The Scripture passage “Love your neighbor as yourself” has been haunting me lately. You may be more familiar with its cousin: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” How are love of others and self-love connected and possible in such divisive times?
This verse competes in my mind with an irreverent Johnny Cash line from another time: “Son, don’t take your guns to town.” Armed conflicts at demonstrations are scary and a long way from the adage “love your neighbor as yourself.” White militants plotting to kidnap the Governor of Michigan triggers trauma and fear. Black comedian Trevor Noah used humor to describe the insane situation in Kenosha WI: “Do you really think a young white guy crossed a state line with his assault-style rifle to protect Walmart?” Noah implies Kyle Rittenhouse was out hunting for an opportunity to shoot at people he perceived as his enemies — and he found that opportunity.
The fight over the confirmation hearings for the next Supreme Court Justice is violence of a different type – entrenched disdain with no where to go.
So, What about Love?
It is nearly impossible to love everyone, particularly those whose values and actions are in direct conflict with our own. Fear stokes intolerance and even hate. Intolerance and hate are then stoking violence. For some, the violence is with guns. For others like me, it is in our mind and our thoughts. All of us are hurting ourselves and others. What would it take to be the nation that follows the Golden Rule?
As I wrestle with this dilemma, I see both a why and a how question. The why question is simple: why do I want to love people who stand for hatred of and violence against other humans? Or, as we watch the battle over the Supreme Court nomination, how do we love people with whom we so adamantly disagree? Or, less flagrantly, how do I respond to people who annoy me or get in the way of what I want?
Jazz legend Louis Armstrong offers a clue as to why we should love our enemies. He was fond of saying, “Everything but loving leaves rust on the soul.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and other proponents of nonviolent resistance were clear that responding to violence with violence begets more violence. In short, responding to hate with hate expands hate in the world. It is in our individual and collective self-interest to love one another. Perhaps that is why all faiths teach that notion, and most parents encourage kindness and love.
The How of Love
So, if there is a credible why, we face the harder question of how to love our enemies and those who think, act and look different than us. While no one seems to know how to do this perfectly, there are strong clues that both individual and collective actions are needed.
A friend shared a story from his Buddhist experience that is relevant to what we can do individually. In discussing loving kindness, the dharma teacher was asked how they might see Donald Trump and his actions in loving kindness. The teacher challenged his audience to have compassion for Donald Trump. To do so, he said, you will have to look beyond his tweets and actions and see the scared, angry person behind them, who is in great pain, who is suffering immensely. You then can have compassion for him while also resisting his actions.
Al-Anon, the Twelve Step program for families of alcoholics, offers another example. Imagine if you were in a relationship with a man or woman who would get fall-down drunk every day and could no longer contribute to the family financially or emotionally – a sweet person when sober, but a monster after drinking too much. The daily torture of this way of life would erode, for most, any kind of compassion. Al-Anon teaches the same message with an added twist: focus on yourself and how you can open your heart, despite your fears and hurts. Learn to detach with love, which means to love the person, separate the person from the actions and not accept intolerable behaviors.
Human wisdom teaches us that when something is upsetting us, we need to look inside and see what part of that pain is in us. As a friend often reminds me, when there are disputes and broken relationships, we need to look at where we are holding each other in contempt. This examination often brings me to a place I don’t like to be, where I see how I am holding back from loving myself.
Embracing a Circular Journey
So, there seems to be a circular journey required in loving others as myself. First, compassion and forgiveness must enter the realm of the possible. This requires a moral compass, some kind of faith in love and goodness. Yet, I can’t will myself to love others if I am seeing in them parts of myself that I have difficulty loving, or if I have some residual feeling of being unloved that gets in the way of loving others. If compassion for self is difficult, then it’s nearly impossible to have it for others.
In my experience, faith in love expands my willingness to love and accept myself as I am. Meditation and affirmations expand self-love and the capacity for compassion. Compassion for myself expands my openness to compassion for others. Closing the circle, my service to others nurtures my self-love and the desire to love.
What will it take to overcome centuries of racial hatred, ideological mistrust and the building of oppressive structures and systems based on racism? I believe it begins with us, as individuals, looking at what is blocking us from loving and accepting ourselves and all our neighbors. That seems naïve perhaps, but the Golden Rule and the Bible do not seem to distinguish who gets loved. We are here to love all.