Category Archives: Love

In Praise of Ego

The ego can be a good thing—an artful, beautiful self embodying soul in the world.
Thomas Moore

I have heard it said that the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead would awaken every morning, and exuberantly exclaim, “Thank God I am Margaret Mead!” That is certainly an eye-opener, and at first blush sounds unpleasantly self-centered. It is also an incredibly difficult thing to say. Try it yourself: “Thank God I am …” I’ll bet your name stuck in your throat. I know mine did. Although it appears as though Ms. Mead is egotistically crowing at the dawn, I think that there is a wonderful sense in which her affirmation can be seen as a grateful recognition that she has been given existence as a unique individual who has the potential to be a blessing to herself and to the world.

In the Prologue to Demian, Herman Hesse writes a moving tribute to the precious reality of each and every individual:

“Each human being represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature … the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every [person’s] story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every [person] as long as he [or she] lives and fulfills the will of nature is wondrous and worthy of every consideration.”

I find two ideas in this quote inspiring. The first is that each of us is an experiment on the part of nature in the creation of the human. Each of us is a variation on the theme of humanity, a variation that has never existed before and will never show up again. It is as though nature says, “Ok, John or Sally or Peter, here is your particular slice of humanity. Now let’s see what you can do with it.” We do not make our choices and create a self with impunity, however. The world will either be better off or worse off, if only by a trifle, simply because you and I have passed through it. Will we leave a few small ripples of kindness behind us, or more distrust and fear? This is a question, I think, that is worth asking every day, as a step toward being the man I want to be.

The second idea that inspires me is the notion that my perception of the world here and now is actually creating a world that exists only in this moment, and only through me. This is reminiscent of the opening lines of the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Have you ever looked at a sunset, say, and realized that this particular sunset is for you alone and no one else? No one is seeing it from your place in the world, from your angle, with your thoughts and feelings. Think of it: everything you see right here and right now–and in every moment of your life– is the creation of your perceptions. An irreducible world comes into being with your birth, flowers with your every step, and vanishes at your death. We truly are co-creators with the Divine, and I imagine with Alice Walker that our Divine Collaborator must get exasperated with us when we don’t treasure our creative power. We have the opportunity to revel in the beauty that it is our privilege and perhaps responsibility to create and enjoy. In the Color Purple, Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” And when we piss God off this way, She just plunks another field of purple flowers in our path, just to see if this time we will co-create it with Her, or remain wrapped in our complacent slumber.

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A Lived Life

Lotus

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”   This is perhaps the most famous statement Socrates ever made.  One day many years ago, as I was teaching this section of Plato’s dialogues, it occurred to me in a flash that the opposite was also true: The unlived life is not worth examining.  I went on to share this thought with my students: so many people spend their time on earth worrying about life after death and adjusting their beliefs and behaviors to accommodate this worry.  But the far more important and relevant question, it seems to me, is “is there life before death?”

For our morning reading this month, Carolyn and I are enjoying a lovely book by Dawna Markova entitled “I will not die an unlived life.”  This woman expresses her hard won wisdom with a beauty that flows deeply into the soul.  She shares an inspiring vision of living an undivided life with love and passion and grace.

In our reading this morning, Dawna told a story I found fascinating.  She and her husband had been invited to India to visit with the Dalai Lama.  Upon arriving, she was told to ignore the beggars and this she did, closing her heart as she made her way to Dharamsala.  As she entered her guest house, she realized her body had become tight and protected and her heart felt small.  She was then told that the Dalai Lama was ill and could not see her, and that she would have to settle with an audience with a Rinpoche.  Disappointed and depressed, she walked out into a grey world,  and immediately met a small beggar girl who had clearly suffered from leprosy.  Dawna’s heart melted as she scooped the girl into her arms and sang to her a song of love.  Dawna continues:

“This little brown child, whose name I will never know, broke my heart so wide open that it could have contained the whole world.  From her I learned that passion is a river. … It creates the desire to reach, to pass on to the world what you love.  And through that opening, the world passes into you.”  That little girl became one of Dawna’s inner advisors: “and each reminds me that even in the moments when I feel the most helpless to ’do’ or fix or help, I can still, always, love in simple and ultimate ways.  I can let in, let be, or be with, opening and experiencing what life brings to me.”

