Does Love Save?
During a recent sharing circle, the question of love came up. What kind of love can save the world, we wondered, and how we might learn to love in that way?
Saving the world is a sweet idea. I’ve written about how joy could save the world, so why not love? Yet to think we can save an entire planet is also absurd, at least if by saving we mean that one day there will be peace and cooperation everywhere, respect, and generosity, and a deep, abiding kindness. Such values exist in pockets in every country and in every village, but so does animosity. All these and more are part of our nature as humans, as animals. Life includes lovingkindness and aggression, gentleness and cruelty.
Not only is this true in communities; it’s true in individuals. We are complex. I can feel grouchy, resentful, disgusted, or angry one moment, while in the next, an overwhelming love rises up in me for the stranger, for nature, for life itself, for the confused and broken souls I meet so often in my ministry. The research I have done into neuroscience makes me wonder if my memories of these deep connections are real. Maybe spiritual experiences are figments created by a primed brain, like the epileptic fits we assume lie behind the ecstasy of many mystics.
But the “reality” of these experiences matters less than how they change us. I recall falling “in love” with people who, in the normal course of things, I would find distasteful, and this have affected me in deep and significant ways.
Reading Thomas Merton’s book, Choosing to Love the World, I think about this kind of experience. Merton writes that the “deepest ground of [our] being is love.” 
If so, we discover that love by becoming one with the stranger. Within the compassionate union that arises, we can find our true selves. Yes, we each have separate identities. The “other” does exist, as does a world apart from our individual being. Yet this creates a false dichotomy. Merton writes, “It is not a question of either-or but of all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivity and ‘purity’ but of wholeness, wholeheartedness, unity . . .” Love is in everything and is everything. 
Such a love could save a desperate and violent world.
The love we feel for our family and friends is a different kind of love. It makes special those with whom we spend our days and nights, which is not in and of itself a problem. However, this passionate identification with particular individuals encourages us to protect them against harm in a way we wouldn’t for those nameless ones who, though just as worthy in the sight of God, aren’t worthy to us. Therefore, we protect our loved ones at the expense of others, many of whom have families who love them as much as we love ours.
This is a parochial love, and although we can’t develop strong and intimate relationships without it, it is unlikely to save the world. On the other, it could destroy it.
Indeed, this is what the Hebrew Scriptures warn us against in the story of Cain and Abel. Because of an insular love, we can develop envies and rages that overwhelm our reason. Insecurities arise. We develop a lust for attention. We long to be special in the eyes of our beloved.
Cain, Abel, and the Failure of Love
Cain wanted to feel special. I’m sure he loved his brother. He probably loved God. More than this, though, Cain wanted to be loved. The young man felt an emptiness that had not been filled by his parents or his sibling, the earth or the sky.
Should he not look to God to fill this hole? Is that not what we are told to do?
When he did this, though, God rejected him, choosing his brother instead. At least, Cain felt rejected. Ought we to read this story as a condemnation of God’s decision to favor one child over another? Or does it reveal a weakness in a young man who already felt unsure of his place in the world?
I suspect both readings are true, saying much about how love, at least a longing for love, can destroy us rather than build us up. When we forget that we are our brother, our sister, uncle, mother, and enemy, that we are even our god, then we forget what love truly is. Cain forgot.
In his forgetting, Cain felt wounded, and in his wounding, he lashed out. This happens over and over to those of us who care. We get hurt; we see others get hurt. Rage overwhelms our reason, and we do things we later wish we could take back.
Cain could not bring his brother back to life, no matter how long he wandered homeless in the desert. He could not repair that which had been broken. Sometimes, we cannot make amends. Intense and parochial love leaves us open to hurt and to hurting others.
Empathy and Rational Compassion
Paul Bloom talks about our tendency to rally around our friends and family and to fight those who look different than we do, who have different traditions, beliefs, or laws. In Against Empathy, he argues that empathy is a divisive emotion. We feel it toward our loved ones, toward those whose looks or values or behaviors are similar to ours, but we don’t feel it toward others. Bloom’s empathy is akin to parochial love. If we make decisions based on this narrow experience of empathy, of relating with and feeling the emotions of those we care about, we might make heroic gestures and use our passion to promote causes, but these will benefit those in our own circle at the expense of those who lie outside.
Rather than empathy, then, Bloom promotes “rational compassion.” He defines this as a “rational decision-making process that would take happiness and thriving and suffering into account,” but not exclusively that of our friends. We would care about the pain of all people.  Bloom’s empathy invites us to experience the emotions of another. Rational compassion allows us to feel concern for another without becoming caught up in the other’s anguish.
Tolerating Another’s Pain
This is not unlike what a chaplain does. If we felt within ourselves the pain of each patient with whom we sat, we would be unable to remain peaceful, to show compassion, to love. Instead, we would feel assaulted. That’s why some people can’t tolerate another person’s tears. They do not know how to separate, how to take themselves and their needs out of the interaction. We may think such identification is love, but really it’s a way we prioritize our own needs over others.
