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Grieving the Space Between Us

During her conversation with Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman in “Embracing Our Enemies and Our Suffering,” Krista Tippett said something about halfway in that caught my attention:

“We instinctively recoil from the reality of feeling vulnerable or afraid, right? And so, anger gets layered on top of that because it feels like a more powerful response. But then we stop being able to tell the difference ourselves, right? You stop knowing ‘I’m scared’; you say ‘I’m angry.’

And this sense of deep sadness, of loss and longing, washed over me. I remembered all the moments I said “I’m angry” instead of “I’m scared,” moments I chose anger over vulnerability. And how even when anger shielded me from pain, it did not stay and sit with me in the ashes. It left me, cold and alone and more afraid, more disconnected than before. There is a saying of the Buddha’s in Love Your Enemies:

“Anger, like forest fire, burns up its own support.”

Anger is masterful at painting the illusion of separateness, the tunnel vision that severs and frays the bonds of relationship and distorts our memory for joy. Perhaps this is why the command “love your enemies” is so magnetic — because I know that anger reduces my world to a single color, and I long for the many-hued brilliance of the full picture.

That moment, when I chose anger over love, I lost something deeply precious, something magical and inexplicable and nearly impossible to describe.

I am reminded of a remarkable interview of Jack Leroy Tueller, a decorated World War II veteran. His story says more about the power of loving your enemies than I could ever put into words:

“This is two weeks after D-Day. It was dark, raining, muddy. And I’m stressed so I get my trumpet out. And the commander said, ‘Jack, don’t play tonight because there’s one sniper left.’ I thought to myself that German sniper is as scared and lonely as I am. So I thought, I’ll play his love song.”

And just this little act of grace, this message of love played out across the expanse of darkness is so wonderful. If the story ends here, it is still a beautiful story of human kindness. It seems almost unreal what happens next: the military police approach Tueller the following morning and tell him they have a German prisoner on the beach who keeps asking, “Who played that trumpet last night?”

“I grabbed my trumpet and went down to the beach. There was a 19-year-old German, scared and lonesome. He was dressed like a French peasant to cloak his role as a sniper. And, crying, he said, ‘I couldn’t fire because I thought of my fiancé. I thought of my mother and father,’ and he says, ‘My role is finished.’

And he stuck out his hand and I shook the hand of the enemy. He was no enemy, he was scared and lonely like me.”

And, in this powerful choice to be vulnerable or stay masked rests the heart of our intentions, our deep caring for each other, and our will to see and speak love in the world. Where anger and hatred isolate, love and forgiveness embrace. This is a melancholy kind of love. A love that sees separation and the space between us that inspires so much pain. A love that knows the sting of suffering but chooses to see the fullness, light and darkness, joy and sorrow, entwined in one magnificent reality.

I hear echoes of the tune’s melody, and I wonder what act of love, as simple as a few notes played on a trumpet, might lift me out of anger, out of hatred, and into the fullness and grace of love.

If you’re wondering what song he’s playing in the video, it’s “Lili Marleen,” a popular German love song during World War II. This achingly beautiful rendition from Katie Holley was written for a film inspired by Tueller’s story. It captures the sweet sorrow of one scared and lonely man reaching out to another.

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