Her words alone shine a light on what it means to live life.  A further thought occurs to me, however.  Dawna had traveled halfway around the world to meet with a justly famous spiritual teacher who became unavailable. Then on a dusty road she met a small brown angel who became one of her  greatest teachers.  We never know where, or in what form, grace is waiting for us.  I want to remember to pay attention, and to trust that every door that closes is moving me toward another unexpected blessing-in-disguise.

Philosophy Tempered with Music

Sarita's Cave

This drawing was done by Sarita Worravitudomsuk from Thailand. She was one of the lovely students I was privileged to teach during my years in Japan. At the end of one semester, Sarita presented me with this gift. I was amazed to see that she had depicted Plato’s Cave with the upward ascent being a scale of piano keys. Ever since, her drawing hangs by my bed.

Sarita reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Plato’s Republic, BK 8, 549B, that  I find at once enigmatic and illuminating.  In this passage, Adeimantus asks Socrates what is the best guardian of virtue, and Socrates answers “Logou mousike kekramenou ( Λόγου μουσικέ κεκραμένου).”

The Loeb Classical library observes in a footnote that “logos” and musike” are untranslatable, but goes on to translate it this way:  “Reason blended with culture, which is the only indwelling preserver of virtue.”

Francis Cornford tries this: “the only safeguard that can preserve [character] throughout life is a thoughtful and cultivated mind.”

Alan Bloom has it this way: “Argument mixed with music. It alone, when it is present, dwells within the one possessing it as a savior of virtue throughout life.”

And finally the classic translation by Benjamin Jowett: “Philosophy tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout his life.”

Combine these translations with the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Logos…” and we have five meanings: Reason, Mind, Argument, Philosophy, and Word.  In the same way, “musike” can mean music in the modern sense, or any of the arts–hence “the muses.’

However we parse these words that are so difficult because they are so richly evocative, it is clear that Plato sees Logos tempered with Musike as the guardian of virtue that is indwelling and life long.  He suggests that true virtue unites with and colors the soul just as dye seeps into woolen fibers.    Rather than being an abstract adherence to rules, the Greek notion of virtue (Arete) is liberating.  It simply means flowing into life–every day, every moment–from one’s broadest accumulated Wisdom, with a clear mind, a heart unencumbered by fear, and a sense of wholeness and focus, such as Parker Palmer’s living “divided no more.”  It is this living every moment from the best in ourselves that the Greeks saw as ” human flourishing,” or eudaimonia which is often translated as “happiness.”

Eudaimonia is derived from “eu” and “daimon,”  that is, having a good spirit guide.  Socrates credits his inner voice, or Daimon, with cautioning him to refrain from harmful actions.

Seen in this light, virtue is highly practical and something to which we all aspire. As with any living organic growing thing, our human flourishing needs cultivation.   Plato suggests the interplay of logos and musike is the Way (another meaning of logos) toward wholeness. Philosophy is a love of wisdom, a longing for awakening, that broadens the beliefs with which we create our world.  Music, the arts, quiet the mind’s chatter and ushers us into the silent chambers of the heart.  It is not either/or, as Dawna Markova so beautifully sees: “Perhaps, when you allow your heart and mind to pay attention to each other in a clean way, when silence becomes a loom, the still, small voice that is your soul can reweave the pattern that is the purpose of how you are living your life.”

For me, Sarita’s picture captures all of these elements in Plato’s and Markova’s vision: the symbiotic journey of the mind/heart toward our most lovely unfolding, and the well tempered mind rendered sensitive and compassionate by the soulful power of art.  Finally along the way, our tender fragility will be nourished by the silence that awakens a gentle and attentive listening to the guidance that whispers in the recesses of our deepest selves.

