Practical Philosophy

The Spirituality of Softening

The only religions I find worth anything are those that soften people. This is a thing I’d felt for a while, and something I’m sure someone else has put into words before, but when it finally occurred to me it was something of a revelation.

The Christianities I’ve seen in America that turn me off so strongly: they’re aggressive, control-oriented, and strike off into the world to do battle against enemies. But I do, sometimes, encounter a different and much more appealing version of Christianity. This one has baked deep inside of it a sense of wonder, of uncertainty, and of deep humility for the grace of God.

One of the reasons that so many Westerners struggle to respect Islam as a religion is that they don’t see the humble men and women who go to the mosque weekly, pray five times a day, and read the Koran to learn about the forgiveness of God and how to be His humble servant. Instead the Muslims they see most, if not the only ones they’ve ever concieved of, are the strident and confrontational Wahabi-influenced (mostly) men that are likely to become terrorists.

Similarly, though inversely, Buddhism in America (and “the West” generally) is seen as an almost exclusively soft, humble, and inwardly-focused religion. But, where it is the majority religion, it inevitably also has a non-zero number of people who practice, in its name, an aggressive style.

This hardness or softness, it has taken me years to realize, is not simply a result of the religion itself. Rather, it comes from the context in which it is practiced. More martial people will want, and practice their religion with, a more aggressive style. More passive people will tend to bring forth a religion’s humility and caring.

Softness in a spiritual pursuit matters to me because the world has no shortage of aggressive certainty. People are sure that their self, sports team, city, idea, country, religion, or way of life is way better than the others. And they will plead their case with anything from a loud cheer to murder.

Surely, there’s something of a luxury and privilege in the ability to value softness over a more directly survial-enhancing martial style. Some aren’t so lucky to be able to feel safe without joining a violent tribe. But for those of us with the privilege, softening ourselves, and interacting with the world from a place of gentleness, is a prime way to be of service. That’s why I so value spiritual and religious traditions that put their emphasis there.

Softness is kind, generous, and humble. It offers before it asks, and it rarely demands anything. Those traits describe the role I most seek to play in the world. And the fellow-travelers whose religions I find most easy to honor.

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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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