Posts Tagged ‘love’

Can Love Cast Out Fear?

Last week in this space, I suggested that most of us Americans—conservative and liberal, coastal and middle America, urban and rural—share a weird type of common ground: fear. We fear the white-hot public square, in which anything we do or say might incur wrath. We fear our leaders, our institutions, and our systems, often with good reason. This came up in conversation with a good friend of mine, a conservative Christian and reluctant Trump supporter.

Another of my friends might have an answer to the fear crisis.

She is one of the wisest women I’ve ever known. I’m tempted to call her a mystic and a prophet, but even that doesn’t capture the depths at which she lives every day in her tough urban neighborhood.

Right now she’s focused on two desires. She wants everything in her life to be a prayer, a continual communication through a continually open channel to God. And she wants to be so full of divine love and light that it just floods out from her and suffuses every person in her wake.

Skeptics might scoff at her. But I don’t think they understand the true nature of love. It’s not what passes for love in our culture: romance, or flirtatious fancy, or concern only for family or tribe. Rather, it’s a commitment to seeing every last human as having surpassing worth and dignity—a commitment to tend to their needs as diligently as we tend to our own.

The fourth chapter of 1 John, a book in the Christian scriptures, makes a bold claim about this kind of love. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.

That feeds right into our crisis of fear. What are so many people fearing? Judgment, shaming, disparagement—all forms of what that verse calls punishment. If we made the effort to flood our adversaries with God’s love, to listen openheartedly, to gain their trust, would their fear melt away in time? Would they someday be able to trust the love they receive from us and respond in kind? Then could we talk and listen and respect one another?

This sort of thing is easily dismissed as “holding hands and singing Kumbaya.” It is nothing of the sort. It is hard, excruciating work that involves vulnerability, pain, the shame of looking squarely at how we’ve been wounded and how we’ve wounded others.

Love doesn’t mean we’ll agree on everything. It does provide a way to live and work together in a way that benefits our species and our planet. It is certainly better than what we’re doing now.

I think it’s worth a try. You?

Our Manifold Sins and Wickedness, Reconsidered

There’s this old prayer of confession in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition that feels, well, out of step with today’s world. In older versions, we “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” Even in today’s Book of Common Prayer, “we do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”

By and large, postmodern folks don’t think this way anymore. We regard it as shaming, twisting ourselves into a pretzel of self-flagellating guilt. As children of the psychotherapeutic age, we’ve seen—and often felt firsthand—the corrosive damage shame can cause, so we naturally recoil from prayers like this. I think that’s a good instinct.

But what do we do with our dark side? Many of us still feel shame for our failures, though perhaps in a more generic, secular way. Because of that shame, we often suppress our shortcomings in any way possible.

Or, perhaps more accurately, we ignore them. We choose not to think about the way we use people, or the times we compromised our values and shouldn’t have, or the lies we’ve told. Instead, we present a pleasant façade to the world.

Over time, we may even come to believe the façade ourselves. We bury what Carl Jung famously called our shadow.

I think there’s a better way, and it came up in silent prayer recently. It goes like this:

It’s OK to look at our own failings and shortcomings and simply accept them as part of ourselves—at least as part of ourselves for now. It’s an acknowledgment of the hot mess within us that makes us human.

So when I say, “I often keep quiet to avoid conflict when I should speak up,” I’m not speaking from low self-esteem, or looking for comfort. Rather, I’m acknowledging a painful truth about myself—honestly, with sadness, but without shame. Do I wish I didn’t avoid conflict in this way? Absolutely. Do I hope to be better? Yes. But is this me, right now? Yes, it is.

This is the kind of thing that Holy Cross Monastery (the place where I’m an associate) talks about when it describes the virtue of humility: “Humility is not self-denigration; it is honest appraisal. We have gifts and deficiencies, as does everyone else. We start from there, remembering that God loves each of us with a unique but equal love.”

When we do this, we are closer to our true selves—all of our true selves.

