Once again this weekend the news was full of stories of yet more gun violence taking innocent lives and all I could think was this: anger and fear are winning. People joke about the zombie apocalypse, but sometimes I think society is really going to end when every single one of us completely gives in to fear and anger. Just a bunch of angry zombies walking around grunting and growling and trying to devour before we are devoured. Every time we face a national tragedy, man-made or otherwise, and we spend more time tearing each other down than working together, we move further away from the only thing that’s really going to change society—love.
Case in point: people are angry at folks who offer prayers for those who are hurt. Okay. I get it. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. When our work, and the work of our elected leaders stop at thoughts and prayers when people are dying, it’s worthy of censure and a call to action. Ask for more.* But don’t pick on the actual acts of prayer. Encourage them. Welcome them. Show gratitude for them. Ask for more of them. Because those who are sincerely offering prayer are offering acts of love. They may not be acts of love that everyone believes in, but they are acts of love that the people who are praying believe in. And I truly believe the only way to triumph over anger and fear is by acting with love.
Do I think love is suddenly going to stop bad things from happening? Of course not. Would I like to see our leaders taking action to stop these national tragedies? Of course. However, I’m not going to delude myself into thinking that even if I was to be given my wishlist of civic-minded gun regulation all will be right with the world.
Awful things happen everywhere, all the time. Sometimes it’s a terrible, far-reaching accident that pollutes our air, water, and food. Sometimes it’s a fierce, destructive storm. Sometimes it’s a senseless act of violence. These things are not in our control, no matter how much power we try to exert over the things we feel contribute to their cause. How we respond to them, however, is—and in our response, how we respond to each other is of the utmost importance.
Most of the responses I see right now are anger, fear, and blame. Whose fault is it that this senseless violence happened? Who dropped the ball that allowed this accident? Who didn’t work hard enough to ensure this place was sufficiently prepared to weather this disaster? Whom can we turn our fear and anger toward? Whom can we tear down? Whom can we criticize? How can we use this to take down the ones we fear and the ones we hate?
As a matter of fact, every time something like this happens the default response seems to be fear, anger, and blame rather than love, care, and compassion. Why is that? One answer is this: we get good at what we practice. If we constantly respond with negative emotions, we will get very good at them. It reminds me of the story about two wolves, which is credited as being from the Cherokee. In the story, we are told that within every person there are two wolves. One is full of rage, fear, aggression, and despair. The other is full of love, hope, generosity, and joy. When asked which one will win, the answer is, “the one you feed.” We feed, every day, on negativity. It’s ubiquitous. And in our society, it’s easy to see why.
It makes sense, when people are in search of power, to try to cast blame on others and to feed the world tales to inspire fear and anger. It’s worked throughout history, from Biblical stories to the Holocaust. Even today, how many people have voted out of sheer love for a particular candidate, rather than some measure of anger toward or fear of the other one? If we can appeal to the fear and anger, and if we can get people to fight with each other out of fear rather than collaborate with love, then we are all far easier to control–and nothing will change.
It also makes sense, when a company is trying to sell something, to play upon anger and fear. After all, who has ever bought a home alarm system out of joy? Door locks out of love? A gun out of generosity? Granted, some have bought an engagement ring or piece of jewelry for a beloved, or something they might treasure, or need. Maybe we buy food, or other necessities out of a spirit of giving and love. But so many purchases are mixed. I’ve bought myself clothing as a form of loving self-care, but sometimes it’s tinged with fear about how others will judge me—thus the sheer terror of shopping for jeans and bathing suits. Sometimes I buy salad instead of sweets out of love for my body, but beneath that is my fear of falling ill and dying if I eat too many donuts and not enough kale.
A very long time ago I read a book by bell hooks called All About Love. In it, she asserts that we live in a culture of fear and violence, and in this culture even love is defined by desire and sex rather than the kind of love that brings healing and redemption. She calls us, as a society, to see love as a verb, making it very clear that the kind of love that transforms our culture takes practice. She observes that we seem to live in a “culture of death,” where the movies we watch, the stories we read, and the things that are popular all point to an obsession with violence.
hooks’ book was published in the year 2,000—19 years ago. I remember it clearly because it was before I had kids and my brain still retained things. If, 19 years ago, hooks had enough evidence to convincingly assert that we lived in a culture of death, when the quirky-but-sweet Friends and Seinfeld were equally as popular as the violent movies The Matrix and Pulp Fiction, how much more evidence is there now, with The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones the clear winners of the what-we’re-watching category balanced by, what exactly? The Great British Baking Show?
Fear and anger are winning the culture wars, and it’s showing in media, politics, and everyday interactions between people. Just log on to Twitter for 25 seconds and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The only way to combat it is to make an active choice to love. This is not something that can be legislated, or forced on us. The decision to base every act, every word, every move we make in a spirit of love is a personal one. It may seem simplistic. It may seem too easy. It’s not. It may be the hardest thing we ever do. For while it’s easy to love our kids, our relatives, our friends, our pets, it seems near on impossible to love someone we find threatening or infuriating. As a matter of fact, it may seem ridiculous to try to respond to that person with something other than hate, much less respond with love, much less try to actually love the person. And when that person responds to us with hate–well, that’s why the suggestion was as revolutionary 2000+ years ago as it is today. It’s why we’ve not really gotten any better at implementing it. It’s why the world hasn’t changed.
I’m not here to spread flowers and sing songs and say “love is all you need.” I’m not talking about shallow gestures of caring that don’t extend past a heart emoji and a hug. I’m talking about radical love. Earth-changing love. The kind of love that starts working on a cellular level, that infuses every fiber of our being. This
call to love is not dismissive of other solutions. It’s not supposed to stand in place of political action, work toward social change, or figuring out how to keep ourselves safe. It is, however, supposed to guide the ways in which we do these things. And if there’s one thing we’re not doing, if there’s one thing we haven’t tried, it’s to truly infuse all of our interactions with love. From the words we use, to the way we drive, to the way we look at and treat other people, everything in us should speak love. If it doesn’t, then how can we expect anything better than fear and hate in our society?
*I am not a political writer, and while I do believe love can change the world I am also reminded of the joke wherein a man prays every week to God that he will win the lottery, yet dies never having won. And when he gets to heaven, he meets God, and says, “God, I prayed to You every week that You would let me win the lottery, and you never came through.” To which God replied, “Yes, but you never bought a ticket.” If gun violence bothers you as much as it bothers me, buy a ticket. I don’t care what you champion, but for the sake of us all get involved in something. Just try to do so with love. Here are some places to start:
To end gun violence: https://momsdemandaction.org; https://www.csgv.org; https://everytown.org; or google “organizations to end gun violence.” You can also write your state and national representatives and senators.
For the record, I do not believe gun violence is a mental health issue. However, some do, and I believe that we do need better access to mental health care in this country regardless of whether it is related to shootings. So, to champion better mental health care: https://www.nami.org
To work with groups fighting extremism and hate: https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate
Works that have helped me as I strive to choose love:
bell hooks. All About Love.
Anthony De Mello. The Way to Love.
C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves.
Don Miguel Ruiz. The Four Agreements.
Mother Teresa. No Greater Love.
The BBC’s Dr. Who. (You will only raise your eyebrows at this if you have not watched the show. If you’re not a fan, start with the 9th Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston. By the time you reach the 13th Doctor, you’ll see what I mean).
I am open to other resources and suggestions on any and all of these.