We have met the enemy
On September 10, 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry led the U.S. Navy to victory in the pivotal Battle of Lake Erie, which turned the War of 1812 toward American advantage and ultimately preserved U.S. independence from the English crown. That day, Perry reportedly coined two historic phrases. One was “Don’t give up the ship” – now a timeless call to courage. The other, in Perry’s report to General (and later President) William Henry Harrison, was, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” With historic brevity, Perry’s “enemy” (the English Navy) became “ours” by military dominion.
Some 140 years later in 1953, American cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of the cartoon strip “Pogo,” railed against paranoid McCarthyism sweeping America’s political establishment. Turning Perry’s line on its ear, Kelly put in Pogo’s mouth nine words that would become political legend: “We have met the enemy – and he is us.” With historic wit, Kelly’s “enemy” became “ours” by identity.
Pogo’s call became a rallying cry for the U.S. environmental movement, anchoring the comic strip that ran on the first Earth Day in 1970. Thecognoscenti then adopted Kelly’s quip as a seemingly universally applicable truth in realms as diverse as politics, military policy, consumer behavior, engineering and psychology. Today Pogo’s wisdom has become a potent aphorism of social criticism and political advocacy.
Spirituality, too. Next week begins Elul, the Jewish month of heightened spiritual and inner awareness preparing for the High Holy Days. In a sense, these seven weeks between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah beckon us beyond our inner walls to meet any aspect of our deep self that we can imagine to be an enemy – the impatient self, the jealous self, the lazy self, the self holding a grudge, the materialistic self, the arrogant self. Each soul inescapably knows its own bitterness (Prov. 14:10), its own enmity that is an inner enemy. We have met the enemy, and (s)he is us.
Enter the Jewish wisdom that because we tend to rebuild inner walls and inner sourness accretes and ferments, we must do the inner work of reflection and refinement repeatedly over time – hence the spiritual import of the High Holy Day cycle of introspection, teshuvah (repentance) and renewal. After all, the spiritual cycle maps to our internal cycle. As social psychologists and spiritual leaders know, inertia and ego-defense lure us to externalize responsibility, unaware that we project onto others our own inner stuff. Often our inner narratives – perhaps barely perceptible if we don’t pay close attention – echo with “if only he…” and “she’s such a…” and “he did this…” and “she did that….” However accurate our inner narratives may be, often they’re only partly true: often we share responsibility for what we did, what we didn’t do, how we reacted, and whether we can forgive others and ourselves.
The High Holy Days call us in spiritual life much as Commodore Perry called out in military life, much as Pogo called a generation poised for a sea change. With courageous introspection akin to inner battle, the “enemy” of destructive character flaws and otherness narratives can become not “theirs” but “ours.” As other they are enemy; as self, however, they beckon us toward inner healing and renewal.
A time for sea change approaches. It’s time to look ourselves in the eye to see all the otherness that’s arisen within – all enemies and enmities real or perceived. It’s time to see them clearly so we can purify them and ceremonially cast them on the sea in Rosh Hashanah’s tashlich ritual, then join Jonah aboard a rickety boat battling inner demons on Yom Kippur so we can emerge renewed.
The waters beckon. If we have the courage to chart our spiritual course, we’ll meet the enemy and discover anew that (s)he is us – and find, in the highest spiritual sense, that there are no enemies at all. That’s the most enduring Jewish way to win a battle, save the planet and heal the soul. Happy sailing, and may the wind be at your backs.
Dedicated to my congregants at Temple Beth-El of City Island, “Your Shul by the Sea” (New York City, New York).