We are also closer and more compassionate to one another. When I see myself honestly, with clarity, without shame, I realize the deep truth of that wonderful bumper sticker (based on a quote allegedly from Margaret Mead): always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everybody else. We see our humanity in all its aspects, which enables us to see one another’s humanity in all its aspects. The more we identify with someone, the more we can empathize—and love.

And God knows we need more love in the world.

What Can Our Enemies Teach Us?

Please note: This is a delicate topic. If you’ve suffered major trauma at the hands of another person, feel free to skip the article, or at least read with care.

 

I don’t like using the word loathe. I don’t want to admit I can loathe. But three people in my past inspire something like loathing in my deepest self. They all—unintentionally, I believe—caused me a great deal of hurt.

There’s a hitch, though: every one of them contributed to who I am today, and what I can offer the world.

Two of them are brilliant thinkers, and their insights are now part of my foundation. The third was the first person to suggest I become a writer. Writing has become like oxygen to me, so I owe her a lot.

Can I value these people for what they have given to me, even though I’d cross the street to avoid them?

*  *  *

Fast-forward to today. Circumstances have forced me to regularly see, and do things with, someone whose life appalls me. I have watched him shame people and shut down important conversations. For various reasons, I’m also stuck with him. Even weirder, when we must collaborate, we do rather well.

Can I work with and dislike this person at the same time, with integrity?

*  *  *

People like these, I suspect, come to all of us. Perhaps it’s been worse in the past year, with all the drama in our public life. Maybe your most faithful friend offered her full-throated support to Donald Trump, and he makes your skin crawl. Or your loving sister revealed a racist streak you never knew she had. Or you suddenly realized that your adversary on that hot-button issue has taught you a life lesson you cherish.

Right now, in the Western world at least, we’re not well-equipped for this. Our increasing polarization, our default to “us vs. them,” the sheer intensity of rage over the past year: all of it shoves us toward simple, black-and-white, up-and-down decisions on people. We can’t handle the tension, so we run toward the poles. You’re with me or against me. Friend or foe.

This kind of behavior is understandable. The tension is brutal, after all. But if we dismiss people outright, we may miss the gifts they hold for us.

Now for some people in some situations—particularly where abuse is involved—ending the relationship may be the only healthy choice. Self-care is essential to survival, and if our ability to function depends on shutting certain people out, then we owe it to ourselves to do so.

For the rest of us, may I suggest that we not try to resolve the tension. What happens if we hold it instead—if we simply let the pain and the contribution of such people live side by side in our hearts? What if we just let the ambiguity be?

Here is where I think a deep, daily connection with the One—whether God, Spirit, Buddha-nature, whoever or whatever you conceive the One to be—is invaluable. In two spiritual direction trainings I attended recently, the presenters emphasized the necessity of doing our inner work before we can fruitfully engage the storms of the world in this new, populist era. That’s what I’m trying to say here. Most of us, I believe, don’t have the fortitude to hold this tension alone, by sheer force of will. We need help. We need the strength to turn away from outrage and toward openheartedness. We at least need the sense that we are not alone.

And from there? By holding the tension, I think maybe we give love the chance to do its work. Delaying a final friend-or-foe decision opens space to what these people have contributed to our lives, or the areas in which we can appreciate them. It keeps a channel open between us and them: a possibility of open communication, perhaps even reconciliation, in the future.

And here’s the big thing: with every person who can hold this tension, we get one step closer to a society that can hold this tension—a society of people who approach their “loathed ones” with a somewhat more open heart. That one step is tiny, to be sure, but it’s not negligible. And oh, how our world could benefit from a little less polarization, a little less loathing.

Why Today’s Cynicism Isn’t Enough: The Sequel

few days ago, I received a response to last week’s post from my good friend Kim. Kim is both a deeply committed Christian and a remarkable thinker, so it came as no surprise that her response took the whole conversation in a new and deeper direction—away from a critique of today’s cynicism and toward a reflection on cynics themselves and how they might move from cynicism to hope. Here (lightly edited and condensed to fit the space here) is an excerpt:

First off, I totally one hundred percent agree with your critique of the cynical mindset…. I also agree that critiques of culture, institutions, or individual circumstances need a “To” direction.  Getting rid of the negative or undesirable factors, without also having a positive outcome towards which you are aiming, tends not to get anywhere….

