We Must Not Be Enemies

I’ve borrowed my title from Michael Austin’s book of the same name. His full title is We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition. It’s a well-written, important book that Austin sums up in one sentence: “Americans do a bad job of talking to each other about politics, and we need to find ways to do better or we will lose our democracy.”

Austin believes that we must learn to argue as friends.

The book offers substantial researched support from Athens to the American Civil War, looking at the ideas of Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. among others.

I’d like to address Austin’s ideas using a different example, the 1981 animated Disney movie The Fox and the Hound.

The movie explores the relationship between Tod, the movie’s fox, and Copper, the hound of the title. Having been adopted by a human as a baby, Tod is a domesticated, young fox looking for a playmate. Copper, a puppy, is game. Neither has learned to be enemies, so they naturally — even if it seems to go against nature — gravitate toward friendship.

In fact, they become best friends. As the wood’s resident owl sings, “You’re not even aware/you’re such a funny pair.”

As Tod and Copper play hide and seek, Big Mama, the owl, sings: “Life’s a happy game/You could clown around forever/Neither one of you sees your natural boundaries/Life’s one happy game.”

What the movie implies, though, is that these boundaries are not at all natural. Until Copper’s hunting owner gets involved, the two supposed natural enemies experience no boundaries at all. It’s only when the hunter trains Copper to be his hunting partner that problems arise so that Tod’s foster mother releases him for his own safety.

The sage Big Mama recognizes the danger introduced by the hunter, warning Tod, who responds that Copper would never hurt him. Big Mama again warns him, emphasizing, “He’ll do what he’s told.” Still disbelieving, Tod asks, “You mean Copper’s going to be my enemy?”

The answer is yes.

Inevitably, the pair encounter each other again — this time, yes, as enemies. Now fully grown and trained, Copper roams the woods with his master and fellow dog, Chief, when he finds the sought-after prey: Tod. Copper, though, remembering their promise to be best friends always, lets Tod go, leading to Chief taking over pursuit and ultimately getting hurt. Copper blames himself for Chief’s injury so that real enmity takes root as Copper struggles with guilt and shame.

Copper and Tod go on to live separate lives until Amos, the hunter, takes Copper and a nasty looking steel trap out into the woods. Thanks to Copper’s nose, they find the perfect place to lay the trap, and once again the former friends must face off as enemies.

This time, though, a third enemy enters the mix, changing the equation. As Tod escapes and Copper pursues, a bear attacks. Seeing that Copper is in danger, Tod returns, saving his former friend.

When Amos comes along pointing his gun at Tod, Copper stands between them. Amos relents. Tod and Copper give each other smiles and go their separate ways.

The movie closes on Copper smiling yet again as he settles in for a nap, and we hear the voiceover of the two little friends vowing to be best friends forever. The shot pans out to Tod looking on in the distance.

Tod and Copper do not end the movie as best friends, but they are also no longer enemies. When faced with danger, they forget the training that put boundaries between them, and they respectfully — even fondly — allow the other his space and peace.

It’s a cartoon, sure, and, no, owls don’t sing, nor do foxes and hounds tend to become BFFs. But the movie ends pretty realistically, not having Tod and Copper best friends again but able to live peaceably.

Austin is not arguing that we should all just get along and be friends. In fact, he’s arguing the opposite: we should argue and wrangle because that’s how we sustain democracy. But we argue with charity and kindness.

We can use Right Speech, one of the steps on the Buddhist Eightfold Path to end suffering. Right Speech begins with deep listening. We listen without feeling threatened and with the goal of understanding a perspective. We don’t have to feel threatened because we do not have to agree.

Joy Harjo’s poem “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies” says it best: “An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.”



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Kathryn Duncan

Kathryn Duncan

Kathryn Duncan is an English professor and author of the book Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment.