One of the reasons I like reading fiction is that every now and then, an author will sneak a wonderful bit of wisdom into a story that grabs me in a way that is much more memorable than if I had read it in a textbook or journal article. Usually when I discover such a passage, I blurt out to my spouse, “Listen to this!” And I read it aloud.
On the recommendation of one of the subscribers to this blog, I have begun reading the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. I tend to read a wide range of fiction and non-fiction but always keep a well-written mystery series handy with a likable recurring cast of characters who I can get to know.
One of the recurring characters in this series is Myrna, the owner of a new and used book store in a small town, who has left her therapy practice in the big city once she concludes that most of her patients don’t really want to get better, they just want help in figuring out who to blame. She gives Inspector Gamache insight into human behavior and motivation. In this condensed excerpt, she introduces him to the concept of the “near enemy.”
“It’s a psychological concept. Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other, is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other’s sick, twisted.’ …
There are three couplings,’ said Myrna …. ‘Attachment masquerades as Love, Pity as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity.’ … ‘Pity and compassion are the easiest to understand. Compassion involves empathy. You see the stricken person as an equal. Pity doesn’t. If you pity someone you feel superior.’
‘But it’s hard to tell one from the other,’ Gamache nodded.
‘Exactly. Even for the person feeling it. Almost everyone would claim to be full of compassion. It’s one of the noble emotions. But really, it’s pity they feel.’
‘So pity is the near enemy of compassion,’ said Gamache slowly, mulling it over.
’That’s right. It looks like compassion, acts like compassion, but is actually the opposite of it. And as long as pity’s in place, there’s not room for compassion. It destroys, squeezes out, the nobler emotion.’
‘Because we fool ourselves into believing we’re feeling one, when we’re actually feeling the other.’
‘Fool ourselves, and fool others,’ said Myrna.
‘And love and attachment?’ asked Gamache.
‘Mothers and children are classic examples. Some mothers see their job as preparing their kids to live in the big old world. To be independent, to marry and have children of their own. To live wherever they choose and do what makes them happy. That’s love. Others, and we all see them, cling to their children. … live through their children, manipulate, use guilt trips …
‘But it’s not just mothers and children,’ said Gamache.
‘No. It’s friendships, marriages. Any intimate relationship. Love wants the best for others. Attachment takes hostages.’
‘And the last?’ He leaned forward again …
‘Equanimity and indifference. I think that’s the worst of the near enemies, the most corrosive. Equanimity is balance. When something overwhelming happens in our lives we feel it strongly but we also have an ability to overcome it. … deep down inside people find a core. That’s called equanimity. An ability to accept things and move on. …
‘How’s that like indifference?’ he asked, not seeing the connection.
‘Think about it. All those stoic people. Stiff upper lip. Calm in the face of tragedy. And some really are that brave. But some, … They just don’t feel pain. And you know why?’ … ‘They don’t care about others. They don’t feel like the rest of us. The problem is telling one from another,’ Myrna whispered, … ‘People with equanimity are unbelievably brave. They absorb the pain, feel it fully, and let it go. And you know what? ‘They look exactly like people who don’t care at all, who are indifferent. Cool, calm and collected. We revere it. But who’s brave, and who’s the near enemy?’
Ever since I read this passage, I have been reading other things with an eye for finding the “near enemies.” In this recent Forbes post by Eric Jackson on Narcissistic CEOs, he mentions two other couplings which might qualify as near enemies – optimism and arrogance; self-confidence and megalomania. What near enemies are you seeing and how can you tell the difference between them?
Note: If you are going to read the Inspector Gamache series, start at the beginning with Still Life.