Whenever I wonder what it will take to stop us from attacking our adversaries, I think back to my first experience of hating my neighbor.
I was 27 when I landed an early-morning anchor job at the ABC News affiliate in Dallas. Each weekday, I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m., showered, put on makeup and dressed as though I were competing in a fashion show. Then I jumped into the driver’s seat of my blue Honda Accord and sped south down the highway.
The biggest impediment to my success as a morning news anchor wasn’t the hours, my wardrobe or my on-air delivery. It was the enemy next door.
My next-door neighbor had a Yorkshire terrier that barked incessantly in the evenings, running along the chain-link fence just outside my bedroom window. To get enough sleep to function in my job, I was under the covers with lights out no later than 8 p.m.
I asked my neighbor to please take her dog inside for the night. She ignored my request. Morning after morning, I dragged myself out of bed, smeared concealer under my eyes and guzzled coffee to make up for lost sleep.
My resentment boiled like hot lava. How could an eight-pound dog sabotage my best efforts to excel in a competitive television market?
I lay in bed at night listening to the dog’s shrill bark and imagined all the ways I could silence it. It wasn’t pretty. When I began to fantasize about lacing a juicy steak with poison and dropping it over the fence, my dark passion caught me by surprise. Who was I becoming? This woman who sang in church on Sundays, and on Mondays dreamed up ways to hurt her neighbor’s pet.
Instead of silencing the Yorkie, my husband and I filed a noise complaint with the city. The court set a hearing date for Dec. 24. My neighbor, in retaliation, baited a trap on her property with cat food, lured my tabby over the fence and sent him to the pound.
By the time my husband’s parents arrived for their Christmastime visit, I was obsessed. My in-laws were my heroes and spiritual mentors, so I asked them what they would do about the dog.
“If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus,” my father-in-law said, “you’ll love your enemy, not sue her.”
He was a man who had suffered in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II and had forgiven his brutal captors. Over the years I had seen him epitomize what it looked like to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
As Christmas approached, I had to choose which voice would control my next move: the contemptuous one that demonized a neighbor or the empathetic and self-sacrificing one being seriously tested. I walked reluctantly across the driveway dividing our houses, climbed the front steps and knocked on her door.
My neighbor faced me with a steely grimace.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I came to apologize,” I said. “I’m sorry I’ve ramped up this conflict by taking you to court on Christmas Eve. I don’t want to fight anymore. If there’s anything I can do to be a better neighbor, I hope you’ll let me know.”
To surrender my peaceful night’s sleep left me feeling powerless, even humiliated. But as I watched the surprise register on my neighbor’s face, something else happened in me. I felt lighter, freer, released from an ugly burden. As our brief exchange ended, I glanced past her shoulder into her cluttered living room where a toddler sat coloring. My rage inexplicably gave way to compassion.
A few weeks later, Laura — I’ll use that name — crossed the driveway to knock on my door this time.
“You said you wanted to be a good neighbor,” she said, looking at the floor. “I’ve run out of grocery money for the week, and I’m wondering if you could lend me enough to buy milk for my daughter. I can pay you back in a few days.”
“Really?” I wanted to say to God. “Isn’t this a little much?”
I found a $20 bill. It wasn’t long before Laura and I began talking over the fence about our neighborhood and her little girl, whom I’ll call Kassie. She repaid the milk money, the dog stopped barking, and I came to know Laura as a bright and kind woman with a warm smile. Over time I learned she had been deeply wounded and that she struggled with mental illness, much like my own mother. She told me she had one friend, and it was me.
When her brother died of AIDS, Laura came to my house on the day of his funeral and asked if I would listen to his favorite song with her. She didn’t want to do it alone.
When the music ended, I was unsure of what to say. I reached for her hand and asked if I could pray for her. She nodded, teary-eyed.
We were neighbors for seven years before Laura and I moved to different parts of town. I attended her daughter’s wedding, but eventually we lost touch. Two weeks ago, on Facebook, Laura’s daughter said her mother was in the hospital and close to death.
I called Kassie and asked if I could come. “Yes, please come,” Kassie said. “You were her only friend. It would mean a lot.”
I rushed to the hospital. When I walked into her room, Laura was still breathing, though her eyes were closed and the doctors didn’t know how much she could understand. Kassie told me that her mother had attempted suicide. I leaned over the bed, my face close to Laura’s.
“Laura, it’s Peggy, your friend, and I’m here,” I whispered. “You’re not alone. I love you. God loves you.”
The silence reminded me of the day she and I had sat in my house, listening to her brother’s song. What words could comfort her now? I pulled out my cellphone, googled “Bible verses for the dying,” and began to whisper into the ear of my former enemy, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
Laura opened her eyes briefly and closed them again. I could swear she knew I was there, but in truth, I’ll never really know.
What I do know is that as she died, Laura handed me a bittersweet gift. Years before we met, my mother, who also battled depression, had taken her life in the same way. She lived across the country. I couldn’t get to her in time to say goodbye. I never got to stroke my mother’s hair or remind her that she was loved.
Now, a woman I once called my enemy was freeing me from that long-held regret and sorrow.
Laura died that night. I’ll never forget her, nor the friendship that taught me that it’s likely to take much more than a better political candidate, cable news show or party platform to reverse the tide of hatred and revenge that is tearing this country apart. Maybe it will have to start with us, walking across the driveways that divide us and knocking on a door.
Peggy Wehmeyer, a former national religion reporter for ABC News, lives in Dallas.