Was she talking to me? And what did she mean, exactly?
She was in her early thirties, tall, and very thick. She wore tight pants and an overlapping sweater into which her extra weight had been crammed and tucked so tightly that she looked as if someone had stuffed two cushions into a single pillow case. A very expensive pillow case. Her purse was probably worth more than my entire wardrobe. Her face had large features and included a full second chin that hung low but was kept in place by her jaw, which jutted out and up as she looked down at the people around her. It was hard to make out the rest of her features, framed as they were by an overwhelming trilogy of curls, makeup and perfume.
She strode over to the counter to order her drink, teetering on her knee high boots lacquered against her calves like black sheaves of armour. A few minutes later she came back and sighed heavily as she looked down at me.
“Can you please move your bag? It’s hard to get around here when you just put your bag anywhere.”
I moved the bag to the other chair at my table.
“All you have to do is ask.” I said. “We don’t need to hear your commentary about it.”
She harrumphed and sat beside me, wiggling around in her chair as if willing the wood to soften. I sighed and tried to keep my face neutral even as her perfume threatened to engulf me. I’d always hated people like her, people who stomped around looking down their noses at others and making sure everyone knew that the world revolved around them.
I turned the pages of my magazine, working hard to focus on what I was reading, but the woman soon started a conversation with an older man at the table next to her. Their conversation drifted from phones to him asking her occupation.
“I’m an accountant.” She said. “I run my own business.”
“Oh, that’s very nice.” The man said, his accent thick. It sounded like he was from somewhere in the Middle East, but I wasn’t be sure.
“I’m also a model. I’ve been modeling since I was eight.”
“Yes. My husband is always surprised how I can just switch things on and off. I walk into my business and I become this whole other person, like I’m totally in charge. And yet, I’m very carefree, which helps me when I’m modeling. He asks me how I do it, and I tell him I’ve been doing it since I was eight, so it’s like, no big deal.”
I felt something shift then, and I slowly packed up my bag as the woman continued to tell the kind old man about her modeling exploits. The anger seeped out of me as I listened to her, gradually replaced by a growing sadness. Moments earlier, I’d felt my anger peak. I’d been confronted by a wealthy, aggressive snob, who clearly thought the world should bend their knee to her. Now, I saw an awkward, lonely person struggling with her self-esteem.
I looked back only once as I left. She was squished in over the table on the smaller chair, bent over her phone as if waiting for it to ring.
For the rest of the day I went over in the incident in my head. She’d done nothing to alter my original impression, so why had I suddenly been confronted with a vision of a completely different person?
It was something I’d been thinking about for a while, and after a few days I realized what had happened. I felt like I’d been given a nudge to one of the great mysteries, and difficulties, of life. A way to help me deal with the ever vexing nature of greed and selfishness so prevalent in humanity, which I noticed was especially characteristic of the guy in the mirror. Some religions had a whole set of rules and regulations regarding what I’d learned, but for me it was much simpler than that. For me, it was doing the impossible.
Contrary to popular belief, the greatest battles in humanity are not fought over land or politics or religion. While we offer these reasons as to how and why people can do such horrible things to one another, the truth is somewhat more complicated, and simple, than we want to believe. Within the three pounds of tissue that hang loosely within our skulls, warfare of the kind we are only beginning to understand is waged on a daily basis. Billions of neurons sift through a constant sortie of signals through synaptic connections, communicating through long protosplasmic fibers called axons. These axons develop synaptic connections that grow and strengthen with repeat usage, and weaken upon disuse. The tendency is for the pathways to continue to strengthen, and as such, our responses become more typical as we age and develop routines. These routines include not only physical activities (think about how you always dry yourself in the same manner when you get out of the shower, for example) but our psychological tendencies as well, the way we think about the world and the narrative we draw from our experiences.
However, the battle within our brains is fierce, as every new signal competes for the attention of others. The decisions we end up making are never ‘unanimous’, no matter how simple a decision may seem to be. (e.g. I’m hungry. I’m going to eat an apple.) In that environment, every decision, every signal, is a fight for control. Every factor is considered, whether it’s our past, our experience, what we’ve learned or haven’t learned or even think we’ve learned.
The point is that people are not a single entity, not in the way we normally think of it. We are a hive of activity and conflict, of ideas and actions and thoughts that make little or no collective sense. Haven’t you ever wondered why a person can say something to you on certain days and it isn’t a big deal, when at another time it would be something you considered hurtful? Or why perfectly sane people contemplate horrendous acts for small or merely perceived slights? We can offer a variety of reasons about why and how people constrain themselves, but the point is that this perception that a person is a singular unit is not only incomplete, but inevitably becomes dangerous and divisive. If I associate one person with one event or one idea or one concept or one behaviour, then inevitably I am forced to choose whether I agree with them or not. If I don’t agree with them, then that makes them my opponent, or depending on what circles you travel in, your enemy.
