As a kid, I heard somewhere that a person should have three to five enemies at any given time. I no longer remember the provenance of that assertion, but growing up it seemed to make a lot of sense to me. More than five enemies and you risked being consumed by negativity, and stunting positive development. Fewer than three enemies suggested that you weren’t particularly passionate about things in your life. Having a small, fixed number of enemies gave you a concrete metric against which to gauge the progress of your life. My specific application of this rule wasn’t to destroy my enemies, or even to work against them in any conventional sense. It was more to have someone to point to and say “I don’t want to be like that.” Were you doing better than your enemies? Were you making decisions that advanced your position against your enemies? Were you improving yourself?
A corollary to the 3-5 enemy rule was that your enemies should change over time. Whether this was because you achieved some sort of reconciliation, or simply because you had moved beyond the issues that made someone your enemy, it was important to have new enemies over time, in order to keep yourself motivated to grow and improve.
Again, I don’t know who first advanced these theories, or whether it was some amalgamation I had constructed from various bits of perceived wisdom. It made sense to me at the time, and I was pretty good about identifying people to consider enemies. Looking back, I’m disappointed with how much time and energy I spent having hostile feelings toward people, even if the end result – presumably, a better me – worked to my advantage.
As I grew older, I found it hard to break the habit of having an enemy. If someone rubbed me the wrong way, my ingrained thought patterns got to work identifying ways I needed to compete with that person – even if it was an internal competition I would never revel to the so-called enemy – in order to make myself “win”. In part, these habits formed because life in high school was so constrained: there were very few new people being introduced into my life, and seeing the same people day after day at school made it easy to breed feelings of contempt and hostility. There was, literally, no escape.
As I entered adulthood, a lot of the constraints on my life fell away. Instead of being surrounded by the same couple hundred people in high school, I was surrounded by tens of thousands of people at OSU. And by the time I graduated, the whole world was essentially open to me. My social circles expanded a bit, and the chances of running into anyone who might be considered an “enemy” dwindled. The chances of having to actually interact with these people was even less. And if things ever did get bad, there was always the promise of escape simply by moving away.
Thinking about the quote at the top of this post made me realize that, at least right now, I don’t have anyone I consider an enemy. In part, this is because I’ve tried pretty hard to shift my conception of “enemy” away from people and more toward abstract notions: weakness, selfishness, etc. These are truly things against which I find it worthy to struggle. But it’s also because I’m less motivated by comparing myself to other people now. For the most part, I’m comfortable with – indeed, like – who I am. That’s not to say that I get along well with everyone. There are plenty of people with whom I disagree strongly, and with whom I find it hard to be even cordial, but I don’t consider these people enemies.
I don’t know whether anyone considers me an enemy. There was a time when I would have cared a great deal; but now I don’t.
The more I think about the quote, the more I feel like it’s missing the point. Yes, it’s absolutely important to stand up for the things in which you believe, but to make enemies of the people who believe differently seems to be a poor use of one’s time.