Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Challenge of Love

I picked up a man from the street, and he was eaten up alive with worms, and nobody could stand near him he was smelling so badly. I went to him to clean him, and he said, "Why you do this?" And I said, "Because I love you." -- Mother Teresa (Mother Teresa, 1986 Documentary)

I've been thinking a lot about love in recent weeks. What it means to love. What it means to be loved. You'd think it would be obvious. But it's strangely elusive. Only now can I recognize it. Only now can I attempt it.

Unfortunately, I've always confused liking with loving. I've mistakenly assumed that they were points on a line. That loving was a matter of liking times ten. But I'm finally realizing that this isn't the case. That liking and loving aren't related at all.

A survey of any date site tells us all about liking. It's amazing to see what people like in their mates. Intellectual, biker, atheist, religious, conservative, liberal, hippy, clean cut. These qualities all have one thing in common. They are based on idiosyncratic, individual taste.

But love has nothing to do with our taste. Where taste locates difference, love finds identity. Where taste pulls apart, love brings together. And where taste creates strata, love evens out. To like is to discriminate between qualities based on taste. To love, on the other hand, is completely to accept.

But what are we completely accepting with love? On one level, it is the qualities we dislike in other people. The fear, helplessness, and panic that seize our partner is a clutch. The greed, envy, and brutality that emerge when they fail. But on a deeper level we are accepting those same qualities in ourselves. Our capacity as human beings to have feelings we despise. Our capacity as human beings to commit acts we cannot speak.

In fact, one might say that it's our discomfort with ourselves, with our capacity for unconscionable feelings and acts, that lies at the root of our discomfort with others. We invariably hate in others what we hate in ourselves. And we can only love others when we completely accept ourselves.

To accept ourselves completely is to accept our humanity. That all people, as people, have the capacity for evil. That all people, as people, have the capacity for good. That we can all commit murder. And we can all save a life. That we can all be oppressors. And we can all be oppressed. Recognizing this identity makes it possible to bring together. Makes it possible to even out. Makes it possible to accept. Recognizing this identity makes it possible to love -- even when we don't like some of the qualities we embrace.

This is what Mother Teresa so deeply understood. That she was the worm eaten man on the street. That she was the savior who gave him to eat.

And the benefit of cultivating the capacity to love? An acceptance of self and an acceptance of other that creates the conditions in which compassion can arise. It is only through compassion that we are able to explore. Only through exploration that we are able to discover. Only through discovery that we are able to understand. And only through understanding that we are able to resolve.

Love, it turns out, makes it possible to find peace. Peace with our enemies. And peace with ourselves. This is my hope for the new year.