SCHADENFREUDE

In the line at the grocery store yesterday, It was impossible to avoid the bold headlines of one of America’s more popular rags.  It trumpeted that after four months of marriage George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin are headed for a 200 million dollar divorce after countless screaming fights.  Seeing this “news” placed so unavoidably in the checkout line made me sick to my stomach.

First, it could well be sensationalistic speculation, a distorted spin that feeds people’s schadenfreude: the joy and pleasure felt at other people’s misfortunes.  But even if it is true, it means that two human beings are in a world of pain right now, and to exploit that pain to sell papers and to titillate ungenerous hearts seems unkind to the point of viciousness.

Schadenfreude is countered by the Buddhist virtue of joy, or “mudita” in Sanskrit.  This is not a Snoopy-at-supper-time giddy dance, but simply rejoicing in the happiness of other beings.  It seems obvious that a loving heart embodies compassion and empathy for the fact that we are all fighting a very hard battle, as the popular quote has it.  A great example of schadenfreude is the Grinch, whose “heart was two sizes too small.”  He was ticked off at the joy of Christmas, and did all he could to ruin it.  In the case of Clooney/Alamuddin, the vicarious hit of a glamorous marriage quickly gave way to envy in hearts too small.

I realize that tiny hearts are in pain themselves, and perhaps rejoicing in other’s misfortunes eases that pain a bit.  I know from experience that when I have acted with negativity or judgment or anger, it has always been from a place of pain in myself, and not from a place of open, confident love.  It simply strikes me as terribly sad that millions of people have Grinch-like hearts, at least enough of the time that papers can make so much money pandering to the need to feed on another’s pain.

I also find comfort in the knowledge that millions of people long to be kind, as George Saunders said at Syracuse University:  “So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”   Saunders is encouraging, however, in his reassurance that kindness, while difficult, is a deeply natural part of human growth:

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

The saddest part of Schadenfreude, therefore, is that it hides the marvelous potential for love and true joy at the center of every human being.  Again, Saunders put this powerfully:

“That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

 

Parsing Carolyn on Compassion: On Loving Your Enemies

IMG_0306

This post got a lot of us thinking.  I re-post it here, with the hope that you will spend time with the many comments.  They  constitute a dialogue of unusual insight and caring, in which many of us do our best to come to terms with a teaching that is virtually universal among religions and philosophies, yet seemingly impractical and rarely honored in reality.  There are also some very useful references.  Enjoy! 

My wife Carolyn was a Professor of Psychology and Therapist for many years.  I tell people I am her principal client, and this is more true than I care to believe.  This morning she was thinking of the awful things that have happened recently in our world, and she penned the following lines that I think call for reflection.  She wrote:

“Maybe the horrors in our world are instigated and carried out by the very people who most need compassion and love–but they scare us so much that they trigger more fear and even hate, disgust, depression and despair.  These all need compassion, even if we cannot completely understand.  Surely our own acts that stem from fear, or lack, or a sense of scarcity, need compassionate and tender consideration?  If I am to commit fully to love, then I am also fully committed to extend love to all–even those who commit the most horrendous atrocities. This love seems so out of reach.  Yet once in a while I know its healing power.”

Here is a coda by Rumi:

With the Beloved’s water of life, no illness remains.

In the Beloved’s rose garden of union, no thorn remains.

They say there is a window from one heart to another.

How can there be a window where no wall remains?


My good blogger friend Hariod Braun offered this insight:

“I understand; though I shall have to allow disgust to play through first; that and many thoughts for the children, both dead and alive – I think they come first in the queue. [re: Peshawar]”

I of course agree–both with Hariod and with Carolyn.  With Hariod, I cannot help feeling anguish at the slaughter of innocent children and the ultimate sacrifice of dedicated teachers. Having lost a child, Carolyn and I both know the wrenching grief that the parents of Peshawar feel as they bury their children.  The vicious assassins of the Taliban fill my heart with anger, disgust and confusion. How can a grown man feel justified in the massacre of scores of children?   What kind of a monster could do this?