Having said that, I think the article falls short in that it…doesn’t exactly address the larger issue. In my experience with cynics, and I encounter many…there is no motivation on the part of cynics to change. They are not seeking a positive “To” direction, because they do not believe that change is indeed possible. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” is a fair summation of the cynic’s philosophy, mindset, worldview. Everything that could be tried has been tried, and found wanting.  In short, the cynic’s view is undergirded by a general sense of hopelessness.  If they did not feel that the situation (whatever situation that might be) was not hopeless, they would not be cynics. If they could envision a “To” direction, they would go in it.  But their negative mindset clouds their vision.

Vision is the ability to “call those things that are not as though they are.” In short, vision is faith.  Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The visionary is able to see things that are not, and walk towards them. They realize their vision by seeing that which does not exist, and summoning it forth into existence by faith. Martin Luther King envisioned a world where people were not judged by the color of their skin. Mandela envisioned a South Africa post-apartheid. Bobby Kennedy said, “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I see things as they could be and ask ‘Why Not?'”

Cynics lack this basic capacity; in short, they lack faith. Not necessarily faith in a particular God or view of God, but basic faith that things can ever be better—better in their personal circumstances, better in our political system, better in our communities and institutions.

How does one get from Point A (cynicism) to Point B (hope)—that is the question….

I think…often the cynic is changed by the unfailing love he or she receives from a believer.  I have been watching the movie The Way this week, and it has a similar story line. A father loses his son, he is angry and bitter, and in the course of completing the pilgrimage across the northern Spanish coast—which his son was undertaking when he died—the father is changed. He is changed not by anyone telling him he needed an attitude adjustment, but by the human encounters he experiences along the way. Our hard attitudes are most often changed, not by lectures, but by the unselfish love and mercy we receive from others. We are changed by patient love that wears down our defenses over time.

Dialogue With the Believer Who Believes Something Else

Let’s say you’ve been on planet Earth awhile—at least 20 years—and you’re basically settled on your beliefs about the life, the universe, and everything. Some of those beliefs may be non-negotiable. You might even believe that your worldview is the one and only truth; others, while they might hold bits of truth here and there, are fundamentally incorrect.

Why on earth would you want to listen to someone who believes something else?

This is no idle question. We’ve all known people who won’t listen. To some degree, we are those people. I once submitted an idea for a convention workshop and was rejected because I wasn’t conservative enough for the sponsor—even though the topic had nothing to do with being conservative or liberal. They just didn’t want to hear me.

OK, so back to the question. Why listen? I can think of three reasons right off the bat. See what you think, and please feel free to add your own.

 1. You want to share the great things about your worldview, and listening gets your foot in the door.

 There’s nothing wrong with sharing your enthusiasm for the beliefs that live close to your heart. But be forewarned: in today’s skeptical culture, listening as pretense to talking will likely get you nowhere. Between political campaigns and wall-to-wall advertising, the speed of the Internet and our national ADD, people have become exquisitely tuned to ulterior motives. They also turn off at the first whiff of anything that sounds like a sales pitch. At the same time, they hunger to be heard. The best way to make an impact on someone in those conditions is to listen: first, last, and sometimes only.

 2. The other person might know something.

Even if your worldview is The Truth, it’s not The Exhaustive Truth: it cannot possibly cover every situation relating to God, the world, the human race, etc. The Bible says nothing directly about genetic engineering; might you learn something—maybe something new and consistent with your worldview—if your dialogue partner is a secular geneticist? If you are a Christian (whose tradition says something about meditation but not a ton), might you gain insights on meditation from a Buddhist, then adapt them to your own faith?

3. You get to practice love.

Love is central to nearly every faith tradition—but you don’t need a faith tradition to see that loving makes us better people. It involves putting ourselves aside, at least in the moment, for the good of the other. This kind of love is best honed when it extends to people who are not like us. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew (5:46-47), “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?”

So there are three reasons for anyone and everyone to take part in dialogue, regardless of convictions. Can you think of others?