The Ever-Changing Shape of Love

Ongoing events urge us to redefine and refresh that tired old used-up word—love.

Love is the only force strong enough to be the unifying energy that ties our broken country back together. Hate can’t do it. Hate and fear have polarized us. We need to choose: we can’t love and hate at the same time.

Love is difficult and takes effort. It is easy to love our children, because that is built into us, just as the fear which can lead to hate is built into us. But the consistent, firm love that gives us the patience to set limits on children that will help them grow into good citizens and good parents in their turn—and learn in their turn not to give into hate and fear and exasperated impatience—is not instinctive. It must be learned as we go.

Love is self-reflecting. It admits mistakes and learns from them. It’s no fun to realize we have been wrong or done something hurtful—just as it is no fun to be hurt. Love is about interdependence, the Golden Rule, the reality that I am not the center of the universe, that others and their needs are as real as me and my needs, and that we are all more alike than different. The tragedy of Donald Trump is that he still hasn’t realized these basic elements of being human.

Love is nonviolent, by definition. Violence can never be loving. Period. Self-defense may be necessary, but it isn’t love, it’s self-defense. The mob in the Capitol hurting and even killing policemen was not defending itself, nor was it defending liberty or democracy. It rationalized its violence on the basis of misinformation about the results of an election that were proven false in more than 60 court cases.

Love does not preoccupy with enemies. If we are loving, we define ourselves by what we are for, not what we are against. If we are sufficiently against something or someone it can mistakenly justify violence. Instead love calls us to be constructive and look for common ground with adversaries as creatively as we can. Hate dehumanizes the other; love identifies with the other.

That means inclusivity is part of love. Hate separates into parts; love sees the big picture. To say we are one humanity on one planet is a statement of love–-and also a demonstration of how the meaning of love really does evolve over time, because a hundred years ago we had not seen the earth from space. Back then only religious seers were motivated by this aspect of love; now it is accessible to all. Every day the news carries new proof that we’re all in the same boat.

So love inevitably puts us in a mode of learning and discovery. We’re in a place we’ve never been before. Love is self-education. What is the truth in any given situation? Love is honest and authentic in its longing for truth. So love overlaps with science—it searches for what works, what leads to life, to goodness, to truth, to beauty.

Self-education in love means learning to work cooperatively with other people toward whatever larger goal we can agree is important or even necessary for survival. Many in the U.S. House and Senate have demonstrated over the past weeks, and months and years, that they have much to learn about working together.

Love is conservative—it conserves life with responsible care. Love is progressive—it hopes for a better world.

Finally, love takes the larger perspective. It is aware that we are here for only an instant in all time, that others before us sacrificed that we could be here, and that we are the gateway to all the future. Love is acceptance of this condition, a willingness not to resist it. As David Attenborough keeps saying, what we do in the next few years will affect the next two thousand years of life on earth. That is a statement of how much we need to discover how to love.

Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.