Compassionate Confrontation: How to Meet Evil with Love

Compassionate Confrontation: 

How to Meet Evil with Love

When my beloved adopted daughter Pamela was caught in the jaws of extreme drug addiction, my survival (and hers as well) depended on my learning compassionate confrontation.  To be only compassionate would have led to a permissiveness that tolerated the intolerable and enabled her self-destruction.  To be only confrontive would have deepened the alienation and unworthiness from which she already suffered.  I had to learn to combine the compassionate unconditional love I had for her with the confrontational tough love we both needed to survive.

A case can be made that our current president and his “agenda,” along with much of the popular culture of our country, is suffering from the disease of addiction.  Addicts are caught in the vicious cycle of physical craving for substances to deny and numb their pain and to inflate their pathologically low self-esteem.  In order to survive as addicts, they will do whatever they have to do to get their drugs.  Doing the terrible things they do exacts an awful price on their already low self-esteem and compromised moral integrity. The pain of guilt causes them to use more drugs, to seek more numbness, more escape, more denial, and, eventually, creates more acting out and yet more guilt.  And on it goes.

Addictive cravings demand immediate gratification, and make addicts unable to consider the consequences of their behavior.  Addiction has often been called a disease of “self-will run riot.”

Trump is an extreme example of “self-will run riot.”  His need to dominate others, to get the demands of his small self-will gratified, and to satisfy his basest desires all appear to stem from an underlying pathological condition.  This condition only gets worse the more his self-will is allowed to run rampant.  Like the addict’s dependence on drugs, no true satisfaction can ever be found; it is an inevitable spiral downward.  He can never have “enough” money, fame, power, sexual conquest, or domination of others.  The more he has, the more he craves.

Our culture’s drugs of choice are not just power, fame, money, sex, drugs and alcohol, but also mind-numbing TV, and all forms of shallow electronic entertainment, rigid religious and political ideologies, fossil fuels, processed foods, and the accumulation of material goods. Like addictive drugs, the culture fuels a compulsive desire for MORE, and also assures that we will never be satisfied.

The lessons I learned in dealing with addiction in my family – including the practice of compassionate confrontation – can be applied to political action in these times.  We need to learn to practice non-violent compassionate confrontation of the insane, addicted behavior of Trump and allies, even as we keep our hearts open to them as people who are suffering from their addictions.  And we need to look within ourselves for where our own addictions, fears, rages, and insanity are destroying our capacity for compassion and/or for confrontation.

One feature of the family disease of addiction is that when the addict is in the throes of using drugs, the whole family goes crazy trying to control the uncontrollable addict.  Given that the whole country seems pretty crazy now, this might be another indication that we can profitably view the issues we face from the perspective of confronting addiction.

Pamela and I wrote a book about our journey through addiction, called Love Unbroken: From Addiction to Redemption.  The title of the book is taken from this quote by Gangaji, a contemporary spiritual teacher, “Opening to whatever is present can be a heartbreaking business.  But let the heart break, for your breaking heart only reveals a core of love unbroken.”

In the course of Pam’s ten years of extreme drug addiction, I was often heart-broken.  I dove deep into my grief and pain and let it wash me clean.  I shook with fear and anxiety, and saw clearly that all my attempts to define and control life and others (especially Pam) were merely futile efforts to push away that soul-shattering fear.  I screamed with rage, was dragged down by guilt, and sometimes fell into despair.  But, over time, I learned to let each of these temporary emotional states move through me, stepping back, staying aware and accepting whatever arose.   Until, finally, I could let go; actually I had to let go over and over again, each time a little deeper.  Until I was, at last, swept into the vast ocean of unconditional, unbroken love beneath all experience.

What is happening in the U.S. now is truly heart-breaking.  It is only by feeling the pain of our own heart-break that we can come to know the foundational love that lives at the core – of ourselves and of all life.  There is a presence here deeper than our personal will which holds everything that is happening in compassion.  When we find this love in ourselves, we can confront the “other” without being oppositional and polarizing in our confrontation.

