Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Hard Work of Love

In my first semester of grad school in English literature at Harvard I enrolled in a seminar in Renaissance poetry. My professor was an elegant man in his 60s known for his vocabulary, intelligence, and wit. The class had two requirements, a book report and a paper. He delivered his evaluations of each student before the class.

My book report on Christian imagery went very well. He called it "exemplary," and I felt like a star. My paper on Ben Jonson went very badly. The details have faded, but the pain lingers on. I remember him suggesting it was more of a draft.

I was devastated and went to see my professor in his office. I asked him why he humiliated his students in public-- I wasn't the only one in the class he had shamed. He told me he saw Harvard as a cloistered environment. He said it was his duty to prepare his students for the profession by helping them to build up their scar tissue in advance. My internal response was, "Don't do me any favors."

About 10 years ago I heard he had died. Unfortunately, my response wasn't especially yogic. I was delighted and imagined doing a dance on his grave. I hated him then, and I hate him now.

And yet, the only hope for me is to to love my professor. It's hard to believe that anyone so sadistic hasn't been the victim of sadism himself. I take his cruelty to his students as a gauge of the cruelty done to him. The profession -- or life -- left its scars on his heart.

Loving my professor means accepting him completely, empathizing with his pain, and feeling compassion for his suffering. To the extent that I hate him I begin to resemble him. And to the extent that I resemble him I lose my humanity. The choice is very clear: to cultivate hatred and perpetuate trauma or to cultivate love and generate healing.

This is not in any way to deny his brutality. Nor is it a roundabout way to excuse it. It is, nevertheless, a plea to explain it. And in order to explain it I must understand it. I cannot do this effectively if I push him away, if I resist his perspective, or if I prematurely judge him. I cannot do this effectively without acceptance, empathy, and compassion. I cannot do this effectively without the openness of love.

It is also not to suggest that I must tolerate abuse -- regardless of how much pain my abuser has suffered. On the contrary, it's essential to do what I can to protect myself. But protecting myself from abuse does not entail hatred. To love those who hate me and also to protect myself. This is the way to retain my humanity.

And so the work before me is to cultivate love -- while doing whatever is necessary for protection. To accept, to empathize with, and to extend compassion to all beings no matter how great their capacity for hatred. This goes beyond my grad school professor to include every person who is capable of this feeling.

As far as I can tell, this includes everyone. It includes Hussein, Milosovich, Pol Pot, and Hitler. It includes my employers, therapists, teachers, and colleagues. It includes my parents, sister, partners, and friends. And, most importantly, it includes myself. To accept, to empathize with, and to extend compassion to us all. That is truly the hard work of love.


Anonymous said...

What an amazing post. It is difficult to imagine that Hitler is deserving of love but the principal that everyone deserves love seems necessary for humanity. Still it seems possible to do that for another person. At the same time how do you show love and compassion and protect yourself when the person causing the abuse and the person you hate is yourself.

Dr Raphael Gunner said...

Our experience of ourselves is forged in the flames of our earliest relationships. If we were loved as infants, we're more likely to love ourselves. If we were unloved as infants, we're more likely to be ambivalent. Unfortunately, the same is true of our parents, and their capacity to love us is related to their capacity to love themselves, and this is in turn shaped by their parents' capacity to love them. And so it goes generation by generation. Until, that is, the process is interrupted by the good fortune of having an experience of love -- through a partner, a teacher, a friend, or a therapist. Through someone who sees the good and beauty we can't see. Someone who gives us a new vision of ourselves. Someone who helps us to love ourselves for the first time -- and in so doing to begin to love others.