It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
What the world needs now is love, sweet love.
No, not just for some, but for everyone.
That song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung by Jackie DeShannon back in the idealistic ‘60s, has been running through my head lately. As a member of TMR, I’m something of a Facebook power user. I’m there a lot. And I can’t help but notice a tremendous amount of vitriol lately targeting specific people – often people who are doing the best they can to accomplish worthy goals, like reducing the rate of autism, improving the lives of those who have autism, making sure no one dies or goes bankrupt due to lack of health insurance, or reducing the incidence of gun violence in the U.S. The vitriol often seems shockingly out of proportion to the target’s perceived “offense.” So, yeah, I’m thinking that the world does need a whole lotta love right now.
What is love? Well, according to Jesus, “God is love.” I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t care at all what Jesus said, and I respect that. But with all the spiritual seeking I’ve done in my lifetime, I’ve yet to come across a better spiritual teacher, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I quote him on the subject of love. If you accept the premise that God is love, then there can be nothing higher or more important than love. When you love, you are, by definition, seeing with the eyes of God. So love is something we should all be striving to fill our lives with, right? Why does it seem like the opposite so much of the time?
When asked which commandment was the most important one, Jesus didn’t pick one out, he summed them all up into two basic themes that I think are absolutely brilliant: Love the Lord your God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength; and love thy neighbor as thyself. God is love, according to Jesus, so the first one is saying we should love Love, essentially. Open to the love that is God and fill yourself up with it. Then what do you do with that love? Love thy neighbor, as thyself. That’s it. These two commandments are actually one commandment. If you are loving God as directed, you are loving your neighbor. And, if you are loving your neighbor (and yourself), you are loving God. There is no separation. As Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” It all boils down to one word: Love.
So simple and yet so difficult, otherwise we’d all be doing it, right? Why is it so hard for us? One word: Fear. A Course in Miracles teaches that there are only two emotions, love and fear, and fear is merely the absence of love. I’ve thought about that a lot, and it makes sense to me. All the hate, jealousy, anger, guilt, etc. I’ve ever felt can be distilled down to fear: fear of change, fear of not being good enough, fear of being alone, fear of not doing enough, etc. It’s amazing what we can be afraid of, isn’t it? I think the essence of being human is to fear, because we are limited in so many ways by our physical bodies that we lose sight of the tremendous spiritual power that is ours. The lesson for humanity is to transcend that fear with the power of love: God.
When asked who was meant by “thy neighbor,” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, making it clear that he regarded everyone as “his neighbor.” Samaritans were not particularly liked by the people listening to Jesus, rather like, oh, say, Muslims or illegal immigrants might be in certain areas of the U.S. today, or, to pick one that is culturally close to me, the Irish in the days of “No Irish need apply.” And yet Jesus deliberately chose to tell a story of a Samaritan who behaved far better than any of those the sick man would have been likely to consider his “neighbors.” The “neighbor” you’re being called to love isn’t your child, your next-door neighbor, the person with whom you agree on all topics controversial, or the person who shares your bed. It is all of those and more. Everyone you come into contact with, you are called to love.
I was once present at a “motivational” speech by Pat Riley, coach of the New York Knicks in the Patrick Ewing era and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Magic Johnson era. He told a couple of stories that day that had drastically different effects on me. (Disclaimer: I am quite likely to get details of these stories wrong, but it was the stories’ effect on me that I’m more concerned with than the details.)
The first was a story about Michael Jordan. He was a scrawny little kid who had such a bad basketball practice one day that when he got home he went to the garage to cry. He was purportedly so mortified by that fact, that he vowed that day to make sure that next time it was the other guy who went to his garage to cry. And the result? A record number of championship seasons for his team, the Chicago Bulls, among so many other stats. I don’t know about anyone else, but I didn’t find anything the least bit “inspiring” about someone whose goal in life was to make other people experience the single most mortifying event in his own life. In fact, I found it appalling.