Martin Luther King, my first spiritual teacher, knew this foundational love.

He knew:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

He taught:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’  It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s in which I was a peripheral player—standing with King on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, teaching at Howard University, spending “Freedom Summer” of 1964 in Mississippi—it became clear to me that the only action that brings enduring change is action which is aligned with Love and Truth.  These great cosmic forces illuminate and unify.  If, on the other hand, action is motivated by self-righteousness, fear and division, it will only create more entrenched egos, more un-grounded fear and more angry divisiveness.

We need to practice again King’s kind of political action.  Action from the heart, powered by love.  This is what worked for me in dealing with addiction and this is what I believe will work to bring the change we wish to see at a societal level.

POLITICAL ACTION  from the Heart

* Grounded in Awareness and Acceptance

* Directed by Guidance

* Powered by Love

When I was dealing with active addiction in the family, I received a lot of help from Al-anon, the fellowship for family and friends of those suffering from addiction, including alcoholism.  One of their most effective maxims is:  the 3 “A”s:  1.Awareness,  2. Acceptance, and (only then) 3. Action.

  • Of the outer situation: We have to make sure we see what is really happening, that we are getting accurate information.  Just as the family of the addict needs to get out of denial, we all now need to find out what is really going on here, as best we can.  We need to read reports that are as unbiased as possible, and/or read several different biases so that we are not just reinforcing our own preconceptions or feeding our fears.

We need to see what is so:

  • without denial AND
  • without exaggeration


  • Of the inner situation: We need to take a good, clear, compassionate look at what is going on inside of ourselves:
  • We need to be aware of our own thoughts, judgments, prejudices, and pre-conceptions.
  • We need to be aware of our feelings/ sensations including  Fear/ Anger/ Grief
  • We need to allow these feelings to be fully felt – just as they are,just as they arise in the body, without mental justification or explanation.  Simple bodily sensation/feeling.  Allow it to pass through like a wave arising, and then falling away.


In my experience with my daughter Pam, the most difficult challenge to awareness and acceptance of WHAT IS happened before the addiction ever took hold, when she was just 13 years old.  She was raped.  By three boys.  It was horrific.  After the police came to our house to talk to her, I drove her to the hospital. All the way to the hospital, I kept saying out loud, “This shouldn’t have happened.  This shouldn’t have happened.”  The event was overwhelming, and my defense against the horror was denial.  As the car approached the emergency room, Pam tried to comfort me:  “It happened, Mom.  It just happened.” 

It would take me months to fully assent to the reality that “it just happened,” but it was only after that acceptance that I was able to find my sanity again.  I was able to go through the trial of her rapists in sorrow rather than in denial or in revenge.  I was able to take seriously the deeper issues and needs of my daughter, which I had not seen clearly until that time.

(This story is told in Chapter 1 of Love Unbroken.)


  • We usually need to start the process of acceptance by accepting our own inner reactions to the outer situation.

We notice and accept all the negative thoughts we have, just as they are, without blame or justification.

We notice and meet all our feelings, just as they are, as pure sensation


  • If we are fortunate, we can recognize a Background Presence “behind” all our thoughts and feelings, however negative or disturbing they may be. This Presence is Just Here/ Just Now.  It always accepts what appears exactly as it is.  One name for this Presence is:  Unconditional Love.  What we know about Love is that:

                                              Love accepts Life as It Is

  • If we are fortunate enough to be able to glimpse this unconditional love as the background presence in our lives, then our challenge is to view the outer situation of which we have become aware through the lens of this unconditional acceptance. We repeat as often as needed, accompanied by sighs, as needed:  “It is as it is.”

I had many opportunities—in the long ten-year course of Pam’s active drug addiction—to practice acceptance of what is. 