And if I don’t understand that people are not one thing, but many things, then I will never understand who I am, and I will never be capable of achieving humanity’s most difficult assignment. I will never be capable of doing the impossible.
The young man had walked for three days and three nights, and he was tired and hungry. He was wealthy enough to hire a caravan, but someone had told him that it was impossible to walk for three days and three nights without sleep, and so he’d set out to prove him wrong. His whole life had been like that, a life devoted to doing the impossible. He’d been the best student in his school and the best athlete. When he’d moved into business for himself, he became the richest man in the city. Women thought he was the most desirable man in the city, and men fought for his friendship. Everyone wanted to work for him because he was regarded as the best employer, and his kindness was on the lips of the poor and rich alike. He travelled the world and met with kings and queens, and everyone told him that what he had accomplished was impossible. Despite his success, the young man tried to be humble. Not impossible, he would always say, just difficult.
Yet he was restless and did not know why. Everyone had told him that he had nothing left to accomplish, but even after an admittedly young life filled with success, he was ready for a new challenge. He’d heard about a woman, some called her a Prophetess, who lived in a small village on the edge of the desert. They told him that there was no question she could not answer, and that her wisdom seemed to come from God Himself. She would help him, he thought. Perhaps she would set a new challenge for him.
It was morning, and the sun was already hot. He stopped at a rickety looking stand and bought a meat pastry. He asked the vendor where he could find the wise woman.
“Oh, you mean Annabelle.” The man, who was as thin as a stick and darkened from the sun, chuckled. “I hope that you have a good question for her. She gets annoyed with people from the city who don’t have a good question.”
The young man thanked the vendor, and after getting directions how to find her, headed down the road. He wondered what question he should ask her. He certainly didn’t want to waste the time of such a famous woman.
The directions led him to a small farm house. A herd of cows mingled with horses in the nearby field, and the door had pieces of paint peeling from it. What wise woman lived in a place like this? He knocked anyway, and was again surprised when a man answered the door carrying a young boy on his shoulder.
“Um, good morning.” The young man said. “I’m looking for Annabelle, the wise woman.”
The man rolled his eyes good naturedly and twisted his son around his back.
“From the city, eh? Well, wait there. I’ll get her.”
The young man was sure it was some kind of a trick and that this couldn’t be the right place, but he couldn’t leave now without being rude. And he was never rude.
The woman appeared in the doorway and led him out into the yard. She was tall and middle aged, with kind eyes and thick black hair. She folded her arms and smiled patiently when he introduced himself.
“You city folks are funny, you know that. Okay, you can ask one question. If it doesn’t annoy me, I’ll answer one more. Understand that I don’t like the rules, but I’d never see my family or get any work done if I stood around answering questions all day.”
The young man nodded respectfully.
“My whole life I have done what people said is impossible.” He said. “I have accomplished everything there is to accomplish, achieved every goal I’ve ever set. What, in your opinion, is the one thing that is absolutely impossible to accomplish, the one thing that no person has ever done?”
The woman looked at him, but didn’t answer right away. The kindness in her expression was so prevalent that it nearly masked the stark intelligence behind it.
“Where are your parents?” She said softly.
The young man gritted his teeth.
“They have been dead a long time. Two men robbed us when we were young, and when my parents tried to stop them, they were killed.”
“And what happened to the two men?” The woman asked.
“When I was old enough I went after them and saw to it that they were locked away for the rest of their lives.” He said proudly.
It was the first thing he’d done that people had said was impossible. He was too young to pursue such evil men, too inexperienced. He’d proven them wrong, as he’d always proved people wrong.
“Are they still in prison?” She asked.
Her voice was low and soft, but there was something within it that seemed to give it more weight, though he didn’t know what it was. Still, the young man was troubled by her questions. What did those men have to do with accomplishing the impossible?
“Of course. They will rot there for the rest of their lives.”
“Then your task is to get a judge to release those men into your custody. You are to look after them for the rest of their lives, provide them with a home, and care for them.”
The young man exploded.
“Do you know who I am?” he said, shaking a fist at the woman. “I have led whole armies into battle, traveled the world three times over, sat down with kings and queens. I have built hospitals and churches and shelters for the poor. After all that I have accomplished, you dare to ask me to care for my parents’ murderers?”
The kindness in the woman’s eyes had not gone away, if anything, it shone even brighter, though it was now tinged with sadness. This caused the young man’s stomach to churn and his eyes to well up.
“Do this, and you will have truly accomplished the world’s greatest feat.” The woman said.
The young man paused.
“I-I can’t. What you ask is impossible!”
“No. It is not impossible.” She said. “Just difficult.”
The young man shook his head and walked away. Love his parents’ murderers? It seemed he had found the wrong woman after all. He went back to the city, and for the rest of his life continued to accomplish things that people said were impossible.
When people talk about doing great things or achieving the impossible, it’s rarely framed in terms of relationships. Most of the time we’re talking about things that will bring public acknowledgment. Things like writing a best seller or becoming famous or making a fortune. And while these accomplishments are great things, they are not the greatest thing.
