Saturday, June 2, 2007

Can Love Be Truth?

When we recently visited a meeting in LA, we met a woman who thought that being a Quaker meant being "positive," and striving to see "the positive" in any given situation.

This is obviously wrong, and obviously an element in many Friends' outlooks and beliefs--and not altogether wrong.

Yesterday, my computer threw me a quote from Ambrose Bierce, that being "positive" meant "being wrong at the top of one's voice." And then later, reading a meditation book by Alan Lew (_Be Still and Get Going_) I found a story about his daughter, how she'd gone into fullblown rebellion and driven her parents to desperate, punitive anxiety... Nothing working, they had finally realized that she could be viewed with the same compassionate detachment they'd apply to people who mattered less to them. Once they stopped (Lew says) trying to impose their ideas of how she should be, strove to see her as she was and love her precisely as she was, she rather rapidly moved toward a more constructive way of being.

I realized that I owe a lot to people who have approached my flaws and quirks in a similar spirit. They've helped make me the person I am today! (Don't laugh, okay? I've been worse!) I also remembered an old friend of Anne's, continually finding cause for indignation, constantly angry and proud of it. One day I gave up on her, decided she would never change--and that's when she suddenly turned around and did something utterly new and uncharacteristic. Probably it wasn't "giving up on her," as I'd thought, but giving up trying to make her more like I'd thought she should be. (At her funeral, a few years later, a large number of people showed up to say how much they'd loved her, and how impossible she'd been!)

I still think we do better see things as they are: to call our filthy rotten system "a filthy rotten system" and our psychopathic tyrant "a psychopathic tyrant" rather than to pretend he means well (at least not in any meaningful sense. Obviously he thinks that helping his class of people loot the country and devastate the world is a good thing; so he has been doing what he thinks he should quite effectively, and it's all been thoroughly evil in the only sense I comprehend, making life unnecessarily harsh and punitive for those who can least defend themselves.) Not that we do any good by loving to hate the guy, gloating and dwelling on each new abomination... Probably he, and the nation that tolerates him, is beyond our help. Not beyond all help, just beyond our help, which we should continue none-the-less (but with all the critical insight we can muster.)

Caesar has always been Caesar, sometimes "better," sometimes "worse," not a bad guy but he'll crucify you without blinking if you ever get in his way.

We need to recognize the inhuman nature of the political/economic/social system we inhabit, not imagine that we "govern ourselves" or ever did, not imagine that we can make this world the Kingdom by "working from within." Not saying there aren't good human beings trapped in The Mechanism, working miracles of mercy and courage--just pointing out that the biblical assumption that the kingdoms of this world belong to the Devil is all too apt.

But so is the biblical assumption that God is the ultimate power over it all. What?--Is this like a peasant's belief in the good Tsar, who would make his vassals treat us right if only he realized what they were doing? Well, no, I'm saying that miracles happen despite and even through the world's mechanisms of torment, that those mechanisms are not the ultimate reality but as illusory as our dream of "Returning To Normal Life." To remember God's power and good will is merely to put our hope where it really belongs, to stop fussing ourselves unnecessarily. Tragedies happen, but when the curtain comes down the actors get up and bow. Life happens as it does because it suits us, as we have been so far.

How to become better? To love ourselves as we would like others to love us. It's always a good time to get up off our deathbeds and bow. How?--What?

My father knew I was physically inept, with a book-addict stoop and my mother's tension. One day he told me to lie on the floor and relax. "Not like that! Let your fingers curl up!" It wasn't a matter of holding them straight or holding them in fists, but in simply letting them be--but I had no idea what he was talking about. Another time, he told me I had a good, straight back--but it wasn't true then and didn't become true. I don't know if he ever gave up wanting me to be different... He was such a pill! Much later he showed me a video of himself speaking at a City Council meeting, and we were both appalled at how much alike we were. This is the kind of truth we need to see, accept, love and be as we really are.


Heather Madrone said...

