A student sent me a text message this morning with the following question: “Would it be good for me to feel grateful to a person who gave me pain?”

Without knowing the specific context she had in mind, I replied: “If the person gave you pain while trying to help you, then yes. If the person gave you pain while trying to harm you…then also yes, if you learned something from it.”

“Isn’t that trying to think positively?” she asked.

“No,” I explained, “it is trying to think objectively.”

Although it is the most human thing in the world to hate those who would harm us, in fact we give our enemies or oppressors too much credit when we allow their motives to determine our interpretations of the events. This is not a matter of “turning the other cheek” or granting forgiveness, but rather of reducing our enemies and oppressors, in our understanding, to their proper status, which is a status equivalent to other natural phenomena that we may personify as malevolent, such as destructive storms or life-threatening diseases. Like bad weather or sickness, these people do not understand what they are doing when they attack us — which is to say they understand neither themselves nor us.

Furthermore, in seeking to harm us, they are displaying a total ignorance of life and its possibilities. Why, then, should we grant them the honor of being hated or feared? Despised or disregarded for their spiritual deficiency, perhaps, but that is all. And then, just as we might describe a prolonged illness that refocuses our minds on ultimate priorities as “the best thing that ever happened to me,” so we might feel grateful to those who seek to harm us, if their attempt grants us a truer understanding of our circumstances, or reveals to us strengths we did not know we had or weaknesses we ought to set about remedying. 

These days, in fact, the human race has become a veritable smorgasbord of opportunities for such moments of gratitude. Let us remember, then, for the sake of our own souls, to take a few minutes each day to recall all those who cause us pain and hardship, whether as ignorant individuals or as a mindless crowd, and consider how much we benefit from their unfriendly efforts, in the way of self-knowledge and heightened resilience. In other words, to restate this in Socratic terms, let us recall that strictly speaking, while others may surely cause us pain, they cannot harm us.

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