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“Love” is a very popular word—especially around this time of year. We sign cards with it, send emojis to express it, and include it in songs. We know we all crave love—to give it and receive it. We hope to find people who will love us unconditionally—even if it’s only one special person. We talk about divine love that carries us through the dark spots.
But perhaps we misjudge love. It ain’t easy, and it ain’t free. As powerful as love is (and we know it can affect health and wellbeing, at the very least), to give it requires courage because love is a risk. Many of us have firsthand experience with love gone wrong. We know love requires putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable. Sometimes that risk produces painful consequences.
We don’t often think about love for strangers. I look forward to the Facebook videos that show people risking their lives to save people they don’t know—pulling them off train tracks, out of frozen lakes, out from beneath burning car wrecks. We’ve seen dogs and other animals helping without hesitation, even when it means their lives. Many are quick to take that kind of risk because it’s their character.
The most difficult love, I think, is the rule of love that’s central to most major religions: “…However you love for the people to treat you, then treat them that way; and however you hate for the people to treat you, then do not treat them that way.” In Christianity, that idea is called the Golden Rule; in Judaism, Mosaic Law; but this particular quotation comes from the Prophet Muhammed—yes, Islam. What we honor in our holy books isn’t always what the extremists who claim to follow those books practice. When so-called religious leaders condone the murder of innocents or other acts of cruelty, they select isolated bits of scripture to excuse them for violating religious law—and their followers go along with them. They reinvent their religion.
When we deem someone as unworthy (due to unacceptable religion, race, gender, age, nationality, etc.), our brains can remove that person or group from our list of human beings. Then we don’t feel like we have to follow the Golden Rule—not with them. But nobody said “Love thy neighbor” was going to be easy. When thy neighbor seems hateful or degenerate in your eyes, the gloves are off.
Over the years, I’ve been impressed that the people who are most purely generous and kind are often those who’ve experienced lives of pain and/or deprivation. They know the power of compassion—a kind word, a little empathy—for the recipient and for their own hearts. Some act from absolute faith in the Golden Rule. Many aren’t formally religious at all. They just do what they think is right.
I realize there are people out there who perform acts of cruelty and disregard for human life without compunction because in their minds they’re doing something good—or maybe in simple revenge or an attempt to seize power. Their excuses for their behavior don’t necessarily rub off on anyone who seems to be like them. Some are acting out of mental illness. Love isn’t the same as liking or even accepting. But I do think that when we totally disregard the humanity of strangers just because we think they belong to a group we don’t actually understand, we need to see exactly what we’re doing. We’re stepping out of our own belief system. “…On earth peace, good will toward men” is a tough assignment—as, perhaps, it was meant to be.
So true and important to remember.