No, the greatest test for humanity was laid out two thousand years ago, as a Jewish Rabbi sat around a small fire with his students, young men who had grown up in an occupied country and seen their people slaughtered and harassed for centuries. When they asked him how they could be great, he told them something they had never heard before. He told them they needed to love their enemies. Anyone could love a friend, he said. Swindlers and tax collectors did that. Later, he would go on to tell them that they were to do two things in their life. To love God with all their hearts, and to love their neighbor as they loved themselves. And, as he would clearly point out in his next teaching, your neighbor was not the one living next to you, your neighbor was your enemy. His teachings made his students uncomfortable, and when he spoke to larger crowds later that same year, they too, were discomfited by his words.
Two thousand years have passed since this small town Rabbi stood along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and shared his wisdom. Many have claimed to follow him since, finding in his words and life both hope and peace. It is his greatest and most difficult teaching however, that we have most often chosen to ignore. A teaching we acknowledge but nearly always decide should not be taken literally. Surely he was speaking metaphorically, wasn’t he? And so instead of lifetime spent wrestling with the world’s most impossible test, we have added on to the Rabbi’s simple words by writing our own books and setting our own goals. We pick and poke at one another. We publish whole volumes on what separates us from the crowd, including certain groups within the crowd who also follow the Rabbi. We scream and dance and cajole and convince until we are exhausted, certain that if we just make enough noise, that we’ll make a difference or feel better about ourselves or that God will hear us and be pleased.
And so the world moves on, centuries pass, and more than ever we continue to fight and kill and criticize and attack. We couch our control of others in religious language. We use churches devoted to this Rabbi as battering rams for our ideas. We learn how to sound holy and unique and listen for people telling us about the great things we’ve accomplished, and yet when we look in the mirror, when the world gets quiet, the unrest rises and we wonder if perhaps there must be a greater task, perhaps something wonderful and impossible, that God has set for us.
A foggy gloom has descended over the city, and as I stand on our balcony, I can’t help but think how often I fail miserably at loving others, let alone my enemies. How often I cut people off or cut them up, how often I get into arguments or discussions that produce nothing but more angst and more despair, and how often I justify my actions by telling myself that I am on the right side or that I am right. It seems as though my desire is for others to do what I refuse to even attempt to do myself. More than anything though, I want people to be good… good like me. Except I’m not good. Not always. Sometimes I’m a jerk. Sometimes I say and think horrible things. But that isn’t all of me, even when I act like an ass. It isn’t “me”. It’s only part of me. If it was all there was to who I am, it would make sense for some people in this world to hate me, but I also know that I’m capable of good things, too.
It is impossible to love an idea you hate.
It is impossible to love a behavior you find detestable.
People however, are not one idea or one behavior. What’s true of me is true of everyone else. The woman in Starbucks may have been acting like a snob, but she was also lonely. She may have been rude, but she was also friendly with the old man. Our brains naturally label and generalize to help us sort through the constant stream of information, but too often we get caught up in labeling people. Conservative. Liberal. Atheist. Christian. Snob. Elitist. I know I do. But there’s no way we can even attempt to love others, let alone our enemies, if we don’t see in others what we recognize in ourselves, if we don’t understand that we are all an illogical collection of paradoxes and contradictions, of darkness and light, of good and evil.
Unlike our other dreams however, there’s no payout when it comes to doing the impossible. No financial rewards. No fame. People will not recognize you on the street. But my prayer this week is that you’ll see the other benefits that come from attempting God’s greatest test, that you’ll know a life of love and caring beyond what you’d ever hoped for, and that one day you’ll realize that you did, in fact, change the world. And when people around you, including your religious leaders, excuse you from this task by offering a new volume of reasons for its dismissal and exactly why it’s impossible, you’ll know what to say.
“It’s not impossible, just difficult.”
Authour's Note: Loving your enemy, both as a concept and practically, never means staying in abusive situations, be it verbal or physical. Toxic environments are to be avoided because our ability to love others is always weighed against our ability to love and care for ourselves. The problem of domestic abuse in the church (as in societyt) is a long one, but in the church it is particularly disgraceful when some preacher's use that which we consider to be sacred (the Bible) as a tool for power and control. (I'm talking to you, John Piper and Mark Driscoll) the Bible was never intended as a weapon to keep people in line. It is the story of a God and His people. To willfully submit to abuse is not to love someone. It is, in fact, quite the opposite as it enables anger and hatred. We need to stop enabling abusers and confront them with the truth of their hurtfulness. That is love.
That the church so often covers up domestic abuse is one of its most disgusting and not-so-secret secrets. If you are in an abusive relationship, please take the necessary steps to get out, and do not let a pastor or preacher (like Piper) convince you that you do not have a right to a safe life. No matter how much they twist Scripture, understand God wants you to be in a position to love people, and when we hate ourselves, the result of such abuse, we cannot love others or experience God's love as he intends for us.