Woman looking into the camera smiling on a beautiful autumn day, with a slight sense of hesitation.
Communication

No One Has Ever Loved Anyone

I love potent little phrases (it’s why I run a quotation-browsing website), and I recently came across a great one. It seems that Mignon McLaughlin once quipped:

No one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved.

It bowled me over. Because it immediately struck me as both true and useful.

First, lets play with its truthiness. If we were to make the quotation into some sort of logical proof, that proof would postulate, first, that there is a “way everyone wants to be loved.” And then it says that no one has ever loved another in that way.

It feels reasonable to sign up to the postulate that there is a way that everyone wants to be loved. What kind of love is that? Well, it’s fond and appreciative and fun, of course, but it’s also unconditional. I don’t think anyone wants to believe that whatever fondness and mutual support and whatever else they think comes with love is accompanied by any sort of precondition.

And this is the rub of the whole line: humans are, generally, unable to love in a precondition-less way. We’ll love our romantic partner, but only if they’re able to continue to provide for the family, or to be attractive to us physically, or to be available to us emotionally. Whichever of those or some other is the real friction point in the relationship, there almost certainly is one.

And there are good reasons for this: our survival is helped by mutually beneficial relationships. Unconditionality requires that we stop assuring that we get some benefit from a relationship. To move in relationship without precondition means that we can only score whether or not we’re having a positive impact on the partner to that relationship. Watching and counting what they do (or do not) for us would be a part of the calculus of rationally justifiable conditionality.

Almost all relationships between humans contain at least one regular point of friction. Even if it is as small as sometimes quibbling about what seasoning is best for the Sunday sauce, there is always some part of a relationship that doesn’t work seamlessly. Somewhere where there’s anger, or fear, or just plain old apathy to be found.

And that’s why “no one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved.” Now, why did I say it’s instructive? Because it points our way to a better love. We can love people intensely, but we probably aren’t giving them as perfect a love as they’d like. But so frequently, because we’re lazy or blind, we deny that. We don’t accept that we may own some part of the strain that we’re both subconsciously aware has started to show in our relationship.

If we’re able to take it as a starting point that “no one has ever loved anyone” so well that there was no friction, no conditionality, no difficulty, we can use it as a place to begin to work to make our loves and relationships stronger. It can be hard to accept, especially if you’re blinded by either your romanticism or your rational self-defense. But you can love better, in a way more like the target of your love would like. And if you work on it with seriousness, you will.

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Practical Philosophy

What If Ignorance is Love’s Only Obstacle?

I’ve got a short enemies list. If I whittle it down as far as it can go, I think it contains one item: ignorance.

But it wasn’t until today that it struck me directly that this relates very specifically to the one thing I could whittle my list of unimpeachably good things down to: love.

Because, for the first time, with the aid of Shantideva, it was clear to me that the only reasons I find it hard to love people is that I have mistaken and out-of-whack understandings of what they want,  what they can do, or what’s really driving their behavior.

If someone cannot be nice to me — be the proximate reason for that political, personal, or something else — shouldn’t I feel nothing but sympathy for that block they have?

If someone is cruel to me, shouldn’t I feel nothing but sorrow that they are in a place where they feel it is necessary or appropriate to be cruel?

And if someone is nice to me, shouldn’t I just appreciate the fact that they loved themself, and me, enough to be nice? What a beautiful thing that is!

We find it hard to love because we don’t understand the complex web of causes that leads people to be who they are and act in ways that we don’t like. But if we really understood all the causes that led another driver to cut us off, or a family member yell at us, or a stranger to run at us with a knife, wouldn’t our only reasonable response be to accept it? To understand that causes just came together such that they felt compelled to act in these ways?

There is a certain baked-in belief in the fated, rational, causal understanding of the world here. That is, if you believe that we are all rational agents making completely rational atomic choices at all times, as the only forces in the system, what I’m saying will make no sense to you. When you understand the world as consisting of completely isolated people acting in independent ways, a cruelty to another is a clear sign that a person is cruel. A nice action is a clear sign that that atomic person is nice.

But I don’t believe that people work like that. I believe all the way down to the core of my being that people are frequently ignorant agents playing out past conditioning. Some of that past conditioning points us in the direction of rational independent thought and action, but hardly a majority of it.

We do not walk, run, or drive cars with careful consideration of every muscle flex and yield. We don’t make decisions to eat a snack or go for a walk via careful, meticulously rational weighing of the costs and benefits of that act in our conscious mind. We simply are not nearly as rational as our rational mind would like us to believe.