Yet with Carolyn, while acknowledge these feeling of revulsion, I find that they throw this most radical teaching of the world’s religions into bold relief.  It might be illuminating at this point to juxtapose these teachings:

Christianity, the Sermon on the Mount: You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Judaism, Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9.4:  Who takes vengeance or bears a grudge acts like one who, having cut his hand while handling a knife, avenges himself by stabbing the other hand.

Islam, Qur’an, 41.34-35: the good deed and the evil deed are not alike.  Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he between whom and you there was enmity shall become as though he were a bosom friend.

Islam, Qur’an 60.7: It may be that God will ordain love between you and those whom you hold as enemies.  For God has power over all things; and God is Oft-forgiving, Most merciful.

Buddhism, Dhammapada, 1.3-5: “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me!” In those who harbor such thoughts hatred is not appeased.  “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me!” In those ho do not harbor such thoughts hatred is appeased.  Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease.  This is an eternal law.

Hinduism, Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda 115: A superior being does not render evil for evil; this is a maxim one should observe; the ornament of virtuous persons is their conduct.  One should never harm the wicked or the good or even criminals meriting death.  A noble soul will ever exercise compassion even towards those who enjoy injuring others or those of cruel deeds when they are actually committing them–for who is without fault?

Taoism, Tao Te Ching, 49: The sage has not fixed ideas. He regards the people’s ideas as his own.  I treat those who are good with goodness, and I also treat those who are not good with goodness.  Thus goodness is attained.

There are so many theoretical quibbles among cultural belief systems–one life or many, one God or many, transubstantiation, the Filioque–which have few practical implications.  The most fundamental theme, however, is this seemingly impractical one of loving one’s enemies and doing good to those who hurt us.  This principle seems not only impractical, but downright wrong.  We need, people say, to reset the balance of Justice by punishing the evildoers, and it is astounding how often the almost universal teaching of love and compassion is honored in the breach.

The trick, I think, is to feel the feelings of disgust, sorrow, and revulsion, and to condemn and curtail the atrocities–man’s inhumanity to man–while still believing in the power and the decency of compassion; while still believing in the divine spark in every creature; while still acknowledging the unfathomable depths of every person’ soul.  As many of the quotes above imply, this is a terribly difficult thing to do both in the face of our raw feelings and in the need to actively intervene to stop cruelty–sometimes even in a war.  My most inspiring modern example of loving active resistance is Martin Luther King, Jr. whose letter from the Birmingham Jail is a magnificent rendering of Christian (and universal) values.  The most eloquent classical expression (that I know of) of the importance of compassion even in the midst of war is that of Lao Tzu in verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching:

Good weapons are instruments of fear; all creatures hate them.

Therefore followers of Tao never use them. […]

Good weapons are instruments of fear; they are not a wise man’s tools.

He uses them only when he has no choice.

Peace and quiet are dear to his heart,

And victory no cause for rejoicing.

If you rejoice in victory, then you delight in killing;

If you delight in killing, you cannot fulfill yourself. […]

This means that war is conducted like a funeral.

When many people are being killed,

they should be mourned in heartfelt sorrow.

that is why a victory must be observed like a funeral.

Now please go back to the top and peruse the replies for a rich dialogue

Twenty Seven Years

J & C Temple25 years ago

Today, the Feast of Stephen, is also our wedding anniversary.  Old friends of Carolyn happened to be my flight students at Montair Flight Service in Vermont, and they told her that she just HAD to meet their flight instructor.  “Right,” she said, “I remember the other guys you set me up with.”  We had both been alone for many years, and had pretty much given up on relationships.  We had built happy, busy and satisfying lives for ourselves–she in Boston, me in Vermont–as single people.    But that day in January of 1987  when she accompanied her friends to Burlington for a flight lesson, we both felt something akin to an electric shock when we saw each other.   That incredible moment gave the truth to this marvelous poem of Rumi:

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”

And that moment has not only lasted, but expanded into undreamed of dimensions. Each morning my mind fills with wonder and my heart with joy as my eyes rest on the wondrous being with whom I share my life.

twenty seven years

blessings beyond imagining

each day a new joy 

A Christmas Haibun (Prose +Haiku)

SilentFREEFirst_BIG

The Newborn King is born over and over, as love pours into this vale of tears.  Here is one of those precious moments when I was given the grace to be a mid-wife:

For about ten years, I spent Christmas day visiting a Mental Hospital near my home in Vermont to play Christmas carols for the patients. This was during a difficult time in my life, and I of course received much more than I gave.

