Sandstone Heart in the wall in West Kirby, Great Britain. Photo credit: SomeDriftwood on Flickr.
I am profligate in my use of the word love. It really pisses my friends off. They think it shows a lack of discernment and discipline. To them, saying it so much diminishes its value and meaning – if everyone and everything are special, no one and nothing is. But I disagree. For me, love is not a scarce commodity. It abounds and is made richer by its omnipresence. Seeing and feeling it at breakfast makes it easier to spot at lunch. Honestly, I can’t help it. I was raised by a woman who derives immense joy from the simplest things: a good pasta, a lovely rug, the well-crafted handle of a measuring cup. With a mother like that, how was I supposed to turn out?
Preparing to best my friends in the battle to define love, I began pondering the concept more deeply: what, exactly, is love if it can be so plentiful and yet not lose its precious quality? I picked up Roget’s. No help there among words like sexuality, desire, sweetheart. Affection and accord got closer but seemed ice cold and dull – nothing like my mother’s feelings toward her measuring cup.
I thought Plato and Aristotle might further my cause. I spent an hour in deep intellectual pursuit, cruising various philosophy websites to understand the differences between eros, phillia and agape. Oy, passages such as this one made my head hurt:
The universalism of agape runs counter to the partialism of Aristotle and poses a variety of ethical implications. Aquinas admits a partialism in love towards those we are related while maintaining that we should be charitable to all, whereas others such as Kierkegaard insist on impartiality . . . Others would claim that the concept of universal love, of loving all equally, is not only impracticable, but logically empty.
I was trained as a civil rights advocate. I entered the world of social justice brimming with excitement and reverence for the bright, shiny tools of logic and the law. My first trial, a 1989 voting rights case against the State of Arkansas, cured me. I watched local officials lie on the stand about the banalities of segregation and voter suppression. The lies didn’t make sense to me until I realized that the penalties for perjury were nothing compared to the ostracism of the whole community engendered by anyone daring to break the racial codes. There was no logic problem to be fixed here; it was a cultural and spiritual dilemma that the law could not reach.
I stuck out several more years of civil rights work until I found that ugliness reflected in my own practice. During a deposition in a high profile redistricting case I caught myself enraged, savaging a plaintiff who opposed a majority black Congressional district. A widowed older white woman, she could not tell me the precise proportion of black voters in a district she would consider fair. As I hammered her, she burst into tears. I felt like I had kicked my own grandmother.
How does this rage square with my predisposition toward universal love? It doesn’t, really. You see, my experiences with racism had taught me to cultivate anger as a form of self-protection. It was a big doughnut hole in my otherwise uniform theory of love. The vicious deposition made me realize that I needed a more generative path.
This summer in Berlin during a Presencing Institute program, I glimpsed that path. A group of us had been working for two years on deep listening. Several times, we’d shadowed one another, and others, in our various jobs with the goal of cultivating empathy. We’d built a level of trust in our group, and being in Berlin brought forth a profound historical presence. As the days unfolded we began sharing our own stories of deep suffering – the incest survivor, the rape victim, the soldier and the prisoner of war. One friend told the story of her mother, a death camp survivor who would only share one memory: the sight of ordinary Germans lining the streets and weeping as the Allies liberated the camps. By contrast, I feared, I had taught my children to suspect and fear white people to protect themselves against racism.
But in the room in Berlin, the group’s collective compassionate listening, transformed stories of intense suffering into a moment of great healing. For me, it was a spiritual passage that helped illuminate how my own way of being was captive to history and memory and fear, closing off to others, and even to myself, a deeper level of humanity. In the days and weeks that followed, I began feeling a physical sensation when I encountered suffering: a fluttering deep in my chest that maybe is the opening of my heart.
But it wasn’t only a personal transformation. We also witnessed a powerful social process in Berlin in which shared responsibility and compassion began to heal historical and collective wounds. This shared responsibility and compassion is what I sensed was missing in my civil rights days. It still is, and that creates a dangerous flaw in the United States’ democracy: there isn’t fundamental agreement about exactly who constitutes “we the people, ” or whether the polity’s circle of concern should be broad rather than narrow.
I vote for broad: I believe that a sturdy democracy requires it. And because I’m now a sucker for compassion, friends be damned, I remain belligerently committed to the pursuit of universal, pervasive, extreme love.
Dayna Cunningham is the Executive Director of MIT Community Innovators Lab.