If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then
is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go
free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not
think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.
~ Wendell Berry
My thoughts, tonight, are with those who have been most affected by a decade of Austerity Britain, and the EU citizens our PM has rejected.
Starting from the end, I liked the final phrase: ‘as monsters like yourself / pitiable because unforgiving.’ To be unforgiving is negative, causing us to so lose our humanity that we become monstrous. It is hard to avoid turning into a monster, as the first two paragraphs outline. Even a willfully empathic imagination (‘you must care what they think’) which may bring you closer towards those you hate, likely simply ends with the sad conclusion of you taking on the hatred of your new affiliation : ‘and so become a monster / of the opposite kind?’
How do we avoid this state? or, in other words, ‘from where then / is love to come – love for your enemy / that is the way of liberty?’ The possible answer follows: ‘from forgiveness’. Forgiveness leads to freedom: ‘they do / free of you, and you of them’. Or so it seems. The next image, that of ‘sunlight / on a green branch’ suggests that the group you hate remains as integral a part of your life as the sun that allows the living plant (the ‘green branch’) to continue to grow. This could be seen as a pleasant image – the blossoming and strengthening of life through discourse and discord.
Two strange thoughts spring from this poem: 1, that empathy might lead to further hate; 2, that the people you have opposed, and forgiven, are a vital part of life’s development, even when you have parted ways. It is not a poem of dogma, in spite of the repeated ‘you must not’ , but a poem of slightly unnerving reflection; that we are all monstrous, and that these monstrous qualities leave us inexplicably intertwined with our supposed enemies.
Enjambement reflects this odd coupling , with the ‘you’ of ‘you must not’ combined with the ‘them’ of the ‘think of them’ in the line ‘you must not / think of them’ both joined and split across two paragraphs. These pronouns use the language of populism: ‘you’ that of a leader whipping up supporters into a frenzy, through seeming intimacy, with ‘them’ referring to a generic group of anonymous people – different from us or you, and for some reason our opposition.
As a voter and human being, I’m as liable as any to seperate the world into those categories of ‘you’ and ‘us’ and ‘them’, possibly to comfort myself that I will ‘not become a monster’. In my case, the far-right and racist groups would be ‘them’, the monsters. It’s hard to understand those you disagree with, and Berry doesn’t offer a clear solution to build bridges – except to suggest that to forgive might just squash the monster within us.