I’m in the midst of a long-term research project on the topic of love.
It started months ago, when my use of the word in the context of culture and politics evoked discomfort on the part of some academic and philanthropic readers. In the contexts where these questions arose, the word “love” isn’t much used, except as a reference to some external experience or object: Romeo loves Juliet, parents love their children. But I had proposed the word to characterize a shared vision of social transformation, quoting a snippet of Reverend James Lawson’s founding statement of principles for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, seeking “a social order of justice permeated by love.” (Read this statement, adopted in 1960, anytime you want to be reminded what real social imagination and hope look like.)
I’m not entirely sure why, but the discomfort made me passionate to assert the word even harder: love, love, love, love! When I gave a speech in Barcelona last month, I entitled it “Community Cultural Development: Justice Permeated By Love,” and ended it with an epigram from Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes in community.” (That was published in 1952. I’m wondering if we’ve lost something in our vocabulary of public discourse—ya think?)
In this sense—not romantic love or erotic desire, but love in community—what love means to me is desiring the well-being of those with whom you are in relationship, being willing to be fully present with them, in some sense bridging our separateness. Ultimately, to hold others in loving presence is to accept them fully, as they are. In Hebrew, this quality is chesed, translated as lovingkindness, and the same word appears often in Buddhist contexts.
Even though the word “love” flares out of an ordinary English sentence about culture or politics (or history or science or medicine…) as if lit with a thousand-watt bulb, even though it sometimes lodges in our brains, radiating unease, there is something so deep and true about the connection of love and community that I plan to continue my research project until I feel satisfied I understand it.
As part of that project, last week I spoke to a friend and teacher about my confusion. It isn’t very hard, I told her, to love Humanity in the abstract. It’s when you get down to individual cases that difficulties arise. She advised me to practice a form of the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation, strengthening my ability to generate love until I am able to bring even the people I find most troubling into its sphere.
So I started the way many teachers advise, by focusing on myself. The task I accepted was to call to mind a time I had been good and kind, caring or generous, and in the light of that goodness, to bless myself with well-being. The notion is that having learned to love oneself in this way, it is possible to move on, blessing in turn a benefactor, a neutral person, and eventually one I see as an opponent, or at least a difficult person.
I decided to focus on a time I had been kind to a friend, providing emotional and physical support, a listening ear and a caring heart. It felt like a sure thing, because I truly love my friend and knew my caring had been received and appreciated. I also thought it would a snap because, intellectually, I have a high opinion of my own virtue. It is important to me to be a good person and I want to be seen as a good person, so mostly I take care to examine my own conduct and bring it in line with my intentions.
Imagine my surprise when my head was filled with self-doubt and self-criticism. Had I been as attentive to my friend as I could have been? Weren’t there some moment where my attention flagged or I been thinking of myself? Isn’t my interest in being so virtuous really an expression of narcissism, more a desire to be well-regarded than to do good? How do I know I gave my friend all that she really needed? The questions cascaded as long as I tried the meditation.
I told my husband about it. He responded with all the same doubts and cautions: you have to be careful about thinking too well of yourself, you’ll get a swell head, ego is a dangerous trap, etc. Besides, how important it is to love yourself? I know people who love themselves too much, he told me, who seem to be in love with themselves. You have to be careful.
Yes, I told him, I had similar thoughts. But if I want to be good and I want to be seen as good, yet I can’t see myself that way—well, it’s kind of doomed, no? Maybe too much is bad, but so is too little.
I think part of our confusion is that we were talking about two different kinds of love. One is conditional: I have to earn the right to love myself by meeting a high standard of conduct. I have to deserve my love. The other is free-flowing: I am lovable for every gesture, attempt, impulse I make toward happiness and caring, whether or not they succeed according to some external standard. Just by seeking presence and caring in relationship, no matter how I stumble, I deserve my love.
Now I am wondering if the uneasiness the word “love” evokes when the subject is justice or community isn’t rooted in the same difficulty I’ve been encountering, the difficulty of allowing love to flow into and through us without taking ourselves to task for unworthiness.
Do you know that Van Morrison song, “Benediction”? Here’s the first verse:
My message this evenin’
Is simple indeed
Wherever you wander
Whatever your breed
There’s just one thing baby
That comes from above
When push comes to shove
Thank God for self love
Why is something so obviously true—unless we treat ourselves with love, we are unlikely to be able to extend authentic lovingkindness to others—so hard to accept? I’m doing the meditation every day this week, hoping that with repetition, my breath will fan the spark of self-love. I am mindful that I am writing this on Hiroshima Day, with the intention of loving myself despite all that we (including me) have done to harm others. Something tells me that whenever I get there, even loving my opponent will seem easier in comparison.