Ender’s Game: Loving Your Enemy

When I first read Ender’s Game, I don’t think I fully understood how heavy its themes were. It was easy, especially as a junior high student, to glaze over the implications of the novel in favor of the fantastic elements. The zero-gravity laser tag, for one thing, was probably far more exciting to me than the novel’s delicate balance of innocence and violence.

But even as young reader, I was struck by one passage in particular: one that had nothing to do with space or aliens or laser tag. In this passage, Ender — a young military prodigy who never loses to an opponent — talks about the process by which he inevitably overcomes all of his enemies:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them... I destroy them.

Wow. For a 13-year-old, this was heavy stuff (though Ender was even younger than that when he made the observation). This passage raised a slew of questions.

Could it be that with sufficient knowledge about a person — their desires and motivations and thoughts — one necessarily arrives at love for that person? Could even the most despicable members of society be loved if only we learned all the reasons for their actions, if we followed the causal chain all the way back to their original innocence? Perhaps the most destabilizing questions: do knowledge and love give us power over people? The power to destroy them? What is the relationship between love and destruction?

Of course certain kinds of knowledge lend certain advantages, but Ender is referring to both a deeper and broader sort of knowledge. This is the kind of knowledge that hardly seems relevant to defeating his fellow pre-teens at an elaborate game of laser tag: beliefs and motivations and daily habits. In short, Ender seeks a complete knowledge of who that person is.

There is a real-world precedent for seeking such comprehensive knowledge of your opponents. Before his first match-up with Muhammad Ali in 1964, Sonny Liston was considered one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. Ali, on the other hand, had some recent losses and sloppy wins that made him look like the obvious underdog. Physically, Ali appeared less capable than Liston. But Ali later described an interesting method he used to prepare for that match:

I read everything I could where he had been interviewed. I talked with people who had been around him or had talked with him. I would lay in bed and put all of the things together and think about them, and try to get a picture of how his mind worked.

So perhaps there’s something to Ender’s strategy. Maybe when it comes to understanding your opponents, nothing is unimportant. But the question remains: does understanding necessitate love?

I don’t really have an answer to that question, but my gut tells me that there’s some truth to it. The French have an expression: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” or “To understand all is to forgive all.” The Christian understanding of God and Christ backs this up at a fundamental level, the divine life choosing to experience human life first-hand in the process of absolution. Incarnation is a form of knowing. In turn it is a form of understanding and the ultimate form of forgiveness.

I wonder how many people we’ve failed to love just because we’ve failed to understand them, failed to learn about them, to ask the basic questions about why they do what they do. We implicitly know these things about ourselves and — presumably — don’t hate ourselves for our mistakes. Can’t we extend the same courtesy to others?

For me, the implication of Ender’s assertion boils down to a simple and practical way of approaching other people. Rather than trying merely to manufacture warm feelings towards those around us, we have an obligation to learn as much as we can about them, thus leading to understanding and to a love that goes beneath the surface. That may seem obvious, but too often this is the missing link in our relationships: real time and real effort spent to gain real knowledge.

But the other half of Ender’s assertion leaves us with a very necessary warning. When you learn about someone — even as a means to love or friendship — you gain a certain power over them. Your influence gains a foothold in their lives, and suddenly you are responsible for what that influence accomplishes. It’s rare in these situations that we would take Ender’s route and destroy them. We aren’t often waging total war against the people in our lives. But we are often waging partial wars in which it’s our will against everyone else’s. If we aren’t careful, we might abuse the power that comes with the confluence of love and intimate knowledge.