To Be Surprised by Your Enemies, Stay Sturdy and Playful

Thursday, May 25, 2017 - 4:00 pm

To Be Surprised by Your Enemies, Stay Sturdy and Playful

Last week, I got an email from a stranger who had seen my TED talk and it ended with this question:

“What is the basis for your view that wealthy or successful people are morally obligated to improve the lives of the poor? Interested in your response.”

I put the question to my Facebook community, curious what they might say to such an inquiry. I expected that a few people might chime in — my friends who tend toward the philosophical, the divinity school grads and social entrepreneurs, the religious and the sensitive.

In short order, 84 people gave thoughtful responses. A sampling of the wild range:

“Without relational behavior, belonging in, and common unity (community), we are mere organisms. Lone organisms have sharply limited opportunity to make meaning out of existence. Through interconnectedness with other living things — human and otherwise — we access real richness. Mutuality and accountability forges the bonds we need to do more than just survive. Caring is essential to our exercise of sentience.”

“The poor would be happy to take care of themselves by being able to earn a decent wage and have affordable time to care for their loved ones, decent schools for their kids, and freedom from brutality and discrimination.”

“Love the Lord your God with your body, your soul, your mind and your strength. Second, love thy neighbor as thyself. I believe it’s from Matthew, but if he’s fishing, he’ll know THAT scripture.”

“Go f*** yourself.”

“To whom much is given much is expected. It is all on loan from God.”

“Tell him that in ancient Egypt, 4,000+ years ago, when you died you were judged in the afterlife by the gods. They weighed your heart against a feather, asking you questions like ‘Have you fed the poor? Have you clothed the naked?’ If you failed in your duties as a wealthy person, a crocodile headed lion beast god would devour your soul and that was that. Do tell him that this beast god is on his way to his house, and running won’t work…”

“Tell him Ayn Rand says hi.”

“Without exception, ‘wealthy people’ got wealthy because poor people did a good amount of the work to make them wealthy. Poorer people (generally) picked their apples and built their roads — they teach their kids, they come and save them when their house is on fire. Poor people serve them at restaurants and build their cars and mow their lawns. Poor people helped their mothers in the hospitals bring them into the world, they make their clothes and clean their houses. There is no ‘rich’ person who can claim that they enjoy their wealth completely free of the impact poor people have had on their daily lives. Any society thriving on this planet — animal, vegetable — thrives because of balance. If rich people all keep their money and don’t use it to improve their society, history says they won’t be rich for very long (them or their family). If a rich person feels that helping to make sure their society is a balanced one — where no one person needlessly suffers because they are not wealthy — they will find a depth of unhappiness that is hard to measure.”

“I’d simply ask him what moral philosophy he subscribes to. If he wants references for two ends of the spectrum, I’d point to John Rawls (Theory of Justice) and Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State, and Utopia). Also, I’m seeing comments above like ‘He doesn’t get it’ or ‘Karma’ or ‘All people are required to ____.’ It’s easy these days to demonize, ‘other’-ize, and categorize people as good or evil based on our quick impressions. The dude simply asked a question (I’d assume the best, and therefore assume genuineness), and it is a valid question with a subsequent array of valid questions stemming from the primary, rooted not only in moral philosophy, but also political philosophy and personal experience. ”

I share these responses here both because I was enriched by them and also because they got me thinking about speaking across difference. It’s a hot topic these days as we’ve all been coming to grips with just how divided our nation really is and how, frankly, shitty we are at talking with people who don’t already share our worldview. Many smart people are spending money and time trying to figure out how to bridge the political divides that have torn this country apart. On Being’s own Civil Conversations Project is at the forefront of this effort.

In some ways, it’s incredibly complicated to have worthwhile conversations about things you care deeply about with people who disagree with you. But reading through these responses reminded me of a simple truth. Part of why we don’t engage in conversations with people who have different belief systems from our own is because we don’t have the emotional energy. Our lives exhaust us. We’re too busy and too frustrated. It feels better to bond with people we know agree with us than to wade into the unknown waters of a psyche that might anger us. It takes real effort and emotional sturdiness to assume genuineness in someone you perceive as “the other.” It takes a resilient naïveté. Sometimes, it even takes a kind of playfulness.

Remembering this calls to mind one of my favorite moments in a college sociology class. The professor was waxing poetic about Marx and his notion of the proletariat underclass that was surely destined, at some point, to rise up and confront those in power. She segued to talking about our current economic landscape — defined by such vast inequality. “So why hasn’t the proletariat class risen up?!” she demanded. The class fell silent, and then my friend Dave, an unassuming guy, raised his hand and said, “I think most people working minimum wage jobs are exhausted at the end of the day. They’d rather drink a beer and watch TV than attend a protest march.”

The class laughed, but I think it was actually kind of genius. Sometimes in our quest to be so insightful about the political and demographic dynamics at play in this country, we forget to go back to the simple truths of our own lived experience. We’re too busy. We’re emotionally drained by our families and our jobs and our responsibilities. It’s more expedient and emotionally sustainable to assume the worst in those who disagree with you and get on living your life.

I’m going to email the guy back. I’m going to share this thread, and articulate some thoughts of my own. I’m going to do it knowing that I can’t do it all the time, but that I must do it some of the time, that I must continue to practice my own capacity to assume the best in people whose worldviews I find puzzling and even downright wrong. This I must do, not just for my country, but for myself — because I aspire to be the kind of person with the emotional fortitude to be surprised by my “enemy.”

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    Dave is right that people living at the margins can be exhausted from keeping their heads above water and extending themselves to keep close others afloat. But there are people too who live in great privilege that exhaust themselves in ways that they might usefully reconsider, in activities that are connected to lifestyles they are choosing to lead rather than forced by circumstances to lead.
    Some people are, in fact, much better positioned than others are to change how they spend their energy so as to lend a hand to those without real choice.
    Not all busy people are in the same boat in this respect.
    I am with your Facebook respondents who say that there is merit in assuming the best of others rather than the worst. Your questioner may not be doubting at all that better off people should help those who are suffering. He may be wondering, rather, what moral argument allows a person to help only a little- much less than he could- and still feel satisfied to turn back to focusing on his own desires. His question may be an opening to a more challenging conversation that more people should be having.

  • Mable Chan

    Hi Courtney, I love your smart approach to understanding your critic, tapping into your fan base and responding with rational thoughts and the best of intention. Thank you!

  • Kirk

    Enjoyed your post. Here’s a possible example of a playful response…

  • CrummyVerses

    Thank you. I’m reminded of a JFK speech where he stated intellecutuals and/or the educated have a “special obligation” for our country, our planet. So it’s not just the wealthy who need to share more it’s those of us who have been priviledged with an education. And yes, we’re all so busy & tired. Although I struggle with illness what helps me to remain an active citizen is a deeper engagement with peace practices, i.e., meditation and getting together with other meditators. There’s also certainly a case to be made for “vigorous dancing” per Alice Walker.