What do love and politics have in common? For many, they can surprising both have more to do with ourselves than we may want to admit or recognize, even to ourselves. Recognizing this takes courage but could be an act of love in itself as it may help us better love those around us.
When we have fallen head-over-heels in love with someone, is there any greater rush or feeling in life? Today’s culture has bought into the notion that the intensity of feelings and elation at this stage is what real love is all about. When we are experiencing this stage, we believe we are all about the other person and we would sacrifice anything for them – but the hard truth may be quite different. If true love is a complete sincere gift of self to the other and an unconditional desire for the good of the other, there is nothing about true love that is self-referential. Love is not really about feelings but a more profound and satisfying act of giving and a desire for the best for the other without expectation of a return. It is ideal when both parties mutually give completely, unselfishly, and unconditionally of themselves to the other, but true love does not put that condition of return on the act. It is easy to “love” someone that “loves” us and provides what we want. Real love is desiring the best for even our enemy.
What may be surprising and hard to be totally honest about is that this intense stage of “love” may actually be more about us than the person we profess to love. There is often a high level of egoism basking in the high of being liked, being adored, or being validated by another. The intensity of early infatuation is often seen as confirmation of true love, while it may often be a sign of how lonely we were just before the relationship. How often have you heard someone talk about what they love about another and everything seems self-referential – “She/he is beautiful/handsome. He makes me laugh. I love the way she makes me feel about myself.” While real love might sound more like, “I really want the best for her. I want to do whatever it takes to help him get to heaven. I want to be the best person for her and enable her to be the best version of herself. I want to truly listen so that she feels heard and understood vs being consumed with being understood and convincing her to do what I want. Is living together, taking the pill, having sex outside of the commitment of marriage truly the best thing for her life, his soul or what I want now?” It is often hard to recognize where our ego and desires are driving our love for another but thinking about love as an act vs a feeling can help us to focus on willing the good for the other without conditions of return for us - in good times and in bad, for richer or poor, in sickness and in health, all the days of my life.
So how does this possibly apply to our political passions and identity? Could our motivations be more about us than we would like to admit? With the great passionate divide going on in the country today, would it be fair to say that one side is caring, loving, thoughtful, informed, intelligent, inclusive, tolerant, and selfless, while the other side must then be uncaring, hateful, bigoted, uninformed, intolerant, and selfish – hence not even worth listening to? Progressives often see themselves as the morally enlightened and superior side. G.K. Chesterton once said that progress is meaningless unless we agree together upon the goal we are aiming at. If one side unilaterally determines what progress is and what the right policy is, we can find them acting quite the opposite of what they profess – judging, mocking, condemn and even destroying anyone that disagrees with their version of the only possible answer. Even if the policy is built on flawed assumptions and may actually hurt the people it professes to protect and help. I always struggle to try to understand why the policy of “the team” seemed to be more important than the people the one-size-fits-all policy was intended to serve. We shut down (or shout down) open, honest and respectful discussion when there is a threat to our firm beliefs that we hold the only right answer on abortion, climate change, marriage, freedom, education, poverty, etc. Passionate disagreement is great, healthy for debate and getting the best ideas on the table, but dehumanizing people and judging their souls because they disagree seems to be based on unhealthy fear and not on love.
A recent article in the WSJ, The Exhaustion of American Liberalism, by Shelby Steele seemed to shed some light on some of this disconnect and is worth a read. He writes about the liberalism that came out of the sixties that was a reaction to the white guilt associated with America now being identified as a racist, sexist, and militaristic country. While there were legitimate grievances in these areas to be seriously addressed, much of today’s liberal emotion may be more about the personal need to NOT be labeled as a racist, sexist or homophobe than it is about the actual victims. The motivation was often a need to escape the shame of white guilt by seeing yourself as claiming the moral high ground while labeling and destroying anyone that disagrees with your morally superior beliefs. It would be wrong to broad-brush everyone with this motivation, but it remains a valid question to ask ourselves honestly. When we see the world divided into three groups; the sheep that need their protection, the wolves that they need to be protected against, and the shepherds that are the only ones that can provide that protection, are we setting up a system that serves our need to be the shepherd, creating permanent victims dependent on us and wolves out of people that may caringly see the world differently than we do? Are we open-minded, respectful and fair when we listen to differing opinions? Do we validate our assumptions as strongly as those that disagree with our beliefs? Do we respect and even allow minority or women’s voices to be diverse? Do we define tolerance only in terms of embracing and celebrating our ideas? Are we focused truly on the other in an act of love?
Whether the emotions are about love of another or even politics, it is always important to honestly see and understand our often subconscious motivations. It is not easy to be brutally honest with ourselves and to unconditionally show true love and respect for others, but we may actually be creating a better world for others and ourselves when we do so.
What more important work could we do and lesson could we learn this Lenten season?