In one ward for the severely ill, I was playing a broken down old piano, and decided to play the simplest of carols: Silent Night. After just a couple of measures, an elderly man made his way to my side, and grasped my left hand in both of his with a firm grip. I left my hand in his, and continued playing as best I could with one hand. Slowly, tentatively, he began to sing the words with a dry, eggshell voice. As I played the carol for the second time, his voice got stronger and his timing was impeccable. When we finished, he didn’t smile or say a word.  He just returned to his chair in the corner.

As I was leaving the ward a nurse approached me with tears in her eyes. She gave me a warm embrace and said, “That man who sang with you…?” “Yes?” I prompted. “He has not uttered a word nor even a sound in over thirty years. I have never seen anything like what just happened.”

The sacred power of music has never been so clear to me. It felt as though I had been given the gift of music for just that very moment.  Silent Night became for him and for me a holy night:

for a brief moment

all was calm and all was bright

troubled souls held hands

Carolyn on Compassion

IMG_0306

My wife Carolyn was a Professor of Psychology and Therapist for many years.  I tell people I am her principal client, and this is more true than I care to believe.  This morning she was thinking of the awful things that have happened recently in our world, and she penned the following lines that I think call for reflection.  She wrote:

“Maybe the horrors in our world are instigated and carried out by the very people who most need compassion and love–but they scare us so much that they trigger more fear and even hate, disgust, depression and despair.  These all need compassion, even if we cannot completely understand.  Surely our own acts that stem from fear, or lack, or a sense of scarcity, need compassionate and tender consideration?  If I am to commit fully to love, then I am also fully committed to extend love to all–even those who commit the most horrendous atrocities. This love seems so out of reach.  Yet once in a while I know its healing power.”

Here is a coda by Rumi:

With the Beloved’s water of life, no illness remains.

In the Beloved’s rose garden of union, no thorn remains.

They say there is a window from one heart to another.

How can there be a window where no wall remains?

 

 

On Stereotypes: Are you in there?

A few years go, Carolyn and I spent a special weekend at a small conference hosted by Ram Dass. We enjoyed his combination of Eastern Wisdom and his clear-eyed acceptance of his own human foibles. One memorable “take-away” was his insight that human beings tended to wrap themselves in their bodies, retreat to the mind, and trudge through the world with little presence. Many of us are too often not where we are or when we are. It can be a problem.

Ram Dass said that he liked to say to people, in effect, “Are you in there? I’m in here. Want to come out and play?” Once in a while this insight takes a hold of my boyish enthusiasm, and on this morning’s walk I opened to the game. It transformed the day from wonderful to magical.

As we walked along this beach,
image
I watched a German couple approach. They seemed to me to be hidden deep inside, and fearful of encounter. I saw that they had their shoes in their hands, so looking into their eyes, I asked “Is the water cold?” Whoosh! The doors flew open and their souls came rushing out to see and be seen. Before very long, they were regaling us with their recent trip to Grenada and the four hours they spent in the Alhambra. We parted with smiles and handshakes.

The morning’s gifts continued to unfold: a conversation in Spanish with a lovely young woman from Colombia; a woman from Finland who spends half the year here in Spain; two German women, retired economists, who will soon be studying energy healing in an Ashram in India; a Spanish woman with two remarkable children. As we stopped for coffee at a seaside cafe, I asked a man if he were enjoying his carrot cake, and again, all the lights came on. It turns out they were a delightful couple from Wales who were astounded that a philistine American would be a fan of Dylan Thomas.

