Near Enemies

“’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, herself leaning forward now, and whispering though she didn’t know why. ‘Attachment masquerades as Love, Pity as Compassion, and Indifference as Equanimity.’” –Louise Penny

My mother has been a fan of mystery novels for as long as I can remember. She would read books by writers such as Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin, which to this day remain on  bookshelves at her home in Brookline. A few years ago, my grandmother introduced the two of us to books by Louise Penny, a Canadian mystery author.

These books are set in the town of Three Pines, a fictional village inspired by the Eastern Townships in southeastern Quebec. One of the characters in this village, Myrna, is a former psychologist who runs a used bookstore in Three Pines. Throughout the series, she provides the detective solving the mysteries with insight into human emotions and motivations. In one of the books called The Cruelest Month, she tells him about the idea of near enemies, pairs of emotions where one masquerades as the other.

As I think about a certain date that has recently passed, I am reminded of Louise Penny’s words. They provide a certain cautionary wisdom about the different ways in which love can manifest itself. But before I get into that, I should elaborate on the three pairs of ‘near enemies’ that Myrna is referring to.

When Myrna explains attachment and love, she gives the example of a mother and her child. She describes love as an emotion that would allow a mother to raise her child to become independent, grow into their own, and move on in the world once they’ve grown up. Attachment, on the other hand, would involve stifling the child’s growth–holding onto them out of selfishness, and not letting them go.

She frames pity and compassion in terms of equality between persons. When you feel compassion toward someone, you see them as an equal. Pity, she argues, inherently involves feeling superior to the person whom you pity.

Finally, Myrna goes into indifference and equanimity. She explains that equanimity involves embracing the struggles that life throws at you and feeling them fully, before letting them go and moving on. Indifference, on the other hand, involves not feeling or responding to anything that life does give you, for good or ill.

These three pairings have a few things in common. All of them involve letting go (or not) in some way. Love and attachment, in the sense that Myrna defines them, relates to a parent’s ability to eventually let their child go and become their own person. Compassion and pity speak to whether we can let go of our ego or self-righteousness when attempting to relate to other people. And finally, equanimity and indifference indicate whether we can respond to misfortune by tackling it and eventually letting it fade over time, or whether we simply become hardened to it and never take it on in the first place.

Something else interests me about these three pairs of emotions, though. I would argue that they all serve as different manifestations of a broader emotion that many of us might describe as “love.” Attachment and the love that Myrna describes relate to the love that exists between family members. Pity and compassion characterize the kind of love we may feel towards others who are suffering. Equanimity and indifference, however, ask how we love ourselves in order to survive. Do we embrace challenges as they come and work through them, or do we become indifferent to them in order to protect ourselves?

This last point strikes a tension with something that I heard a long time ago from the late Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.” In light of his words, how can showing indifference be a form of love? My answer, as inadequate as it may seem compared to Elie Wiesel’s, is this: indifference offers self-preservation. It protects us from feeling painful emotions, whereas equanimity may require us to genuinely feel them before letting them fade. Both can be used to love and take care of ourselves, but I would imagine that most people would openly support equanimity (as it is defined here) over indifference. Yet one is much harder to carry out than the other.

The point I am trying to make is not that these pairs of emotions are love itself. I do believe, though, that they can contain elements of love in them, and that manifestation inherently makes them harder to disambiguate from each other. How do you balance feeling attachment to someone you care about while also letting them be their own person? How do you understand and relate to another person’s suffering without comparing yourself to them? How do you protect yourself when going through difficult, painful situations without completely shutting yourself off from them? “Love” provides an answer to all of these questions, but I don’t think it’s a particularly clear or helpful one. Recognizing how love appears in and motivates each of these emotions, though, might help us come to a clearer conclusion.

I wish I could say that I knew what the answers to these questions were. Frankly, I don’t. Love, let alone feelings that involve it, is one subject that I sometimes have a lot of trouble navigating. But when I encounter situations where pairs of emotions can arise, I can remember Myrna’s words and the wisdom underlying them–that love generally creates ambiguity in the emotions that it touches. There is a kind of beautiful mystery in that, one that I take heart in exploring and not solving for the time being.


One Comment

Distilling Equipment posted on April 12, 2023 at 2:36 am

I appreciate your honesty and openness. It takes courage to speak your mind.

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