One such moment:  After a great deal of effort and money, we send Pam, on a one-way ticket, to a drug treatment program in the middle of Mississippi which has a reputation of success with young addicts.  A week into treatment, I have a reassuring conversation with her counselor who tells me at some length about how well Pam is working the program there.  Twenty minutes later, the counselor calls me back to say that Pam has left the premises—in the middle of winter, barefoot, without a coat, and with no money.  

And, no, they won’t help us find her nor will they call the police.  Since she has left the premises, they have no further responsibility for her.  My sputtering fury and frustration are matched only by my soul-searing grief.  I stomp and scream and wail for hours.  And then I go to an Al-Anon meeting.  When the roiling waves of emotion subside, I simply wait to hear—from her, or from the police, or from some morgue somewhere—about her fate. About a week later, she calls to say she is Washington DC, having hitch-hiked back. Unscathed.  She simply isn’t ready yet to get clean.

(This story is told in Chapter 19 of Love Unbroken.)


  1. ACTION:

Only when we are willing to be aware of and accept all our experience—the good and the bad, the joy and the suffering—can we act out of love rather than out of fear or anger.   Only after we have let the chaotic waves of emotion move through us, can we return to the inner stillness and silence which are the ground of our being.

Then we can listen to the guidance of our inner being (what the Quakers call “the still, small voice within”) and do what is called for, what is in alignment with Love and Truth, with our own deepest nature.

As an adopted child, Pamela had severe “attachment” issues.  Throughout her childhood we never fully bond.

When she is an adolescent, Pam decides she wants to live with her biological dad.  But a few months after moving there, she begins using cocaine and then runs away from school and home to the streets of Omaha, Nebraska.  I am frantic. 

I call a PI (private investigator) in Omaha and ask if he can find my daughter.  He cautions that it is a “million in one” chance. I hire him.  He says I’ll have to come there and we’ll have to get a court order (she is almost 18) to empower him to apprehend her, and, even then, there is only a slim chance she can effectively be detained.

Her biological father washes his hands of her.  My Al-anon friends here say I need to wait until she asks for help.  My husband thinks it is a crazy idea for me to go.  Everyone cautions me to wait, to take care of myself, to calm my terrible anxiety.  They are concerned that, even if I go, and if I can’t find her, I will be in worse shape than I already am.  It is excruciating, but … I wait.  I pray. I allow that anything might happen. 

I accept that I am helpless.  I repeat the first three steps of the 12-step program over and over:  “I am powerless over the (addict).  I trust in a Higher Power to restore me to sanity.  I surrender my life and will to that Power.”  I sit in meditation and prayer through half a night until finally some peace comes.  I sleep for a few hours.

Then I am awakened by a bright moon.  I stand at my window and the light of the moon pours in through my head.  A clear voice, the voice of the Divine Mother, the Moon, says to me:  “Go.  Listen for my Voice. I will guide you every step of the way.”  I go back to bed in complete calm. 

The next day I go to Omaha, find the PI, call on the lawyer to get him to draw up the legal papers, visit the school Pam had last attended, and then, when the papers are finally ready, the PI and I go to get the signature of a judge at the local courthouse.  It is already past 5 p.m. on a Friday and everyone has gone home.  But I “see” an angel in front of us, leading us into the courthouse, and there we find a middle-aged African-American woman judge who is just leaving her office.  I plead, “This is my last chance.”  She signs the papers.

Almost immediately thereafter I get a call from Pam on the cell phone I have rented.  Within 24 hours of my visitation from the Divine Mother of the Moon, Pam is in custody and starting to de-tox.

(This story is told in Chapters 10 and 11 of Love Unbroken.)

Pam could see that I wasn’t going to give up on her, and that I would do anything to help.  We bonded.  Her addiction did not end then, but the terrible rift between us was over.  From then on she knew I was on her side, and together we would fight this terrible demon disease that was hell-bent on killing her.  And we did.

