I have been reading Sebastian Junger’s book “War.” This is the fifth time for me to read this book. As someone who likes to read about the experiences of soldiers both of contemporary times and of the past, I reread several books on the subject.
Junger’s book is one sided because he reports on the experiences of American soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. I am not trying to criticize Junger here. I say this to make a point.
While reading Junger, it is easy to side with the Americans. The way he writes makes me feel the anger and sadness of these young soldiers when their comrades are killed.
That got me thinking. In life, it is easy to feel this. The natural struggle of every human being aiming to live a virtuous life is to let go of the ego; and at its basest kind of existence the ego fights everyone and everything that goes against its interests. The American soldiers wish to live and wish the same for their comrades. The fact that they are fighting other men who also have the same wishes does not concern them. They live in a bubble. Most of them think, “This is my job and I will do it. If you kill one of my comrades, I will use my emotions to fuel my desire to do my job even better.”
Again, I am not pointing this out to criticize Junger or the war in Afghanistan. I am simply mentioning these to make a point.
The easiest kinds of prayers to make and struggles to fight are those which seek advantage for us and for our loved ones. The American soldiers fight for their side, and so do the Taliban. They also sacrifice for their side, and that is considered self-less of them.
In the same way, when we pray for our loved ones, we tend to consider that to be a sign that we are not selfish. After all, we place other’s needs before ours. But really, who are we praying for but the people who are extensions of ourselves? Wouldn’t it give us more pleasure to see our loved ones succeed than someone we do not have any personal connections with? And wouldn’t it give us even more pleasure to see our enemies – especially those who dislike us and who wish ill of us – fail as we and our loved ones succeed?
Praying for our enemies requires the dissolving of barriers – hate, prejudice, jealousy, etc. Doing this is not easy and perhaps not everyone can do it. What most people do is move away from their enemies in order to avoid conflict. They try to forget or at least to not think of their enemies so they will not be guilty of thinking ill of their neighbors.
This is a good thing in itself, I suppose. If you cannot control yourself at the buffet table, then it is best to avoid buffets altogether. If you cannot aim to be virtuous in the midst of the temptation to do vice, then aim to avoid these temptations as much as possible.
But you see I don’t want to settle for that. I am not saying that the above is bad, but I would rather face my tendencies to do vice head on and tackle them so that I may be perfect.
I have asked to be a soldier, not a civilian. Whatever you ask for, if it is in God’s plan for you and only when you are ready, He will give it. So like all good soldiers, I wish to be given the best training so I can do my job well. I constantly pray to God to perfect me, and He has done this for me.
Now here is my new struggle: To pray for someone who, I believe, harbors resentment for me.
In the months prior, I have tried to not think of this person; but thoughts about him occasionally surface. I always ask God what this means, and now I have the answer: I still harbor resentment towards this person, and, though I deny it to myself, I wish him ill. I do not mean I actively wish to do him harm; rather there is a part of me which wishes that I end up as the more successful person. The challenge is to stop thinking like this.
At first this did not make sense because several months ago, I received a premonition stating that I will indeed be more successful than him. This premonition became a source of pride. Imagine me with fists shaking and my voice full of pride as I say, “Yes, I am better than you!” Yet at the back of my mind I knew I had to destroy this attitude.
Like I said, at first I did not understand, so I asked God why I have to do this while the other person is not required to do the same at this point in time and in the same way.
The answer is because I asked to be a soldier; therefore I am given more difficult challenges. I asked God to enable me to achieve a heroic goal, and heroes need to undergo difficult preparations before they are sent off to war.
Heroic soldiers don’t compare themselves to civilians. Doing that doesn’t make sense. Heroic soldiers don’t base the pride they feel for themselves on comparisons between themselves and weaker people. Instead, they base their pride for themselves on their abilities and achievements. They say to themselves, “I have accomplished my goals by remaining steadfast despite my difficulties and fears. This is my source of pride.”
(Or if you will, if the word ‘pride’ is problematic for you, you might think of it as something I can be pleased with, as we are pleased with our achievements.)
I think I can destroy my vicious attitude by praying that God help the other person to become who God wants him to become, i.e. his best self. By wishing what is good for him, I hope to attain the virtuous attitude towards the premonition of my higher success. Instead of thinking of myself as superior, I must think that if God gives me the higher glory, it is because He has made me fit for it, and also because I actively desire it and I embrace the challenges necessary to make me fit for this success.
Did I not ask to be perfected? If I am to succeed in encouraging people to rediscover their faiths, should I not strive to live my life as perfectly as possible? Or else how will people believe me, I who wish to speak to them of loving their enemies though I still hate mine.
Well now, God, in His delightful irony, will not permit my future success if I do not first succeed in this challenge. Here is a classic test of human free will: Will I choose vice over virtue?
I seek what is fine. I seek to be as perfect as I can be. Like the soldier who goes through torturous training, I submit myself to hardships so that I, in the future, may carry the hardships of others in order to save them from their evils.