Category Archives: Relationship

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 

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.

 

It’s not hard to be dazzled

Rose window

“The multiplicity of forms!” writes Mary Oliver in her newest book of poetry.  “It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day.”  That got me to thinking:

When I wake each morning to my wife’s radiant smile,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I am with my sons, who know my human failings more than anyone, and see the unconditional love in their eyes,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I hear my teenage Granddaughters ask me a question that stops my Professor’s mind in its tracks,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When the ancient Maple Tree down the road fills its yellow autumn leaves with light,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a hummingbird rests on my finger as it feeds,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a friend shares her vulnerable heart,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a classroom full of students ignites in flaming wonder at a new idea,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Reading Mary Oliver, or Rumi, or Walt Whitman, or Dylan Thomas, or Basho, or Issa,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Listening to Mozart, or Beethoven, or Mahler, or Clifford Brown, or Bill Evans,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I stand before Monet, or El Greco, or Kandinsky, or Sarolla, or Winslow,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Simply being, simply breathing, and really really really paying attention,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

 

What dazzles you?

 

 

Aunt Alice

Alice

My father’s sister was born in a small town in New Hampshire to recent Irish immigrants. The year was 1896. With no more than an 8th grade education, barely able to read and write, this remarkable woman lived a life of clarity, integrity, and grit–all laced with a large dose of humor. Decades before the feminist movement, she embodied the ideal of a strong, intelligent, and independent  woman. I want to share a couple of her outstanding traits with you, traits that I am still trying to emulate.

Alice was 9 when my Father was born, in 1905, and shortly after that their father disappeared from the picture. I never did get that complete story, but Alice became a surrogate parent, quitting school at age 14 to begin work in the local shoe factory, and ultimately sending my Father to university.  In her early and middle years she found solace in the formulas of the Catholic church, and this, combined with her direct and unadorned communication, put her at odds with my Mother, who was a proper midwestern Protestant.   Neither woman was “wrong,” but boy, were they different.  Out of loyalty to my Mother, this tension led me to pull away from Alice for many years, but the graceful turnings of life reunited us in bonds of love during her later years.  She worked at the local high school on the lunch counter until she was 91, and died in 1991, just shy of her 95th birthday.  She lived independently almost until the end.

Here are two stories that demonstrate her direct approach and stunning emotional honesty.  Since we lived 200 miles apart, Carolyn and I could only visit her about once a month.  We would sit for hours at the dining room table drinking tea, while Alice regaled us with stories about her girlhood and the history of our family.  One day, Carolyn nonchalantly reached into her bag and continued to knit a sweater she was working on.  Silence descended, as Alice fixed her eye on the clicking needles.  Then, in her heavy new England accent, she said “Deah, did you come heah to knit, or to visit me?”  The needles disappeared, and the conversation continued without a trace of ill feeling.

The absence of emotional residue is what I find inspiring and humbling.  Eckhart Tolle tells of the ducks who, when they “get into a fight, it never lasts long – they soon separate and fly off in opposite directions. Each duck then flaps its wings vigorously several times. This releases the surplus energy that built up in him during the fight. After they flap their wings, they fly on peacefully as if nothing had ever happened.”  Alice was so good at this, she didn’t even have to flap her wings!

Here is another example:

A lovely young couple lived next door to Alice and they took wonderful care of her in our absence.  They often did her shopping, and made sure she was feeling well.  One evening, they asked Carolyn and me to stop by their house to discuss Alice’s situation.  We had a lovely chat for about an hour, but on returning to Alice’s house, we found all the lights off, and Alice nowhere to be seen.  Concerned, we began a search, and finally found my aunt in her bed, lying quietly in the dark.  “Alice,” I asked, “are you OK?”  She lit into me with considerable heat:  “I know you have been down the street talking to my neighbors about me–Behind My Back! I won’t have it!  I am not a little girl, and I will not be treated so disrespectfully.”  I felt a gale of emotion whistling past my ears, that both scared me and filled me with tremendous admiration for her self-awareness, and for the honesty with which she was able to express her feelings.

Thankfully, grace allowed admiration to win over fear, and I responded, “I understand exactly what you are saying, and I think you are 100% correct.  It was wrong to talk about you behind your back, and I give you my solemn word it will never happen again.”  Without missing a beat, Alice gave me the warmest loving smile, hopped out of bed like a teenager, and said, “All right, then, let’s go downstairs and have some tea.”   And we did that.

To this day, telling this story warms my heart.  This lovely, stalwart human being, my Aunt Alice, was a living embodiment of the Zen teaching that the feelings we cling to are simply clouds floating past the moon.  I have no need to wish that she rest in peace.   In spite of, or perhaps because of, her occasional storms of emotion, she had the most peaceful center of anyone I have ever known.

 

 

Personal Rituals: Lectio Divina

There are certainly serendipitous turnings on the road to Wisdom. The phone rings, a stranger is kind, you are really seen by someone at a party, or exactly the right book falls off a shelf into your hands. These are moments of grace, telling us we are not alone. The road to wisdom, however, also calls for intentional practices, called Sadhana in Eastern traditions. These are practices that are aimed at becoming more self-aware and less self-conscious, and at deepening the beliefs that create a more ample and generous world in which to live. In subsequent essays, I will be writing about practices from various traditions, but for today I would like to share one of the rituals that enriches the lives of Carolyn and me. I realize that the rituals we weave into the fabric of our lives are ultimately highly personal, but it is also helpful, I think, to glean ideas from glimpses into each other’s lives.
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