We find it hard to love because we fail to believe in our own, or the world’s, lawful and understandable way of working. When we reject the idea that we live in a lawful world, we choose ignorance. When we choose ignorance, we’ll find it hard to accept and love as much as we should. As much as the world needs.

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Practical Philosophy

Be Kind to Each Other

If you accept that you are mortal. If you see all living beings as kindred spirits. If you understand the value of “the Golden Rule” and find it to be the the only path worthy of consideration. Then there is nothing left to do but be kind.

Kindness isn’t easy. And it’s not fun and light and uplifting all the time. Sometimes it’s the hardest of hard work. But it’s the best, sanest, most valuable course of action.

To really be good at kindness, to be skilled and able in all situations to respond with a kind response that is appropriate and doesn’t make you feel like you’re just faking it, is the work of a life.

But I know that it is work that is valid, and the only thing that feels worthy of all of my enduring effort.

I know that if I were to be told I’d die soon my fondest wish would be that I could experience the kindness of good friends and have the ability to extend as much kindness as I could back to them. When I look at it clearly, I find it hard to dispute this notion I jotted down on a sticky note well over a year ago:

After accepting his fate, he said: “There is nothing left to do but be kind to each other.”

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Personal Development

It’s Easier to Say Wise Things than Do Them

It is so much easier to say something sage-like and wise than to live out the implications of that wisdom. I touched on this a bit in my yearly review from last week, but it’s one of the core things that reading through this site regularly reminds me.

Doing wise things requires actually facing up to the reality of a situation and putting your base responses aside. To act wisely you must understand a situation fully, and act on that knowledge coupled with your highest, most noble understanding. And then you must take an action unimpeachable even from a great distance of time.

Part of the reason many people so love giving advice to others is that we know somewhere inside of us that this difference between speech and action is real. When we give advice, we don’t have to bear any of the responsibility for the wise action. We’re just responsible for seeing the situation clearly and having an opinion about the best way through it. The hard part of making that real in the world is left to the advice’s receiver.

I wrote last year about how gratitude is so important. I advocated for cultivating gratitude as it makes life better and easier and all that. And yet I just recently realized that I had been missing — for most of the period since that piece was published — all the small miracles in my life. I hadn’t forgotten the power of gratitude, but I only knew it in an abstract, academic way. I’d forgotten to actually live it regularly.

But living it is what life consists of. Learning to live the things you know. Learning to manifest in the world the beauty that is in your heart. There are few lines from 13th century Persian poet Rumi (translations differ) that go:

May be beauty of what you love be what you do
There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground

At heart, what we must regularly remind ourselves of is this: what we love, what we want the world to be like, what we wish were true — all of it — is our responsibility. We change the world by changing ourselves. Not just in what we think and say, but in what we actually go and do in the world. It is wise action, not wise thought or wise speech, that makes the world better.

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Communication

The Slow Revolutions of Love

Nonviolent revolutions aren’t clear and simple and swift; they’re typically exactly the opposite. Slow and halting and frustrating.

Violent revolutions have a clarity. A, typically abusive, power structure is forcibly displaced through the expending of material and life energy. This can have a certain effectiveness and speed, and so inspires hope. And there are places where it does, indeed, have a good outcome.

The American Revolution would probably be seen by most people throughout the world as a violent revolution whose outcome had good results. That is to say: the resulting power structure was generally as free, just, and fair as the one it displaced.

But most violent revolutions are more problematic. Violent revolutions have an understandable tendency to create power structures based in violence. Places where order is maintained not so much by the consent of the governed as their fear of the new occupants of the seat of power. The entire history of the Soviet Union is the most prominent and easy to read this way today.

One is tempted, when seeing injustice in the world, to want to counteract it as quickly and effectively as possible. And almost by definition, that action which is swift and decisive will be “violent.” But beyond the dictionary play, it is unlikely that you’re going to want to respect the power structure you see perpetrating an injustice. You’re going to want to overpower it; forcibly displace it; damage it.

The politics of love doesn’t work that way. Love is a slow process of transformation. It’s a revealing, and an opening, and at times it’ll halt and even seem to stop. Its triumphs are small and partial and imperfect. It is the Civil Right Act of 1963, but it doesn’t stop the madness of cases like Rodney King or Eric Garner. It is the fact that today at the end of 2014 gay marriage is legal in a majority of, but not all, US states. It is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but that Burma is not a well-functioning popular democracy. It is the fact that Tibet is still occupied by the Chinese and that South Africa still has crazy levels of black poverty.

