Sentimental greeting cards rub me wrong. They seem trite and false. The life I experienced in Madison Urban Ministry wasn't warm and fuzzy. The real world is nitty-gritty and not always hopeful.
Dishonest individuals – members of Congress, business people and even religious leaders - get rich at the expense of others. They corrupt the democratic and religious principles we hold dear. As a result, ordinary people suffer. Globally, our economies are in difficulty. The environmental crisis threatens our long term existence.1,2,3 Billions of people live in intolerable conditions. Poverty is widespread. Wars rage throughout the globe. Honest reformers - politicians, business people and spiritual leaders - fight an uphill battle to promote justice. “Good guys” finish last. Pietistic assurances that the world will be a better place if we love each other, seem to apply only to those who are well off.
This is a real bind. We crave affirmation and unconditional love. We yearn for a creation in which the “lion lies down with the lamb.” Yet, we are stuck in a world where “might makes right” and the powerful make the rules. Fear, anger, violence and defensiveness condition the realities of our existence.
Is there anything that can modify these destructive dynamics? Is there a deeper form of love that can transform things? I want to say, “yes.” But I can't prove it. What I have is stories that resonate within me.
My mother, twice widowed, raised four of us as a single parent. Ours wasn't a Brady Bunch family. Mom told me once that she was sorry she couldn't provide the male guidance I needed when I was young. She said, “I didn't know how to be both mother and father to you.” Life didn't go as she wished. She had to be tough and make hard decisions. Yet she loved us with the fierce tenacity of a mama bear protecting her cubs. Her love was infused with the coarseness of real life experience.
My second father, Jim, demonstrated a loving gentleness that still amazes me. He was a farmer turned small business owner. He left the farm because he knew my mom would be unhappy as a farmer's wife. He was soft spoken and not very assertive. Still, he was a constant source of support. I remember the winter he fitted our old car with snow chains so the family could drive through a blizzard to attend my sister's performance in a college drama. He made this extraordinary effort because he knew my mom wanted to be there.
Last winter my little grandson was fascinated by the Christmas tree. He wanted to touch the pretty lights and decorations. I warned him that he could be hurt if the tree fell over. Testing me, he reached for the tree. I shouted, “No Gus!” This scared him. He looked at me. His face clouded over. His lip quivered, and he burst into tears. Then he reached up for comfort. Even though my shout had startled him, he trusted I would keep him safe. My heart nearly broke as I held him.
Another time Gus was riding with us as we drove to our local coffee shop. This is the place where he is smitten by one of the staff. As we drove down the road, we heard this little voice from the back seat. “Gus love Allie.” He is so innocent and naïve. Love is just love. It's uncomplicated and true.
I spent time with my sister, Sue, as she fought the ravages of cancer. She struggled just to eat and to walk a few steps. It tore me up seeing her suffering. When I left her home the last time before she went into hospice, she hugged me. I could feel her ribs. She was all skin and bone. I gave her a squeeze, but didn't hug her as I wished I had. I was so filled with sorrow and love that that was all I could do.
When the Tsunami hit Japan and wrecked their nuclear reactor, I saw a newspaper photo of an old woman. She stood in the wreckage of her town wailing in despair as her body was bombarded by lethal doses of radiation. I anguished for her as I might for my own mother.
I remember camping on a lake in northern Minnesota. It was evening. The sunset cast a pink glow in the sky. The trees, mere silhouettes, reflected in the still water. All was peaceful and calm. I could have sat there forever.
I saw a baby robin hopping in the street near the wheels of a car that was stopped at a traffic light. I raced toward it wanting to sweep it from harms way. The car moved forward crushing the life out of this innocent creature just short of my outstretched hands. My heart screamed in anguish.
Once, while hiking on a warm summer day, I watched a hawk soaring motionless in the clear blue sky. I stopped, captured by wonder.
Yes, love is real. I experience it. Love transcends rationality. Love immerses us in existence. Love imbues us with compassion, the capacity to “suffer with” others. It leads into valleys of pain and anguish and allows us to soar on waves of joy and awe. Love overcomes fear, compelling us to engage in efforts where the odds are stacked against us. Love connects us in our Humanity. It shifts and broadens our perspectives.
I am beginning to believe that we humans are participating in an evolving pattern of the creation, the growth of consciousness, compassion and love. As we play our part in this cosmic drama, we may be facing some of the greatest challenges in the history of our species. Presently, our interactions are dominated by the fight or flight response. Existence is a zero sum game with winners and losers. We experience this in our interpersonal relationships as well as social encounters. These are all too obvious on the international scene that I characterized at the beginning of this reflection.
Yet there are signs that things are moving. We are more in touch with love and compassion. This allows us to see people, not as adversaries, but as fellow human beings with the same wants and needs as our own.
A Restorative Justice movement is emerging within the traditionally adversary oriented legal profession.4 Trust fund managers are finding that investment policies that improve the welfare of citizens are more profitable than those which don't.5 Business leaders are beginning to adopt practices that enrich the work environment because such businesses are more profitable.6 David Brooks makes a similar claim about the stock marked in an April 11th editorial.7 Recent data indicate that nonviolent movements, as evidenced in the Egyptian protest uprising in February 2011, are more effective than violent ones.8
I observed this potential when I was director of Madison Urban Ministry. We conducted a series of public Dialogues on divisive community issues, including abortion, the death penalty, racism and homosexuality. We brought people together over a meal and told them they were not permitted to argue the merits of their positions. They were only permitted to tell personal stories of how they came to them. As we talked, we realized that our personal experiences had a tremendous affect on our attitudes and ideas. I recall thinking, “If I had had this person's experience, I probably would hold her/his position and not my own.”
I remember conversations on the planning committee for these events. Two of the members, both pastors, one a homosexual woman and the other a heterosexual male, were in strong disagreement. The man believed homosexual lifestyles were sinful while the woman said that she had found God through her partner. As we got to know and trust one other, these two were able to joke about their different beliefs and experiences. Through this planning process, we began to recognize that our common humanity bound us together in spite of our differences.
This realization was born out in another city where a union leader and the head of the local police force were involved in Dialogue meetings. Following the sessions, the union planned a protest in which violence was a real possibility. Prior to the event, the union leader and the police chief came to an agreement. Because they respected and trusted one another, the police chief said his people would not carry fire arms; and the union leader guaranteed that the protest would be nonviolent. The protest took place with no violence or injuries.
As we explore this new way of relating, traditional and contemporary spiritual understandings and practices are important. I'm not speaking here of theological or dogmatic interpretations of religious/spiritual traditions. Rather I'm speaking of ways that ordinary people engage the religious/spiritual/moral dimensions of their lives. At this level, we are more connected than we care to admit.9
Strategies that acknowledge this connectedness can alter community dynamics and attitudes. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. Gandhi said, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”10 Dr. King put it this way, “I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.”11
I believe we can engage the difficult issues of our time with greater effectiveness if we are motivated by love and compassion rather than fear and distrust. Love and compassion connect us, not only in terms of 'doing the right thing,' but in our guts. When I saw the picture of the Japanese woman grieving in the wreckage of her community, I felt compassion. In some sense I suffered for and with her. When the baby bird was crushed by the car, I anguished over this loss of life and innocence.
I can't prove it, but I believe there is a deep form of love that can transform our species.
- A member of the selection committee for the 2022 Winter Olympics reported that projected weather temperatures in the 6 potential sites will make the relatively warm temperatures of the Sochi Olympics seem frigid by comparison.
- Private conversation with trust fund consultant, Keith Johnson.