This last point, is important, I think.  We Americans have earned the stereotype of being greedy to the point of selfishness, loud, lacking empathy, and being generally self-centered.  We, of course, are not alone in being stereotyped–or stereotyping.  I can easily ferret out many lingering prejudices lurking in the shadows of my own consciousness: stodgy Germans, drunken Irishmen, volatile Italians, snotty French, and damp, provincial Brits.  The beautiful thing is that when I actually meet people from these places, the stereotypes evaporate in the warmth of the human heart.  Even when the stereotypes seem to hold, they are quickly seen as incredibly superficial–my own projections, really–and the soulful depths of each unique individual emerge.

I also find that many people I meet are visibly bemused, and very surprised, to meet Americans who are quiet and gentle, interested in other cultures and languages, and doing their best to live respectful and loving lives.   So Carolyn and I have never visited the Eiffel tower, or the Empire State Building, or the Coliseum.  We certainly travel to enjoy nature’s lavish gifts, and the beauty that flows from human hands in art, architecture and–perhaps especially–food.  But the essence of the experience for us is the meeting of the human spirit.  I believe if we all could touch and be touched at the level of the heart, fearful stereotypes would indeed dissolve, and this would be a step toward easing the hostilities that are fed by those stereotypical abstractions.  “You have to be taught to hate,” sings a song in South Pacific.  So, too, we can learn to love.

Unconditional Love

A good friend has been wondering about the possibility and even the advisability of unconditional love.  I think I understand her reservation, since it seems logical that to love unconditionally entails suspending moral judgment.  The idea of forgiveness is part of this package, and it seems unconscionable to bring forgiveness to the perpetrators of genocide, rape, and the obscenity of the holocaust.  Surely, we must temper our idealism with a realistic view of the evil in this world, and not reduce ourselves to being “bliss ninnies,” loving everybody no matter what.

Unraveling the gordian knot of issues implied by my friend’s reservations could fill many libraries.  For today, I’d like simply to reflect on some preliminary questions: 1. What is meant by unconditional love? 2. Is unconditional love possible? 3. Is unconditional love advisable? 4. Is unconditional love morally imperative? Are we all morally required to love unconditionally? 5. Does unconditional love necessarily entail forgiveness? and 6. Does forgiveness imply condoning an action?

On its face, unconditional love means loving without conditions.  We might call it a Billy Joel kind of love.  No matter what a person thinks, says, or does, it would not cause me to close my heart to that person.

I was going to write that unconditional love is easiest in the closest circle of family and friends, but a moment’s thought disabused me of that ideal.  Given the rates of divorce and teenage angst, it would seem that familial love is highly conditional.  One of the most common conditions in marriage is “You better make me happy, or else…!”  Parents, too have the tendency to set strict criteria for a child to be accepted.  I would simply say that my own experience tells me that unconditional love in a family is possible.  It takes work, wisdom, and dedication to grow toward having a fiercely open heart that would never close, and I have a sense that many of you who are reading this are achieving just that.

On the more general level, those capable of monstrous acts are harder to love. Usually they are not known to us, and easier to judge abstractly.  Sometimes, however, they have committed atrocities that have touched us personally.  Is love even possible in these circumstances?  Here is a story from an article entitled The Power of Love by Alastair McIntosh that suggests the possibility of unconditional love, while prompting many to question its advisability:


 

“What about rape?” asks a USAF pilot.

And so I tell a real-life story. It was 1985, and I was living in a beautiful but violent third world country. I was close to the family of an Australian history professor at the university – fellow Quakers. One night his seventeen year-old daughter found her car surrounded. Fourteen young men from the nearby squatter settlement abducted and gang-raped her.

Normally the police would have sorted it out in eye-for-eye fashion. They’d have trashed the squatter camp and beaten folks up. Not so on this occasion. The daughter trenchantly asked her father to find a way that might ‘touch their hearts”. Rape can only happen in the absence of empathy. The capacity to feel has to be restored if the cycle of abuse is to be broken.