Governments are at their best when they’re responsive to the actual will of the people they govern. And the wills of masses of people aren’t something that’s easy to change. Coercion can make a change seem to have happened from a distant perspective, but it doesn’t actually make it happen. Real change, at the level of the individual, is a slow, inefficient, and idiosyncratic process.

Democracies are at their best when they reflect the well-considered and high-minded will of the people. But the will of the people is not something that can easily be swayed by force, nor should it be. And so it’s partial and halting and incomplete, this quest for justice founded in love in the modern political epoch.

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Communication

“I’m Not Afraid of the Dark”

Dark has an interesting place in human experience. Many children’s first and most enduring fear is of darkness. I, to this day, get a little spooked in completely or unexpectedly dark places.

Mythically and metaphorically, though, darkness is a lot more than just the absence of light. Darkness is a synonym for the unknown. For the things that we’d rather hide away in places where no one can see them. For the things we’re ashamed of and scared of and feel bad for and wish were different.

In Josh Ritter’s song “Long Shadows”, you’ll find the lyrics:

Every time that they start
I’ll be right here with you
I’m not afraid of the dark

One of the big blockers in communication and understanding is that we are scared to talk honestly and openly. We’re scared that other people in our life will be scared off by our darkness — be it a past action we regret, a thought we have a lot but never act upon, whatever — that we close down and cut off the conversation and journey of mutual understanding.

Unconditional love is not easy, but when really achieved I think it contains one really important trait that most lesser kinds of love do not: a cofindence in the loved person that the lover will “be right here with you, … not afraid of the dark.”

Communicating that kind of love is not something you can do in sentence, or a day, or even probably a year. It’s the kind of thing that takes a lot of time. People are aware of the gaps between what people say and what they really mean. And so we have to, to communicate something as big and monumental as a fearless steadfastness in our love, demonstrate it regularly and repeatedly. Then, and only then, is the receiver likely to slowly warm to its truth. That “I’ll be right here with you, I’m not afraid of the dark.”

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Life

What Is Love?

Love has a number of forms. There’s the love of a parent for their child. The love of friends for one another. The love of two people who are committed to each other romantically. The love of a keeper for their dog, cat, or other animal. But all of them, I think, have something in common.

Quite simply, love is the recognition and appreciation of what is beautiful in another. And just so there’s no confusion, what is beautiful in another is not only their form. It includes their actions, feelings, pain, and quirks too. Everything can possess beauty, and when we love something we’re perceiving its beauty.

One of the keys to my spirituality, if not the whole of it, is figuring out how to love everything. I want to love the flowers and the clouds and the birds and the rocks. And I want to love the beautiful celebrity defamed on the cover of the latest tabloid, and I want to love the defamer working at that tabloid. I want to love the victims of crimes, but I also want to wisely love the perpetrator.

When you really love something, when you fully see and appreciate what is beautiful about it, you want to what’s best for it. You want it to never suffer unnecessary harm, you want it to be safe and happy, you want it to get what it wants. In some sense, you want it to be protected.

And these second order out-growths of the pure thing that is love are where people get confused. For times in my life I believed that to love was to worry. That to report to your child that you really were concerned about their safety because you didn’t know where they were or how they were doing was to love them. But it’s not. That worry actually blocks the pure love which is the appreciation of what this person is and thinks is appropriate for them to do.

Don’t get me wrong, to love is to care for. And sometimes to care for is to take action to protect. You don’t care for a criminal by blithely allowing them to continue to commit their crimes. You care for a criminal and protect him from harm by teaching him why in a just society he cannot continue to commit such crimes. You don’t care for a family member prone to self-harm by allowing them to continue to do so. You care for such a person by helping them move beyond the pained psychology that makes them feel that self-harm will solve any of their problems. But you shouldn’t think that those caring actions are the substance of love, they are merely a result of it.

People get tired out by what they think love is. They get bored and frustrated with it. The idea that they could love something they don’t like feels wrong to them. But typically, they’re misunderstanding the substance of love. They’re thinking it’s about something — fealty, commitment, worry, etc — that it’s not.

You can love a lamp. You can love a dirty rug. You can love a dangerous predator. You can love your father. You can love them all — see all that is worthy and good and praiseworthy in them — and still know what they are. Love is not transformational. Love is not a reciprocal relationship. Love is not a conditional state. Love is just the purest expression of appreciation that we know how to talk about.

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Life

Loving the Mystery

There’s a lyric that’s been trapped in my head for nearly a decade. It’s from the song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. The lyric is this: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” It’s the last line in the song.

