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When Hate Begins to Feel Like Love

June 4, 2020


“Hatred,” wrote psychologist Robert Enright, “has a long shelf life. Once it enters into the human heart, it’s hard to get it out. It breeds destruction, discouragement, and hopelessness.”

Enright hails from the University of Wisconsin, where several years ago, amid ongoing demonstrations about some pressing issue of the day, reporter Mike Tobin of Fox News remarked, “A [protester] was giving me the business yesterday, and [said] she hates me because it makes her feel good” (emphasis mine).

Anyone who has ever been targeted by a pack of bullies understands. Venting hatred, especially under the righteous cover of a “cause,” gives one a sense of belonging and purpose and—quite unlike love—it does so in an expeditious and rather painless way. Mob-supported hatred removes openness from the social equation, and that in turn takes away vulnerability, leaving one with a powerful sense of communal well-being that can serve as a reasonable facsimile of being loved by others. One loves one’s hate because it makes one feel beloved.

On the surface, attaching oneself to a hate-collective seems a safe way to belong. One feels invited to the party; one no longer has to think for oneself, or worry about individual appearances or instincts or even, sometimes, accountability. To continue to fit in, to feel as if you were truly loved, all one needs to do is continue to hate—and that not even willingly.

This hate that feels like wide-open love is paradoxically limiting and self-defeating. Once hatred has become one’s social vehicle of choice, the travel options become limited: either stay the course and wear the peripheral blinders, or attempt to break free and risk the very real possibility of being altogether ditched.

Regardless of whether one hates a president or a pro-abortion governor or Hollywood or “fundamentalism” or “the system” or even a sports team, if one’s sense of belonging depends on hatred, then second-thoughts will flee and stagnation will follow. The only way to re-energize and to delay the inevitable endgame described by Enright as “destruction, discouragement, and hopelessness” is to find a new hate to love. Because in the hate-collective there must always be an Emmanuel Goldstein before one’s eyes, in order for hate (and thus love) to feel fresh and new.

Now, some will say that those figures mentioned above have earned a measure of distrust, which justifies the hate. But distrust is such a subjective and selective thing; if distrust is the acceptable impetus for hate, then anyone may claim justification for feeling and encouraging virulent (and eventually violent) hatred of others.

The most insidious part of this Borg-like hate collective is how easily one can slip into its influence through the simple error of attaching real but disproportionate feelings of love onto things that are often illusory and ultimately temporary. I love my politics so much that I must hate you for yours; I love my church so much that I must hate you for not loving it with precisely the same sensibilities; I love my opinions so much that I must not allow you to have opinions of your own.

Hatred linked to identity, like this, is a twisting perversion of paradoxes wherein one can claim a love for God so fervent that it justifies hating another, even as God hates your hate, because it has been born of the absolute idol one has made out of one’s professed love.

In the Gospels, Jesus makes it very clear that we are to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:33) and the Servant of God Dorothy Day translated that into bare and succinct words that must challenge us every day: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

How do we go to prayer showing God such a withered love, particularly if our hearts are full of not “least love” but actual hate?

A few years ago a university study confirmed the old adage that there is “a thin line between love and hate.” It seems that the same brain circuitry is involved in feeling both emotions, the major difference being that with feelings of love a large part of the cerebral cortex shuts down, along with judgment and reasoning abilities. With hate, much of the cortex remains open.

This makes perfect sense, in a way. We can always give a million reasons justifying our hate to others, but our love? Often we cannot explain our love at all, except as an open and full-hearted mystery, just like the unfathomable mysteries of God, redemption, and mercy.

This study also helps explain why unreasonable love can so often tumble into hate, and why hatred, once engaged by reason, finds it so difficult to break freely into love.

It is that thin, thin line between love and hate that can so confuse our sensibilities and thrust us so far apart from each other—and perhaps ourselves.