What happens to the body when it hates and why it is so pleasurable
This week has been, like too many other weeks, a week overwhelming with hate. A friend of mine, someone I care about, posted on social media about an act of violence they had just experienced. They were vulnerable. Their word choice on a Facebook post triggered someone. And so there was rage and hatred and all of the ways that people can use social media to build a case that says your life isn’t worth anything.
That was a small thing, in the scale of hatred, and it was close to home. There was more, this week, more that was bigger. This week, actually this DAY that I am writing this piece, there were shootings, stabbings, beatings, hate. A man went into a hanukkah party in New York City and took a knife to five people, wounding them. This is only the most recent event, with anti-Jewish assaults rising rapidly across the country. Also today, a man went into a church in Texas, killing one person and injuring two.
And today is the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre; state-sanctioned violence focused on the destruction of the spiritual and cultural strength of the Lakota people.
Hate, hatred, hate.
Before I write anything else, please pause. This is not just information. These are real people, real lives. They are not just examples for a case I want to build. There should not be a need for any further story, any other conversation. The fact of this violence should be enough to… to….and I am at a loss there. To what? To end the kind of violence that separates human complexity from the stories that non-intimate people have about them? To end the violence that projection asserts when it takes up arms and takes over nations? These are only the stories that made the headlines. Or the histories that some of us remember. Along with them, there is so much more: the ongoing everyday violence of sexual assault, domestic violence, the fact of border camps….. Real people. Real lives. And every single person who has experienced violence on this day across the thousands of years before.
When we feel hate, there is a part of us that lights right up. Expands. Glows. It’s the same part of us that lights up when we feel love. Not all of the same, only one part of the same, of course. There are other things going on, other hormones that start dripping, when we feel hate versus love. But there are also some things that are the same and that matters. It’s right there, in the middle of your head, behind your eyes and halfway between the forehead and the back. The putamen, which for those of you who speak Spanish, probably makes you giggle. Loudly. It made me snort. But this is scientific English-based-on-Latin, so let’s get serious. It’s the part of the brain that prepares the body for movement. For actions like protection. That’s what hate shares with love.
When I read this, I felt it. That clunk when two parts fit together like they were looking for each other and just let loose with a sigh. Actions like protection. That is where hate and love come together, isn’t it? A strange intense kind of longing. It’s why racism and romanticism are two sides of the same coin: this deep engagement that says I want to be you/I want to be anything BUT you, flipping from one to the other based on the context and conditions. Lost in the stories that have nothing to do with real people at all.
The difference between love and hate happens up there, right behind your forehead. Love stops thought, really, the rational mind goes on holiday and hate, it over-thinks. Hate is not anger. Anger is response, feeling, clarity. Hate is something that builds. The frontal cortex lights up and starts thinking-thinking-thinking, making stories, making connections, building a picture of how this person, these people, are somehow the reason, the deep and unbearable reason for why, this life this moment this history this hope this vision this glory this young and green-tinged thing is now not able to grow. It is because of this and so, because of this, there is hate.
Who knows if this is true because what science knows one day becomes something totally different after a decade has passed, but neurologists write that the brain patterns for hate bring together the oldest most primitive part of our brains and weaves those patterns into the youngest. Survival at its primitive form is not interested in complexity. Hot/cold, hungry/sated, safe/dangerous: it’s without nuance. Our youngest mind-parts, evolutionarily speaking, are all about the abstraction of connection and thought. Story-making. Patterns that are not like the textured feel of wood in the skin of your hand, but like the things you can imagine. Stories that maybe happened once or sideways or to someone we have never met but which, with the power of our mind-parts, become about our selves in the deepest most physical way. And that is what hate is: this mix of something primal and ancient, you are a threat and I am terrified, that then mixes with the story-making part of our brains, this recent part of the poetry of evolution, and says it is because of this and this and this and oh god, this, too.
The farthest back root for the word hate that we can find is the word for sorrow. That sentence is almost enough, just on its own.
Another really old part of ourselves, old in the way of being burrowing animals who equate safety with having space with no threats, has figured out that the way you prepare a safe nest is that you push out anything that is not comfortable. Straw that is too pointy. Food that is rotting. Anything that stinks or hurts, you push it away. When it is gone, then our nest, our barrow, our most basic home is comfortable. And for our most ancient bodies, comfortable means safe. No threat. No poking pointy poisonous things. Comfortable.
From bedding to behavior, we push away what is uncomfortable. Nasty. Makes us feel bad, want to spit.