Even though Pam and I forged an unbreakable emotional bond at that time, her disease still had to run its course.  I had to learn the nature of her disease.

I had to learn to discern the difference between the addicted person, whose personality had been hijacked by drugs, and my loving daughter who deeply wished to be free of drugs.

My loving daughter needed my compassion, my unconditional love.  I needed  to reassure her, over and over, that I still loved her, still believed in her, and that I would be there the moment she was ready for help.  The addict needed my confrontation, my tough love:  I would not give her any money when she was using drugs, even when she was living under bridges and eating out of dumpsters.  I did not let her live in my house, or any place that I helped finance, as long as she was using drugs.  When she was in the first years of recovery I drug-tested her often and unpredictably.  When she was using, I learned not to believe what she said as she was, mostly, lying.

I made many mistakes: I tried too hard to rescue her, but also didn’t come to her aid when she was sincere.  I believed some of her lies, and didn’t believe her when she was struggling to tell me the truth.  But throughout I knew that the “enemy” was her disease, not my beloved daughter.  As long as I could keep my heart open, I could and did find a path that worked for both of us.

Pam is now ten years clean and sober, holding a good job as office manager of a drug treatment center, raising two children, and in a new marriage.

When the time is right, and the action is guided by Love – a power greater than ourselves – miracles do happen.


During the many recoveries and many relapses in Pam’s journey to sobriety I kept deepening my capacity to accept what is, and to wait for action until the time was right.  I knew I needed to wait to act until it was clear that the action was in alignment with Guidance from a Source greater than my own mind.

Gradually my perception shifted:   I started out as a mother loving her daughter.  Then I saw myself as a devotee of the great archetype of love—the Divine Mother. I believed I was on this earth to serve as an instrument of Her Divine Will.  It was always from Her that I received my guidance about when and where to act to help Pam recover from addiction.

Then, at first suddenly and later gradually, I was led to an even deeper level of the unbroken, universal love which I had been called to serve.  I came to recognize that this love is my true nature.  It is what I am.  I AM that.

The love that I had served melted away the separate person I thought I was, like ice melts in water.  There is only this One Love, this one reality, expressing as Susan, as Pam, and as all that is.  This foundational love woke up in this body to reveal itself as the truth of what we are. That is true for every one of us, no matter how much the outer personality obscures that inner reality.

Faith in this foundational love allows us to accept whatever arises in experience and to trust that which is guiding the whole show.

More than anything, Love Unbroken is about Pam’s and my discovery of this core of love unbroken.


Applying the lessons:

Here’s how I applied the lessons I learned in dealing with addiction to the need for Political Action in our time

Like most of the people I know, the election of Trump felt like a devastating blow.  It felt so “wrong,” so much not in accordance with my ideas about how our species needs to evolve toward more truth and more love in order to survive on our beloved planet.  Trump’s personality was the incarnation of everything I most disliked; his chauvinistic aggressive defenses thoroughly masked his simple, flawed, vulnerable humanity, which he seemed to despise.  And yet, here it was.  He was, for now anyway, the president of the United States.  How was I going to accept WHAT IS?

After Trump’s election I first turned attention to my inner state.  I stomped and raged and wailed, as I had done after Pam’s runaway from treatment in Mississippi. I let the rage and fear and grief and despair flow through me, and then I let it all wash away.  I observed the negative thoughts about our future as a species, about the Republicans, about Trump – I watched the thoughts and let them go.  I saw the thoughts, but did not believe them.

And then, when I finally got quiet, I asked for guidance:  What can I do?

I received guidance to lead a Winter Solstice ritual last December 21 (2016) that 75 people attended.  Since then I’ve led Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice rituals, and I will keep that commitment to lead seasonal ceremony at our Medicine Wheel and on other parts of the land where I live –  at Sevenoaks Retreat Center,

I got clear that I was to go to the Women’s March and to another march led by Native Americans for their rights and for protection of the earth’s waters.  I wrote letters and signed petitions when the subject called to me.  I sent more money and read more news reports than I ever have.  I occasionally attended rallies and protests and support groups in Charlottesville, the town nearest to us with an active Resistance movement.