The family asked the chief of police that there be no retaliation. The father and I then walked into the squatter settlement and requested a meeting with its leaders. They said they were really sorry about what had happened. It was hard to control their young men who had become embittered by poverty and hopelessness. They were relieved not to have been roughed up.

We said that the girl wanted softening and not a hardening of hearts. She wanted whatever, in their culture, would be an appropriate ceremony of confession and reconciliation.

So it was that we subsequently stood at the university gates as the entire squatter community turned out to apologise amidst much bearing of token gifts and beating of drums. Fourteen young men headed the procession. Many had tears in their eyes. They had not expected such humanity.

You just knew that, whilst the re-offending rate might not be zero, it would be very much less than had they been treated in kind. Hearts had indeed been touched.


 

I find this story incredibly inspiring, but many, if not most, of my students found it offensive. How can you treat men who have done such a horrific thing without punishment?  How will they ever learn?  So they beat a few drums and shed a few tears.  Is that justice?  It would seem that unconditional love upsets the entire balance of human society, where fairness (an eye for an eye?) and punishment set things right.

I believe the rightness of punishment is deeply rooted in the human psyche.  Spare the rod and spoil the child wasn’t thought up yesterday.  Yet those who are seen as great teachers, from Jesus (Do good to them that hurt you) to the Buddha (Hatred is never turned away by hatred.  Hatred is only turned away by Love) to Rabbi Hillel ( “‘Love your fellow like yourself’ is the essence of the Torah, and the rest is commentary!”) to myriad poems of Rumi, all advise the primacy of love in the face of hurt and hatred. This is underscored by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he shares the insight that those who managed to maintain equilibrium in the Death Camps of the Nazis all did so by loving and serving others, even their captors.  This, for now, is as far as I can take the discussion of the advisability of unconditional love.  I think it is for each of us to weigh these teachings with our wisest insights, our strongest hearts, and our unique experiences, in order to reflect and reflect again as we wend our way through life’s labyrinth.

The next question concerns unconditional love as a moral imperative.  Frankly, I have always found the commandments to Love difficult to understand.  I can see mandating loving behavior (beneficence), but how can the heart be commanded (benevolence)?  Can I really be commanded to love the jerk next store? Does it make sense to Love someone because you have been told it is the “right” thing to do?  I wonder if the rules of the mind can dictate to the heart, or whether they bypass the heart and go straight to behavior.  In my essays on Living the Love of Wisdom on this blog, I have wrestled with the evolution of moral consciousness, and it seems to me that true morality lies “in the field beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing” as Rumi says.  Ethics rests upon rules, but there are desirable attitudes and behaviors that lie beyond and above the requirements of the law, moving into Virtue and ultimately Unconditional Love.  These are called “supererogatory” or above the demand. Inasmuch as we are called to be fully human, each in our own way, I find these are ideals that lie at the heart of human flourishing.

Finally, does Unconditional Love require forgiveness?  I find forgiveness a slippery concept.  In many cases, it simply serves the superior ego, when I grant absolution to a “sinner” from the heights of moral superiority: “You are a sleaze, or a monster, or unfaithful, or a cheat, but in my goodness, I forgive you.”  To use John Steinbeck’s phrase, this turns forgiveness into a “shoddy virtue.”

I’m not sure about this, but now it seems to me that unconditional love does not require forgiveness  at all.  In fact, it obviates the need for forgiveness.  If I truly have no conditions on my love, then there is nothing to transgress, and therefore nothing to forgive.  I know this sounds like idealism in the extreme, but think about the people you deeply cherish.  What could they ever do to cause you to close your heart to them?   Maybe we sometimes go through the verbal dance of sorrow and forgiveness, but this is done to the melody of love which dissolves guilt and obliterates distance.

I find these ideas devilishly difficult.  Each of the elements we have so briefly discussed–the possibility and advisability of unconditional love, punishment, fairness, and forgiveness–is a worthy subject of many books.   All the while I was writing, however, my wife Carolyn was in my fingers; she “who brought April into the waiting meadow of my soul.”  I live with Unconditional Love, and after all the words have been said, that is how I know it is real.