A friend who was raised as a Christian once told me that from a very young age, whenever he heard the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” his heart would soar. Then inevitably, his next thought would be the troubled question: But how?

How, indeed. What if you actually hate your neighbor, or are afraid of them, or simply find them unappealing? What if you actually hate yourself, or don’t find much good about your actions when you evaluate your day? What if all too often, when confronted by a decidedly unneighborly world, you feel defensive, hostile, cut off, and alone? We can start unraveling this response by looking at our conditioning.

We have a strong urge to dichotomize human beings, to separate them into opposing categories. Stereotyping is an evolutionary mechanism designed to enhance survival, a form of shorthand for getting by in a dangerous world. We try to manage the messiness of life by creating an orderly zone of recognizable types characterized by certain traits that are associated, however loosely. Then we generalize our preconceived typologies to all members of a class or group or nation.

The problem is that once we have organized everyone into tidy categories, we may be unwilling to look beyond those labels. We commonly designate our own group as the norm, the Ins, while everyone else is the Other. Designating our own family or group as the standard, while assigning everyone else to categories that are somehow inferior, boosts our feeling of self-worth. But it also locks us into the Us-versus-Them mind-set, virtually assuring us an unending supply of enemies.

Familiarity can stop this cycle of enemy-making. A recent study of prejudice revealed that mutual trust can catch on and spread between different racial groups just as quickly as suspicion does. Through something known as the “extended-contact effect,” amity travels like a benign virus through opposing groups. This effect is so powerful that, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts, bias can evaporate in a matter of hours. Peaceful exposure to the Other, the “enemy,” is key. As just one example, a Palestinian-Jewish summer camp known as Oseh Shalom–Sanea al-Salam enables Jewish and Arab youths and their families to spend time together in shared activities and dialogue amid natural surroundings. Such organizations offer clues to how larger-scale initiatives might be devised to break down the Us-versus-Them stockade.

We have to be able to enlarge the perspective with which we view the world if we hope to become truly empathic. Think of the Dalai Lama learning about Christianity from Desmond Tutu and Archbishop Tutu learning about Buddhism from the Dalai Lama. Neither of these spiritual masters appears to be out to convert the other, nor do they need to agree in order to feel connected. Each maintains strong loyalty to his own traditions, creed, and people, but they are very good friends who are not constrained by the cult of either/or.

Taking action toward the good is the best way to expand our attention and dissolve the boundary of Us-versus-Them. Even simple things like working in a soup kitchen and helping feed the hungry, or having thoughtful conversations with the people next door, can ease feelings of separation from those who are unlike us on the surface. By aligning ourselves with issues larger than our own selfish concerns—“turning off the Me and turning on the We,” as Jonathan Haidt puts it—we transcend alienation through simple human contact. In the spirit of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” more and more people start to seem like our neighbors, and we learn in real terms how to love them.

Excerpt from Love Your Enemies.

Image from Flickr by D Sharon Pruitt. Creative Commons License.