Quote by Gordon White

#3 Longing for the Enemy

“All of you undisturbed cities, haven’t you ever longed for the enemy’ begins Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem in translation from Das Stundenbuch.

In David Whyte’s interpretation of the poem, Rilke’s walled, disconnected city is symbolic of the self which needs an enemy to break down its walls and reconnect. That enemy is life, which relentlessly through challenges and experiences forces the self, often painfully, to break down the defensive walls it uses to protect itself and open to a new ways of being. By self I mean the core of who each of us is.

Conflict has to be one of the preeminent challenges of life, and therefore from a self-development perspective, is a challenge to the self. I have taken the idea of conflict challenging the integrity of the self for the self’s own good, and combined it with a developmental perspective. The added piece is that the self is challenged and stimulated not just to change and grow, but to grow in specific ways through the experience of conflict.


Quote by Gordon White from 'Longing For the Enemy' - a challenge to the self

Why does any of this matter? It’s one of my efforts to explain why people – why we – feel so threatened by ideas and ways of living that are contradictory to our own. It is also part of a general effort to make meaning out of the conflict experience. It may encourage you to engage more consciously and fully in conflict, which I believe would be valuable.

 Developmental perspectives outline stages of human growth that each have mental, emotional, and possibly spiritual characteristics. Here is a childhood example to illustrate the profundity of the shifts that occur as one grows from one stage into another. When very young children cover their eyes they think that we can no longer see them because they can no longer see us. They do not have a developed capacity to separate their own experience from that of others. (Click here to read about a study done by Cambridge scientists.) I can remember the confusion I experienced when my mother tried to explain to me that covering my eyes did not stop others from seeing me. Making such a change in how one fundamentally orients oneself to the world is a significant step.

 So, evidently, changes from one stage to another are large, have a quantum (all-or-nothing) quality, and most importantly, it is difficult to appreciate the value of the next stage from one’s current vantage point. From a developmental perspective, you the reader are in a stage of development and there’s a good chance that you don’t realize that possibility. Nor probably do you realize the potential benefits derived from entering the next stage.

Robert Kegan author of In Over Our Heads has proposed a provocative set of developmental stages that provide explanations for some of the psychological challenges currently faced by humanity.  Here is a trace of one aspect of growth through three of his stages. Teenagers tend to construct a set of values and worldview consistent with environmental and group influences (3rd stage). One of the shifts to adulthood is the capacity to independently construct one’s own unique worldview (4th stage). According to Kegan, shifts to the 5th stage don’t occur before middle age. One characteristic of the 5th stage is the lived recognition that no single philosophy, ideology, perspective or conceptual orientation can grasp a complex situation. One must simultaneously apply multiple orientations. Below is a video of Robert Kegan speaking about his developmental theory.


Kegan’s 5th stage might be experienced as follows by one of the participants in a conflict. She is comfortable knowing that someone else views her as a liar; she understands why he thinks she is a liar; she knows that there are other perspectives of the situation that she does not have; she views herself as fundamentally honest; she can see an aspect of her response to the situation in which she was not honest with herself; she can see that there is information it would have been better to share; she finds that her experience suggests the other person has not always been consistent between what he said he would do and what he did, and she needs to point that out; she can see that there are aspects of the organizational system that lead to the type of misunderstanding that has unfolded; she can see an alternative pattern of interaction that might work better for both people. She can comfortably hold all of these perspectives at the same time and talk about any one of them as needed.

 If there is any common human experience wherein people are challenged to take a different and broader perspective to resolve a tension, conflict is it. The challenges presented by conflict are highly consistent with the challenges one needs to overcome in order to advance in Kegan’s view of adult development.

Conflict challenges our defensive walls and offers opportunity to step beyond who we have been, and it offers the opportunity to integrate greater mental and emotional complexity. It sometimes does so in a forceful manner like a stern father who is more focused on serious matters than gentleness. The phrase ‘longing for the enemy’ reminds us that we have much to gain from interacting with others in conflict.



Here is Rilke’s full poem:

All You Undisturbed Cities

All of you undisturbed cities

haven’t you ever longed for the Enemy?

I’d like to see you besieged by him

for ten endless and groundshaking years


Until you were desperate and mad in suffering

finally, in hunger, you would feel his weight.

He lies outside the walls like the countryside

He knows very well how to endure

longer than those he comes to visit


Climb up on your roofs and look out:

his camp is there. His morale will not falter

His number will not decrease, he will not weaken

He sends no one into the city to threaten

or promise and no one to negotiate

He is the one who breaks down the walls

and when he works, he works in silence.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke


From Das Stundenbuch (The Book of Hours)

Trans. Robert Bly

Paula Modersohn-Becker. Rainer Maria Rilke, 1906

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6 thoughts on “#3 Longing for the Enemy”

    1. Hi Deborah,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment, and for your appreciation. What I find super interesting is the relationship between defensive reactions and where growth is wanting. What do the specific characteristics of a specific defensive reaction tell us about how to be more conscious in a particular context.

  1. Here’s a little allegory. Young children in a daycare have to play indoors on a rainy day. The daycare worker gets out a simple jigsaw puzzle for them to solve together. There are six pieces to the puzzle and six kids. Each grabs a piece to claim tenaciously as “mine!” The daycare worker tries to show them how to fit pieces together, but each child wants to place their own piece alone on the table and throws the other pieces off. For each, their’s is the best and “true” piece of the puzzle.

    Gordon White’s “Longing for the enemy” expresses a much needed complement to the social norm. Confrontation and competitiveness tend to permeate modern political and social process and even academia—to the detriment of all parties. The basic missing attitude involves understanding that no one has all the pieces to the puzzle; that we need other viewpoints in order to have a more complete picture of reality. This means appreciating opposing points of view and trying to open to what we can find of value in them rather than excluding them because of what they contain that is “wrong”. In terms of the world, this faith in others is the plausible rationale for democracy. In terms of the self, at a certain stage the ability to surrender one’s certitude is the path to growth.

    1. Hi Dan,

      I like the analogy very much. It reminds that me that when teaching in the last couple of years I have been saying that we need each other’s stories to resolve differences. Your analogy develops the idea further by specifying that putting all the pieces together makes a whole; moreover, that all pieces are required to make the whole. The analogy also implies that the discord of difference can be stitched together into an attractive whole.

      There is also an inner/outer mirroring of your comment in relation to the blog post. I wrote about the capacity of an individual to hold multiple perspectives of a situation, but I did not conclude that the multiples had to come from others. I was actually thinking more in terms of self generated perspective: Whether from others or not, in order to be effective in a demanding conflict one has to be able to comfortably entrain and hold multiple perspectives, some of which will most likely contradict each other.

      Your comment takes my idea beyond a psychological level to include the social dimension, suggesting that the ability to hold multiple dimensions is not enough. One must collect and simultaneously hold the perspectives of all involved parties.

      Thank you!

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