by Dan Nussbaum
One day when I was very small, five or six, I told my mother that I hated someone. Today, I have no idea who the object of my hatred could have been. She said, “We don’t say, ‘I hate someone.’ We say, ‘I don’t like someone.’ “
I usually don’t remember much from early childhood but this episode is so clear that I can remember where I stood in our small Bronx apartment while receiving her lesson. Perhaps the memory survives because the activity itself was so unlikely. My mother rarely gave explicit moral instruction.
When I was even younger it wasn’t unusual to hear the term angelic applied to my appearance, a term that owed everything to tropes from the history of European painting and little to do with my own demeanor. Into a world of brown-haired Jews I had arrived with a head full of platinum curls set off by a pair of very blue eyes. My mother found it jarring to hear her angel speaking like a human.
I said, “But what about Hitler? Can I say I hate Hitler?”
She said I could hate Hitler, but only Hitler.
I was a bright child with a litigator’s mind but I didn’t yet have the list of Nazi miscreants memorized. A few years later I would have pressed on. OK, Hitler, but what about Himmler? What about Goering? What about Goebbels?
Core Buddhist teachings tell us that along with greed and delusion, human life is conditioned by hatred. The idea of practice is that anyone can get to the bottom of hatred. It’s a going down and into rather than a going up and beyond. A feeling of bitterness keeps coming back to nag you and you wonder, Where does this cherished story of resentment come from? What keeps it going?
It may be my mother hoped that I would find a happy life by acting as if I didn’t have strong negative emotions, a method that would have allowed me to skip getting to the bottom of hate by taking a pleasant – although impossible – detour. But I think it’s more likely she just thought that angelic children shouldn’t say ugly things.