Befriending Unfriendliness

M A Y   2 0 1 8

While the world we encounter day to day is not always friendly, it is our job to befriend it. Of course, befriending the world’s unfriendliness is a profound challenge; it requires equanimity and a great capacity for love and compassion.

Black Lives Matter PhotoWhen Jesus was being nailed to the cross he prayed that his executioners be forgiven. Although we may honor his response as an ideal, when someone criticizes us or expresses animosity toward us, what is our response? Most often we react with defensiveness: we try either to defend ourselves or to return the attack in ways that will diminish the accuser. Yet we can see from the world’s history of conflict, violence, and revenge the predictable outcomes of this kind of reactivity, just as the many small examples we can think of from our own lives show us the painful results of our own defensiveness.

Befriending unfriendliness is not something easy to accept, especially when we consider the horrendous examples of victimization and oppression throughout human history — befriending that unfriendliness can look like passivity, or foolhardiness, or even cowardice.

As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, I grappled at length with the dilemma of pacifism — and it is far beyond the scope of this essay to deal with its many nuances — but most succinctly, for me it comes down to “situational ethics”: our job is to befriend the world, yes, but sometimes so many mistakes have been made, so many opportunities for befriending have been missed, that there is no alternative but to say No! and to stand up to oppression, as the Allies did when they stood up to the Axis war machine in the Second World War. Befriending must be our natural response in nearly every situation we encounter, but when it is too late and the only recourse to prevent even greater disaster is through force, then the use of force may be justified.

But then what?

This is the crucial point — there are endless possibilities for the healing power of friendship to avert violence and oppression before they have a chance to spread. For example, if something like the Marshall Plan had been initiated following the First World War, the Second World War might never have happened. As the lines I often repeat from Wallace Stevens tell us:

After the final no there comes a yes,
and on that yes the future world depends.

And so it is in our personal lives. We can and must say no to abuse and meanness, and to our own unfriendliness toward ourselves, but even that no has its roots in our love for life and for the well-being of all. Our everyday work must be to water those roots. There are many ways we can do this, most of them quite small and intimate — practicing kindness, forbearance, patience — but the most profound way is by opening our hearts to the nature of Pure Presence (or whatever name we wish to call it).

This is the gift of the mystic path. In its essence it is not a complicated path, but it asks of us complete openness and release of self-concepts, opinions, and judgment.

To the extent we can open our hearts to the nature of Pure Presence we realize that its nature is love, a love that is light-years beyond what we usually consider that little word to signify. It is unconditional. It’s the love that flames the stars and spins every atom. It’s the gift of this beginningless, endless moment, the infinite generosity of now.

When we recognize that this love is at the root of our own nature and the nature of all being — even though it is so often eclipsed by fear in the human realm — we open ourselves to the unshakable power of befriending.

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NOTE: while there isn’t space here to recount personal stories and examples illustrating the power (and challenge) of befriending unfriendliness, I have often told these kinds of stories — if you’re interested you can find some of them in the archive of Notes from the Open Path —  in particular: 

The Gift of the Flower
The Tears of the Bank Robber
A Prayer in the Militant Mosque
Link Arms and Sing
The Beautiful Revolution


This essay was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of FRESH RAIN, the Sufi Way E-Letter, which was devoted to the theme of friendship.