Riley told another very different story about one of his own players, however. When he was with the Lakers, Magic Johnson was team captain and the star of the team. But Magic Johnson was a different kind of player and a different kind of leader altogether. With Magic Johnson as team captain, the entire team played better. That was no accident; it was the result of stellar leadership. Magic Johnson wasn’t interested in crushing the opposition, he was interested in playing the game to the best of his ability and helping his teammates to do so as well.
One of the Lakers had a contract renewal coming up, and he wasn’t at all certain if he would have a job in the near future. Magic Johnson pulled him aside one day and told him that team management would need a good reason to keep him on and therefore, he was going to lead the league in free throws that season. Johnson set aside time to practice with this other guy, and their efforts succeeded. The teammate did indeed lead the league that season and his contract was renewed.
Now that’s what I call inspirational. Someone who uses his skills, not just to make his own life better, but to enhance the lives of the people around him. His “neighbors,” if you will. Isn’t that what love is? Using your skills to enhance and improve the lives of those around you? In other words, making the world a better place. Forgive me while I get New Agey on you, but it’s raising the overall vibration of the world. Why do people love sports movies where the underdogs prevail? (I’ve been a sucker for those my whole life, despite the fact that I almost never watch professional sports anymore.) I don’t believe it’s because the underdogs are making people cry in their garages, I believe it’s because it’s transformational to watch people who learn to work together, improving each other’s performance, and thus their overall lives. Everyone on the team is better off at the end of the film.
There’s an independent film named Once that chronicles a brief relationship in the life of an Irish guitar player and a piano-playing Czech woman who meet, change each other’s lives forever, and then part. Despite the fact that – in a very un-Hollywood ending — the “lovers” part, it’s a true love story. When the film is over, it is clear that both lives have improved immeasurably because of their encounter. The quality of love is not measured by the amount of time spent together, or whether or not it led to sex. The quality of love is measured by how much of an effect they had on each other’s lives.
So if loving our neighbor is so important for the world, why do we do such a rotten job at it? I think it has to do with that second part that’s so often forgotten: “as thyself.” How many people do you know who really love themselves? As I came out of a screening of White Oleander, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Wright, and Renee Zellweger, I overheard a couple of women gleefully trashing the leads saying, “I couldn’t believe how bad they looked! I’ve never seen them look so awful!” I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, but I thought they all looked pretty damned good, especially given that they were playing a murderess and two foster mothers, not movie stars. What’s more is that, on their very best days, the women who were so decidedly trashing them would never look as good. What drives someone to criticize someone else so harshly for something they themselves do so badly? I think it’s because they don’t love themselves. If all you hear from yourself all day long is criticism, it’s hardly a stretch to extend that to someone else, even if that someone is far less deserving of that criticism. These people are loving their neighbor “as themselves,” which is to say not at all. If they spent some time finding their own value to the universe, they wouldn’t feel the same need to tear down someone else.
When it comes down to it, trashing your neighbor can’t really do anything to make your life better. In other words, you can’t “elevate” yourself at the expense of someone else. You can try. God knows you can try. And people do all the time: bullies, Michael Jordan, Microsoft, the robber barons of the early 1900s, the people who tell you that you should risk your child’s mental and physical well-being to make sure their child never gets the measles. Lots of people are trying to “get ahead,” by knocking off the other guy. They may get rich, but do they ever get “ahead” enough to relax? What’s going on inside the person who has to see the competition crying in his garage? It ain’t pretty, that’s for sure. I don’t envy them their fear one little bit. Someone once accused me of having the views I have because I was envious of the money she had. I had no idea how much money she had. She could have had billions. But I didn’t, and wouldn’t, envy her in the least, because she was living her life afraid that someone would take away the money she had. I told her truthfully that if I were going to envy someone it would be someone with a lot less fear than I had (someone like Glennon Doyle Melton, for instance), not someone who obviously had much more. To quote another of my favorite films, Strictly Ballroom, “Vivir con miedo es vivir a medias,” or “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”
I challenge you this Valentine’s Day to do what you can for the next week to decrease the level of fear in the world and increase the level of love. Live your life all the way: Love every neighbor you encounter, starting with yourself.
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