How to improve your life and save the world.
Monday, April 9, 2012
I was on the ladder painting the house when a nearby religious radio station overpowered NPR and I heard someone railing against homosexuals.
I was amazed at how much hatred I was hearing. The evangelist said God defined homosexuality as a crime and further that God requires death for homosexuality. I started down the ladder but before I could retune the radio this same person said that he loved homosexuals. He mused, “How can I love these criminals who should be put to death? I love them because Jesus teaches that we should love our neighbors and even our enemies.”
“How sad,” I thought. “That person doesn’t understand love.” But then I thought, what is my understanding of love? I turned off the radio and climbed back up the ladder to think that over.
It certainly didn’t seem loving to condemn someone to death or call him a sinner saying he would go to hell. That seemed more like hate than love yet he saw no contradiction in what he was saying. As a Christian he knew that he was supposed to love everyone even his enemies. Did he understand the notion of loving everyone in some way I didn’t? It seemed that he was just using the word without giving it any meaning. Try as I might I couldn’t come up with any nature of love that would allow such harsh judgment. However, labeling what he was saying as hateful sure wasn’t getting me any closer to my understanding of love.
When I climbed off the ladder I went straight to my dictionary but no definition was particularly helpful even in describing my love for my wife, Barbara. Closest was “strong passionate affection” but my feeling for Barbara is much more than that. When I tell her I love her I mean I will do my best to never make her unhappy. The definitions for the verb “love” all started with “to have”. Shouldn’t love be an active verb? If so, what action? The dictionary tells me that to run I should move my legs rapidly. I’m not expecting to find a graphic definition like that for love but maybe there should be some reference to the body. We are fond of thinking of love as coming from the heart. Have we placed the seat of love in the heart because we don’t think we have any control over loving? Love and the heart don’t really have any connection. To love our neighbors or our enemies has got to be a conscious action. If someone sticks a gun in my ribs and says give me your money, I can’t see ever getting to some higher plane of consciousness in which I will be flooded with a feeling of love for this guy. It will take some work, some thinking to get over my gut feeling.
Nose still in the dictionary I look for definitions for two words similar to love (venerate and like) and the opposite of love (hate). These definitions all begin with “to regard” and the definition of to regard is “to think of with a particular feeling”.
Hate, venerate and like are things we do in our mind. While feelings are involved, still, we have some control.
Affection figures heavily in the definitions for love. Back to the dictionary. “Affection n 1. a settled good will, love, or zealous attachment: as the affection of a parent for his child. Good will could describe my desire to never make Barbara unhappy but it still doesn’t go far enough. Not only is it important that I not make her unhappy I wish happiness for her at all times from all angles. The same for my children. Ditto for my friends. In fact, I don’t wish anyone ill will. But the definition is not just “good will” but “settled good will”. Apparently, by this definition, there has to be some history involved with affection.
I could also say I have a “zealous attachment” to my immediate family but I wouldn’t say I am zealously attached to my friends. Are there different kinds of love? Did I love my father the same as I loved my mother? Do I love my son the same as I love my wife? Do I love my daughter the same as I love my son? As I think about these real relationships I realize that my feelings for each are different. Feelings! Do I feel the same about my father as I feel about my mother? My son as my wife? My daughter as my son? No. My feelings are different. My emotional response when I think of each is different.
What of the love for my neighbor or my enemies as expressed in The Bible. I don’t see anything in the definitions of love or affection that addresses love for everybody. Then it occurred to me that perhaps there was just one love, or rather a core love, a trunk from which the various forms of love branch.
On the ladder the next day I didn’t seem to be any closer to understanding love and then it occurred to me that what bothered me about the radio preacher was his judgment of homosexuals. I thought of my yoga teacher, a vegetarian which she carries to a judgment of all animals that eat other animals. She also preaches universal love. I once asked her if she loved hawks.
“Yes, but I don’t love how they eat. I wish they would learn to eat nuts and berries.”
“If you love them, shouldn’t you accept their nature, their being, as it is?”
Acceptance. Yeah. Can I imagine love without acceptance? No. Acceptance must be in the definition of love I’m looking for.
At some point in every session my yoga instructor tells the class to breathe in good thoughts, among them unconditional love. Of course love should be unconditional but, hold on a minute, is there even such a thing as conditional love? What might be a condition of love? I love you as long as you don’t kill someone. What kind of a friend would that be? If you kill someone, you will need my love more. Would I abandon a friend in the time of greatest need? Even traditional wedding vows deny conditional love—“to have and to hold, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health … until death do us part.”
Love must be unconditional acceptance. That covers the problem I had with the radio evangelist. If he accepted people’s sexual orientation or preference, he wouldn’t be judging them. It is something that I can actually do if I put my mind to it.
I’m still working on this core definition for the verb to love. I’m sure unconditional acceptance is necessary. A warm feeling also seems like a good addition at least for those with whom I come in contact—maybe not the guy with the gun. I’m also thinking that respect would be a good addition. These are all things that I can actually strive to do.
Getting away from my judgment that the radio evangelist doesn’t understand love is difficult. I want to rationalize and say that I accept him but I judge his belief. I certainly don’t hate him. I have no illusion that I could change him. I have thought about him, given him a family, found respect for his commitment to his beliefs accepted that he believes he loves his neighbors and his enemies and through this empathy exercise I have developed something of a warm feeling toward him. He must be good at his job to have a radio show. He probably brings hope and solace to many. In a way he is my enemy because of the hatred he preaches. Loving my enemies is tough.
All this thinking about love has helped me get over road rage. When someone pulls out in front of me now I’m just thankful I was able to slow down without an accident. It has done wonders for my blood pressure; much better than the days when I would ride up on the back of the offending driver and turn on my lights. Once, with the whole family in the car, I turned on the windshield wipers by mistake in my road-rage. “You sure showed him, Dad.” That has become a family joke.
I may never learn to love my enemies but I certainly enjoy driving more now that I have accepted that bad driving practices do not make bad people and I am making progress with my feelings for the evangelist.