Where I am now:

I do my best to keep viewing Trump as a sick man, an addict of self-will.  He lives within a fearful closed mind and a terribly shrunken heart.  He seems to me to be very unhappy.  I see him as possessed by some really wrong ideas.  I do not see him as the “enemy.”

What IS the “enemy”?  It is the temptation to separation – and that temptation is in every one of us.  It is the temptation to identify exclusively with the apparently separate self and its personal will – “I want this and I don’t want that.”  In identifying with separation, there is the further temptation to see the “other” as not like “me,” which shreds our capacity for  empathy, acceptance and love.

When we see ourselves as separate, we live in constant fear, because this separate self will ultimately dissolve (die), and so we are always on guard, “protecting” this idea of who we think we are.  Fear then creates what it is afraid of – the “other” which is seen as threatening.

Protection of separation causes us to view “happiness” as the enhancement of our separation–domination, acquisition, and superiority–rather than seeing happiness as a natural outcome of our inherent capacity for connection and love.

And when the separate self seems to “get” what it “wants,” in the form of power, fame, and money, then self-will can truly become addictive.  “More” is never enough.

“Evil” results from our numbness to our own deeper needs, including the need to love and be loved.  This leads to numbness toward the other’s needs, and blindness to their equality and worth as fellow human beings.  Once we have cut off our connection to self and others, we can justify any amount of cruelty in the mistaken notion that the “other” is a “threat” which we must “conquer” in order to enhance our personal separate self / race / ethnicity/ country.

The only way “evil” can ultimately be overcome is within the self.  We need to face this temptation to separation within ourselves, bring it out into the open, have compassion for it, and then discover the pain we carry as a result of living from this illusion of separation.  We need to un-numb ourselves and feel our pain.  As we open up to compassion for the self, we open up to compassion for everyone.  We open to our longing to love and be loved, to connect with all humans and all life on the planet.  Guided by this longing, we can find the happiness and love that live within us as our true nature, underneath our apparently separate self.

Then we can help others.  And we help others by doing for them what we do for ourselves: illuminate their belief in the separate self, and confront the consequences. We meet them with compassion AND with confrontation and invite them back into relationship – with us and with themselves and with all life.

Like anyone in active addiction, Trump needs to be confronted and contained as much as possible.  As long as people around him keep enabling his addiction, he will not get well. And the acting out of his addiction will keep getting worse, until he self-destructs.  We do what we can – to get through to those around him who are still in denial and to assist the addict to “hit bottom.”

And yet…Trump’s and our country’s transformation is not up to us. Our actions cannot come from our personal will opposing his personal will.  That just creates more duality.  We can, instead, let go and realize that a force larger than our own personal wills is in charge of the show here.  And that the show will unfold…however it unfolds…within the context of a boundless unbroken love, that accepts everything just as it is.  And when we align with that love and commit to serving that love–as Martin Luther King, Jr. did–we can truly become instruments of Divine Will, so that miracles can happen.

I do my best to observe and accept when I am triggered into reactive outrage, my non-acceptance at what I still see as the havoc Trump and the Republicans are wrecking on the country.  I allow the reactions to be fully felt, but then take time to let them settle back into calmness and faith.

When I feel clearly called, I act.  Women’s issues, Native American issues, Water issues –these most call to me.  I will keep connecting to the Medicine Wheel daily, and I will offer solstice and equinox rituals as long as people want to attend. I will keep monitoring my emotional reactivity until consciousness returns to its innate silence and stillness.  And in that silence I will listen to the “still, small voice” and act whenever I am guided to do so.

I offer my experience here to whoever might find it useful as you sort out your own reactions, and find your own true basis for action from the heart.

Blessings, Susan Thesenga

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