You're touching some deep issues here. I approached the same issues from a radically different angle (mostly in parenting), and so my viewpoint is quite different from your own.

The practice of seeing the positive in any given situation is a spiritual practice, one that can be an important counter for those of us who tend to be hypercritical. Turning situations around and trying to see them from a different point of view is often useful.

Judgments and labels are limiting in various ways. They limit our view of the situation, they limit our options, and they limit our ability to respond to reality. Even positive labels get in the way of a direct and authentic connection with reality.

I try to look at other people through the eyes of appreciation (and quite often don't succeed, alas). I appreciate that they are doing the best they can, and that they have the same needs that I have. I recognize that people (especially children) are trying to get their needs met. I try to address those underlying needs instead of reacting to behavior.

Unconditional love is a very powerful force. Every time I have received unconditional love, especially those times when I felt I deserved it the least, it has changed my life.

david said...

Reminds me of a book I read enjoyed but really didn't put into practice a long time ago, Lazy man's Guide to Enlightenment The metaphysics are all wrong -- but the practice that flows from the metaphysics has merit I think -- which says something about metaphysics.

forrest said...

I have trouble with people's usual way of putting this, precisely because as David says, the logical stucture under it doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

The only one I've found who's been really logical about this was Joel Goldsmith, and he keeps making me dizzy whenever I see his inarguable truths with one eye and the existence of real evil with the other...

"Unconditional love." If this means "indiscriminate", it's not love, and if it doesn't, it can't be truly unconditional, can it?--Or do I just find the idea difficult?

It's one thing to seek to see the good that must be present in people and situations made by God--and another "to look at people through the eyes of appreciation," though it may be helpful enough.

We agree that there's a powerful force, here. And we've been on the receiving end, with good effect.

Now is this really something we can "practice" on unwary people, or do we rather need to get out of its way? How we do that?

Chris M. said...

Forrest: Speaking of The Mechanism, I hope you've seen Kirk's post at Street Corner Society:

… in the System as well as in heaven…

And thanks for the Alan Lew story. It's helpful.

-- Chris M.

Heather Madrone said...


For me, "unconditional love" means "with no strings attached." It's love that's given freely, without conditions. Its opposite is love that is based on performance or approval, love that can be withheld if we do not act the part of perfect friend/parent/child/lover/spouse.

I don't think that unconditional love or appreciation is something that we practice on other people. It's something we practice in our hearts, to change our perspectives.

Unconditional love doesn't mean that we don't have limits, nor that we allow people to walk all over us. Holding boundaries is important work. People can do real harm in the world, and we sometimes need to re-direct their destructive energy.

forrest said...

If we look at what we're talking about, rather than our ways of describing it, we probably agree on a lot in practice.

I certainly don't object to what you mean by "unconditional love;" it's the phrase itself that bothers me.

When a phrase goes into common use, people stop looking at it critically enough.

Love is certainly something we do ourselves.

But it requires a relation to someone else with a nature of her own.

If a certain way of being makes loving ourselves less of a strain, good for it! But when we love, should we be striving to make that love fit some ideal of being "unconditional"? (I don't just pick nits; I pick them apart! Oh well, time to take Anne's painting to the gallery.)

Heather Madrone said...

I share some of your distrust of ideals.

I don't strive for unconditional love because it's some sort of ideal; I strive for it because it makes in difference in my life and my relationships. Loving people as they are, in the present, works better than hemming them in with my expectations and demands.

This is especially true with my children, who have decided personalities that are not necessarily the ones I would have chosen for them. By loving them for who they are instead of who I might ideally prefer them to be, I am better able to help them grow to be the people they're meant to be.

It's helpful with my husband too, who might not always be the man I would have created for myself. He is, however, the man I married, and loving him for who he is strikes me as a whole lot more sensible than withholding love for who he is not.

I've learned the value of loving children when they're at their least loveable. It guides them back to their best selves more quickly and more surely than criticism and punishment.