Enemy or ‘straw man’?

Lisa Tolliver Therapy Louisville KY Narcissists Christian Integrative Counseling

Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?   Abraham Lincoln

If you’re near middle age — or even if you’re not– you may recognize the band in this image: Public Enemy.  For the past several months many factors have had me thinking about enemies, and how we make differences into terms on the basis of which we look down on, or hate, others.  This is all tied up with our own self image, and how secure (or insecure) we are in ourselves.   Partly, this comes from stories I keep hearing from the clients I see, but even more so, from the zeitgeist one can hear underneath our news stories.  It seems we humans are always tempted to make others into capital “O” others– Others who are “less than”, pitiable, tainted, or The Enemy.  Lately this tendency in the culture seems out of control. I’m struck by how much effort it takes to police our own psychic boundaries when we’re trying to create worth by denigrating an Other.  And by contrast, by how peaceful our frame of mind can be when are able to grow a healthier sense of self.  Then we can trust our own worth, and let go of making enemies of others.

In this frame of mind, I was reading back issues of a quarterly on psychology and spirituality I’ve lately found. I came across this essay by psychologist and professor Roy Barsness, PhD.  I found it insightful, and have decided to post an excerpt, below.  

It was September 11, 2001. The world sat stunned by a violent attack on our nation. For a few days, the world stopped and our vulnerability and grief held us ever so gently. The physical attack was also a psychological one, and the narcissistic injury became too much to bear, burning deeply into our national psyche, revealing to us our insecurity. Thus, we created our own image of the other and went to war. Our invincibility was injured, and we discovered we were as vulnerable as others in this world. Soon our humility turned to injury.  We forgot our commonness and went to battle to prove our prowess. I will always wonder what would have happened if we would have found a way to respond in humility.  Where would we be today if we had cooperated with other nations to sort out the state of affairs in the world and to discover ways to build bridges, instead of destroying them?

As columnist George Will wrote:  “It is a peculiar kind of patriot today that says that by this war, America “will get its pride back.” Since when has American pride derived primarily from military episodes?  A nation that constantly worries about its pride should worry.  It is apt to confect military occasions for bucking itself up, using foreign policy for psychotherapy.”

What we did at that moment, nationally, is what we do personally every day, creating an other in order to do harm. Psychologist William James chillingly tells us, “[that,] the hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way.”  Pride is insistent in fashioning an opposite in order to define itself. The bondage to pride is that the other must always be kept in their place. Consequently, pride is competitive; it objectifies the other and harms by demeaning them. The other is made different and less-than. We create the other in our own negative image to deny the reality of our co-humanity, deceiving ourselves from the reality that we are more human than otherwise. When we look at pride from a psychological perspective, it is always within the dynamics of the interpersonal (for example, the harm done to others in negating their participation in identity formation). This is compatible theologically, for the self that denies God also denies that which God has created, negating both God and the other in the understanding of one’s own identity.

If you’d like to read Barsness’ entire article, here is the link:

Pride, Ego Injury, and the Gift of Grace