The reason it’s stuck in my head didn’t have a lot to do with the song, really. The first fifty times I heard the song I didn’t pay much attention to its specifics, just that line. The line resonated with me because it so clearly states a deep truth: it’s really “strange to be anything at all.”

We take it for granted most of the time, but it’s the central unanswerable question of our existence. We exist, we know that. So clearly we’re a thing. A thing with the capability to think of itself as a thing.

But we can’t, as people, all agree on from whence we’ve come and to where we’re going.

Some of us — me included — think we came from a process which spans billions of years and a universe so vast we hardly have the ability to understand its size. Some of us think that the story of the Bible: it all started six thousand years ago in the Garden of Eden when God created the first people, Adam and Eve. Many doubtless know or believe in creation stories I’ve never been exposed to, never mind have the ability to summarize in a sentence.

Some of us think we die and get buried in the ground, where we decay and live no more. Some think that we separate from that body that’s buried and ascend to a place to be judged and separated. Some think that we return to this planet, to become a person, or whale, or dear, or fly.

All of these are attempts to answer this unmistakable feeling: it’s so strange to find ourselves here. As anything. At all. For some people the feeling of that strangeness — I’d describe it as having a vibrating warmth — is called “God’s love.” For others, it’s called “the mystery.” For others still it goes unnamed. Some call it “Allah.” Some think it can not be named. And some people have never experienced it at all.

However it works for you, you’ve got to think about it from time to time. I find it’s energy-giving, and an inspiration to try harder to be better. To be kinder. To be smarter. To be more me. To get all I can out of this strange existence. It is indeed “strange to be anything at all.” It is also fantastic.

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OPW

OPW: ‘Radical Love Gets A Holiday’

This last Monday, this country celebrated–to the extent that it celebrates any federal holiday–Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. In honor of the occasion, the New York Times ran an interesting essay by Sarah Vowell that I couldn’t help but agree with.

Here’s what Dr. King got out of the Sermon on the Mount. On Nov. 17, 1957, in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the “loving your enemies” sermon this way: “So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ ”

Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

The Bible is a big long book and Lord knows within its many mansions of eccentricity finding justification for literal and figurative witch hunts is as simple as pretending “enhanced investigation technique” is not a synonym for torture. I happen to be with Dr. King in proclaiming the Sermon on the Mount’s call for love to be at the heart of Christian behavior, and one of us got a Ph.D in systematic theology.

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personal, ruminations

The Lives of Dogs

I will admit it: I am not the world’s best dog owner. In an average week, Lucky probably goes on no more than four walks. Surely this record isn’t atrocious enough to merit calling the local humane society, but it’s not too good either.

And I get the impression from Lucky that it’s abysmal. When it’s been more than 24 hours, he starts to follow me around, getting in my way and generally doing all he can to make sure I notice him. When I walk around the house, he runs ahead of me rather than ambling after me.

Generally, Lucky’s a pretty mellow dog. He doesn’t hate lying around on his giant pillow. But when he knows he’s going for a walk, he is probably the single most excitable dog on earth. I’ve never considered this more than a funny problem, after all, Lucky doesn’t weight much more than 20 pounds fully grown.

Where a bigger dog could pull you down the street with his excitement, Lucky is only able to make it clear that he’d like to go a little faster, or that he’d like a little more time to investigate this smell. If I disagree with his request, we still do what I want.

But it’s his excitement about getting a walk that sometimes makes me wonder. After all, the only other high point in the day of an average dog is when he gets fed. I would guess that he enjoys it when people pet him, but I’ve never been able to shake the possibility that he allows that out some feeling of obligation.

Some would argue that he must enjoy it, after all, he often takes the opportunity to show his appreciation by licking any accessible human flesh. But I can’t shake the feeling that he just likes the taste. Maybe that’s why he lets me pet him, so he can lick my arm or face as I do it.

I find it moderately disturbing, this dependence. The dog’s whole life depends on me. He has few joys that I don’t bring him, few disappointments that I don’t cause–usually by accidentally saying the world “walk” when I don’t mean it.

This dependence is even stranger in its reflection not on the dogs, but on dog owners. After all, we owners of animals chose to get them, from the Humane Society or the pet store; these animals make no choice of us.

So what is it? Why do we own dogs? Have cats? I can’t avoid the feeling that we like to be depended upon. After all, even when no one seems to care where you are, your pet has to. His or her existence depends upon yours. And the contingent nature of his existence helps to make your life more important.

I suppose this is why we fear the “cat lady,” why we fear becoming her. She has to reassure herself of her worth because no other human would. No one called to check up on her. Wondered where she had gone.

Or maybe she just likes cats. Maybe I just like my dog.

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