And so hate was born, something that has emerged from sorrow. If you haven’t noticed this already, I am telling the story of the people who emerged alongside the English language, because that is the language I am writing on this page and so that is the culture that is hidden within the shifting of meaning over time. It only matters because it’s the language that colonized this land I live on, and it’s the language that is pretty set on doing the same thing to the world as a whole. Sorrow. Hate. I already know that other languages tell this story differently. I know, for example, that there is no word for “hate” in Ojibwe. Not like it is meant in English, this single concept that implies an emotion that condemns, like a guillotine, like a border, the “us” on one side and the “them” on the other.
Hatred is a feeling, something that emerges, but hatred is personal. It is intimate. And like all intimacies, it feels good. Its roots, again, are engagement and connection — the opposite of love which is the connection that says I want to be closer to you even, please god, slip beneath the boundaries and become like you, of you.
It doesn’t matter who you are, the victor or the victim, every single one of us can find a way to justify our hatred and will probably spend a lot of time doing that. It feels good, this feeling. Justifiable. The space that holds all of the things we couldn’t run from, fight against, overcome. The root of hate is sorrow. I hate you.
The very hormone that most gives us pleasure, oxytocin if you pay attention to pop-biology, could well be the hormone that supports this feeling of hate. Because if I love YOU so much, oh so very very much, and I want to protect you, to make sure you are always going to be there so that I can love love love you, have this wonderful love feeling, then if you are a threat, if you are about to take away this person, this ideology, this nation, this god that I love, then I am going to use all of that love juice to push you the HELL away. YOU, I hate you, you are a threat to the thing that brings me the most pleasure. I hate you. I hate you.
We have known since we were two years old that sometimes the easiest way to find ourselves to our pleasure-yes is to begin with the clarity of our repulsion-no. Hatred is intimate. It is deeply physical and concrete. Pushing away, pushing away, I don’t like you, go away, you are not me, and you will not come close to me. Hatred is the physical feeling that says you are such a threat that I can’t just set a boundary that says I am here and you are there; I have to police that boundary and make sure you never ever get in.
That takes a lot of energy. Most of us get over our fights and arguments and annoyances pretty quickly. We actually just forget about them, change the subject, apologize, act as though they didn’t happen, or make that eye contact that says, hey, we still good? It takes will and teaching to keep a fight going; to keep it aflame long enough to actually be the hatred of a kind of person or people. It takes a lot of energy and discipline to hate. As our brain showed us earlier, it takes a lot of thinking thinking thinking, way more thinking than it takes to feel the timelessness of love.
And then, because culture is a community’s collective agreement on the best way to survive, hatred thrives if we believe that our children will be safest if they can hate, too.
And so our stories become laws and legends, things that we know know KNOW as true deep in our belly places because our grandparents their grandparents our neighbors the priest in the front of the room know it to be true.
A moment of pause: talking about hatred is not the same thing as talking about justice. I don’t have to hate you to know that there is massive repair that needs to happen. I also don’t have to love you. And still, my god, even as we are, you are refusing either the connection of hatred or of love, there is so much that needs repair.
I am embarrassed by all of these words it has taken for me to get to what Buddhism, as I understand it, has been saying for thousands of years: we are shaped by the things we feel aversion towards.
It feels good to hate. It actually feels good. It has its own kind of energy, its own sense of connection, of purpose, of story. It can unite people around a common enemy. It can take away the uncomfortable awfulness of having to look at myself and how I have created or co-created or benefitted or hidden from this ickiness that we are in. It’s all tied up with the pleasure drug because usually, hate goes along with something that is yummy and wonderful and visionary that we want to protect. It is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, one of the sacred tools of nation-building. We are glorious and awesome because we are not, heaven forbid, them.
Hatred comes from sorrow, buried buried, ages past, buried in the roots of the word, so far back that the newest seedlings have no memory of its name.
Today is the anniversary of the hatred of this nation, the deep generational sorrow of a group of English, of Christian colonizers who long ago lost a sense of their own history and connection to their land, so many of their own colonizations ago, who then hoisted that sorrow across generations into hatred and felt no confusion about using the flag and the cross to justify the attempted destruction of the spiritual and cultural practices of another people. Today is the repetition of so much hatred, like love, that has been generation-bred into the bodies of those light skinned ones who are walking the road to destruction, unable to do the deep earth work of diving under hatred to find grief, it is right there, just waiting, the grief that is both shame and despair, that says oh, we have lost so much, we have hurt, and this hurt, this piled up sharpness and stale rotten bedding that is here in our barrow, pushing it outside doesn’t make it go away, it only pushes out to someone else who then has to hold it.
Hatred is a form of connection; something that shapes identity, that organizes how we teach our children. Hatred carries sorrow and hides it, secreting it away in basements and attics, until we forget that it is there. Hatred is not the same as anger. It is not the same as justice. And it is not the same as love, even though sometimes it feels pretty close.
Happy new year. Here’s hoping for a bit more wisdom in all of this. I know I need it. I am guessing you might, too.