“Every relation to mankind, of hate or scorn or neglect, is full of vexation and torment. There is nothing to do with men but to love them; to contemplate their virtues with admiration, their faults with pity or forbearance, and their injuries with forgiveness. Task all the ingenuity of your mind to devise some other thing, but you can never find it. To hate your adversary will not help you; to kill him will not help you; nothing within the compass of the universe can help you, but to love him.” ~Orville Dewey
“The real love is to love those that hate you, to love your neighbor even though you distrust him.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
“Wherever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
“Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” ~Martin Luther King Jr., “Love Your Enemies” sermon
In the midst of a week of nation-wide divisiveness, I find it helpful to return to the basics. It does not get much clearer than the call to “Love our neighbors as ourselves” (Mark 12:31), or as Matthew 5:44 puts it more emphatically, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” As American Unitarian Minister, Orville Dewey asserts, harbored animosity between humans is full of “vexation and torment.” Like it or not, there is nothing to do with humans but to love them. Dewey exhorts us to intentionally focus our minds on the good in others. Martin Luther King Jr. urges us to do the same in his incredibly powerful “Love Your Enemies” sermon. (I recommend a full reading through of this sermon. One writer suggests reading it regularly to keep its teachings fresh). King explains, “A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy, and every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points.” Dewey suggests we bear with others’ failings with patience and cover offenses with forgiveness. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. agreed.
Mental health research supports the notion that it is right to love and to forgive because it leaves us healthier and happier people. Hate is poison for our well being: mentally, spiritually, and physically. When I feel bitterness rise up within me and resentment causes me to want to retaliate against an offense, I am far better off if I pause, notice the detrimental inclinations, and consciously choose to empathize with the other person and to see good there, to choose to love them. If I opt, rather, to carry the burden of my anger and resentment, I harm myself, causing poor sleep, increased feelings of anxiety, and sometimes the guilt that comes if I happen to make my negative emotions known in a less than loving manner.
In recent years, American society has thrown around the powerful word “empathy” so often that we have to be careful not to let the word lose its usefulness as a concept. Yet, ironically, many of us show ourselves to be severely lacking in empathy when empathy requires us to listen and to try to understand those on the opposite side of a heated political issue. Accusations of people being “godless,” “immoral,” “unloving,” “wicked,” or “evil,” abound in this climate, but my spirit resonates deeply with Gandhi’s assertion, “I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.” If we consider ourselves religious or simply spiritual, we could ask ourselves, “How well do I understand the suffering of others?” Am I trying to understand the suffering or perspective of those I might otherwise call “godless,” “immoral,” “unloving,” “wicked,” or “evil?”
It is easy to hate. It is easy for emotions to flare up, for anger to burn, and for any one of us to insist that our own perceptions are one thousand percent superior. It is difficult, braver, and requires humility and strength of character, to pause and to consider whether better listening and better loving of those who disagree with us might not be the balm our country needs right now. Few heated issues are truly cut and dry and blessedly simple. Life is complex, people and their backgrounds are complex, and suffering is complex. Responding to a situation with all-or-nothing thinking feels safer because it leaves no room for ambiguity, no room for the idea that perhaps there is some truth on the other side. If we acknowledge that those who disagree with us might harbor nuggets of truth, shades of a comprehendible reality, we then have to try to grapple with whatever those slivers of truth might be. That requires extra energy and leaning into discomfort. Challenging as this can be to do, we must try. A look at America right now will show us that we really don’t have the luxury of all-or-nothing thinking. Gandhi knew we didn’t. Martin Luther King Jr. knew we didn’t. The giant, swirling ache of humanity needs love, and not just of humans who agree with us, but love for enemies also. Our messy, hurting country needs us to “understand the suffering of others” and the experiences and convictions of others, as best we can.
This in no way means that we do not fight for our own convictions and take action for meaningful causes. It means that while we do this, we practice showing love for those on the opposite side of the issue. It might feel like weakness, but it is actually only achievable by inner strength. Gandhi stated, “A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave (Gandhigrams, 1947).” It takes courage to let down defenses and a cloak of “rightness” and pride and anger to attempt to love an enemy.
This week, how can you seek to understand the “suffering of others,” including those on the opposite side of a political issue than you? What can you say that will promote listening, understanding, and love when a divisive political issue is raised? I will join you in seeking to listen and understand and to communicate with love, no matter which side of an issue others land.