Love in the Midst of Violence
We are living in difficult times, and this has been a difficult week.
Fear and anxiety have always been part of life, but these days, people commonly tell me they wake up in a funk, tossed into sleeplessness by a refrain of fear. We fear the violence that we see every day, and in horrifying events like the shootings last week. We fear chaos. We fear being consigned to the category of people in this world who don’t count. We fear the kind of hatred spilling out through Western societies.
Increasingly, people tell me they even fear the kind of hatred spilling from their own hearts.
Recently, at a retreat, I met a woman who told me she was haunted by the rage she felt at family members who had voted differently from how she had in the last presidential election. She said, “The most healing practice I used to do was keeping a gratitude journal, writing down three things each night that I had to be grateful for from the day. Now that’s all gone. I’m bitter, I’m angry, and I’m afraid… It seems like I feel only those three things. I don’t want to obsess the way I do all day long, but I do.”
Does this resonate with you?
The woman on my retreat was feeling rage at family members whom she wanted to love. She knew this didn’t feel good. But how could she love people with whom she so strongly disagreed?
Writer Jason Garner recently offered me an inspiring way of thinking about cultivating lovingkindness. He said, “at times it can seem glib, naïve, or perhaps even stupid to talk about loving everyone. When we look around our world, with wars, terrorist attacks, people killing each other over race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation… how can we possibly love everyone?”
The answer has to do with what we mean by love.
Love doesn’t mean we approve of someone, or that we will cease to disagree or to fight. It means that we recognize that, like it or not, we live in an interconnected universe, that our lives have something to do with one another. It means that the more severed we feel from the whole, the more we suffer and the more we are willing to cause suffering.
If we study life, if we look at our own deepest experience, we see love as a power rather than a compromised sentimentality. We see that love instead of hatred can fuel our actions as we work to both provoke and embody the change we seek for our communities and for the world. This is what I’ve called real love.
Real love doesn’t make us stupid; it makes us brave. It makes us stronger and more available to do the work we need to do for others.
After all, in order to work for change — in our personal lives or in the world — we need to find the ordinary things that can help us sustain our energy and optimism. Love is one of those things.
A few years ago, I was teaching a stress-reduction workshop with women who work in domestic violence shelters. We asked the women to write down their sources of stress in one column and what they did to handle stress in the second. Many women said they handled stress by being in nature or pursuing a hobby. Yet they could not remember the last time they had done these things.
That realization made a connection for all of us, those conducting the workshop as well as the women who worked at the shelter. We are all stressed at times, all fearful and sometimes despondent. And even if we know what could help move away from these hopeless feelings, we often don’t do them -- like the woman on the retreat, and like the women working in shelters.
But there is no alternative. If we understand the possibility of love and the power of love and the availability of love, then it becomes up to each one of us to make it real, for others and for our own sakes.
A towering figure in the meditation world, Sharon Salzberg is a prominent teacher & New York Times best-selling author. She has played a crucial role in bringing mindfulness to the West. Sharon is the author of nine books, including Lovingkindness, Real Happiness and the most recent Real Love.