After all, if we must flee from the other’s sadness because we hurt too much, if we must talk another out of crying or complaining because we can’t stand to feel the hurt or discomfort, how does that help anyone? Additionally, intense empathy can cause us to want to hurt the person we hold responsible for the pain we see in our loved one. Lost in our empathetic response, we become intolerant and reactive. We end up like Cain, fighting our own siblings.
This is one reason why we have such intractable political disagreements in our country and in the world today. Sad, angry, frightened people decide what is right and what is wrong, then they fight for some vision of Utopia they think will save the world’s problems. Yet because they act out of a fallacy, because they act out of their own pain instead of love, the world gets worse. When we feel another’s pain as if it were our own, we think we are loving them, but we are not. We aren’t even doing a good job of loving ourselves.
Beyond Wrong and Right
Rumi talks about a field beyond “ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.”  He invites us to meet there, but I am not certain we can.
After all, it’s one thing to say we should be more rational than empathetic, but we are not all as evolved as Rumi. How many of us can care about everyone equally? We get stuck in our prejudices and judgments, our assumptions about good and evil, our pain and loneliness, envy and spite, fear and rejection. So often, we say things we don’t mean; we do things that hurt others and ourselves. As Merton acknowledged, “our capacity to love is limited.” 
A Tale of Two Brothers
A few weeks ago, I sat with two brothers who ultimately decided to remove life support from their father. The man was brain-dead. Nothing to be done. Yet the process of letting go was not equally difficult for the two young men. One had been his father’s caregiver for five years; the other hadn’t spoken to his dad in fifteen. They both grieved, but in unique ways.
From what I could gather, the caregiving son was much like his father. Those two liked hunt, fix cars, joke around. The caregiver wore cowboy boots, had a bit of a belly, and smelled faintly of alcohol. He spoke with kindness, respect, and a deep, abiding love. His tears fell freely, though he held back his sobs.
The other young man, thinner, darker, dressed in slacks and a designer t-shirt, never approached his father’s bedside. Toward the end, when I encouraged him to step forward so he could say good-bye, he told me, “I’ve been doing that this whole time.” Now and then, his eyes did grow moist, but he held his emotions in check. His was a different kind of love.
A Failure of Love
Perhaps he’d been the outcast, the scapegoat, the artist, the black sheep. He may never have felt loved. We are so imperfect in our capacity to care for and embrace even members of our own family.
During the hours I spent with the two men, the outcast brother helped me understand a little about his life. He was divorced, worked two jobs, had no time for friends, relatives, or hobbies. All he had was his daughter, two days a week. Later, as we were talking about things that matter to him, I asked, “Does your daughter matter to you?”
In a voice tinged with fierceness, he said, “She’s the only thing that does.”
Love, focused to such a point, it is almost like an arrow.
Such love comes from our own loneliness. We all feel it from time to time. Merton said that although we cannot love completely and infinitely, our inability to love can be healed by being love and by accepting love. Before we can accept love, however, we must admit that we are lonely, and we must be able to live with that knowledge and that discomfort.
An Answer in Self Reflection
Merton’s prescription was contemplation, meditation, stillness, the “silence where God and the soul meet, not as object and subject, but as ‘one Spirit.’” 
If Cain had been able to admit his loneliness, to sit in contemplation, to seek that silence where he could become one with the God he so longed for, he would never have harmed his brother. If those siblings I talked about had empathized less and felt compassion more, their loneliness might not have driven them away from one another.
The love that will save the world is the one that comes from the silence in which we meet God, or the sacred, or the cosmos, or the ground of being. There, in that place of stillness, in that field beyond wrong and right, is a love that transcends all boundaries. It connects us to one another not because our mirror neurons make us sense one another’s pain, but because we remember who we really are. You and I, we are one. We are one with the stranger, with the immigrant, with the homeless woman, with the prisoner, with the rapist, with the anti-abortionist, and with anyone we shed tears with or disagree with or hate.
Remembering Our At-Oneness
If we can feel that oneness, even for a second, we might remember. In those moments when rage rises within us, we might remember.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek justice, fairness, kindness, and compassion in all places and in all things. It does mean, however, that we should try to experience oneness with everyone, not just our friends. It means we should seek that field where right and wrong have no meaning and where love is all there is. To save our broken and agitated world, we need to cultivate that kind of love. For this salvific purpose, no other will do.
In faith and fondness,
- Merton, Thomas, Choosing to Love the World: On Contemplation, Jonathan Montaldo, ed., Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2008, 34.
- Ibid 34.
- Bloom, Paul, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, New York: HarperCollins, 2016, 99.
- From “A Great Wagon,” by Rumi. See, for example, https://onbeing.org/poetry/a-great-wagon/.
- Merton 158.
- Ibid 158.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved