What moves us?
As human beings, what makes us happy, gives us joy, causes us to grow, shift, change, to care for one another, to desire, to dream, to live?
What binds us together, regardless – or because of – our differences? Love does – but when speaking of the word, I don’t just mean that of a person for their lover or a parent for their child. Nor even do I mean for it to be limited by those a person would say “I love you” to and mean it with conscious thought and interest. Love is larger than that; it is a manifestation of the interconnectedness of all people. “Love is the life energy that animates everything that exists” (Ó’Murchú 200) – from the smallest subatomic particle to people and the movements of the stars. Love is the radical and tangible notion that we are all worthy of respect.
For the self, love is crucial – otherwise we fall to the lessons of a capitalist world: that we are not good enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, rich enough, smart enough. We give in to those doubts and fears that are pounded into us from day one. Ó’Murchú writes: “Our current travesty, as a human species, is that we have largely lost the capacity to love and to be lovely…. we are children of an unloved and unlovable ‘God’ which, in the West, we label civilization” (199). Without love, we become inured to beauty, happiness, kindness. Our highest priority becomes excessive self-interest, which differs from self-love in that one’s highest priority becomes self-gratification through the manipulation of existing institutionalized structures through competition with and subjugation of others. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. touches briefly on Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s theory of othering. He explains that segregation substitutes an “I it” relationship in lieu of an “I thou” relationship, thereby relegating individuals to the status of things. In the case of segregation, this meant that people of color were denied their personhood – the practical applications of which translated to denial of access to the same education, jobs, healthcare - respect – as people perceived as having skin that was white enough. And while segregation has legally ended in the US, the institutionalized hatred and prejudice directed towards people of color is still very much alive.
We relegate people to thinghood whenever we refer to them as a label. The bum; the junkie; the slut; they are no longer people; their right to life, to love, to respect, has been negated. Why do we do this – how do we do this? How is it that indifference has become the coin of survival in this world? If love connects us all, it follows that we are all worthy of love. This means that none of us may be denied that love. It becomes, then, our duty to treat everyone with the same respect and caring – ourselves included (Noddings). The Dalai Lama invites us to do so, saying “If you can, try not even to think of yourself as better than the humblest beggar. You will look the same in your grave” (Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho 237). Even when we do not – or cannot – genuinely act out of love, it is our responsibility to behave as if we were. Respect should not be a privilege reserved for a select few; it is a basic human right, although often denied.
I am hesitant to use the words good and evil; too often they become the province of religion, ascribed qualities of holiness and hellishness, placed at a remove from our human experience. Likewise, sin is a troublesome word, denoting a fall from grace which can be remedied by a few Hail Marys or other ritualistic penance. My primary concern is how we live in this life now, and how we treat ourselves and others. Too often, terms like good and evil and sin and holy and hell remove the immediacy of actions perpetrated in this life now, intellectualizing their consequences and separating them from our experience. Ó’Murchú observes: “Love is a central concept in all the great religions. But it always tends to be personalized, attributed to God(s) and people, but rarely to other species and scarcely ever to the forces of universal life itself” (198). An atrocity is something that happens to me, to my neighbors, to those I love. If that act happened to those outside of my circle, it may be a shame, but certainly none of my business. I am not compelled by love or duty to take responsibility for them because it is none of my business.
Sin, if it is anything, is separation. The act of othering, the denial of responsibility, the lack of respect for others: that is where cruelty comes in. By othering, we place a valuation of ourselves as better-than. To value oneself more highly than others or to value others more highly than oneself is a disservice. When such a valuation is created and maintained, fear, pain, and repression become dominant over honor and mutual respect. This creates a power disparity, resulting in cruelty (Hallie) – often institutionalized and enduring. Philosopher and historian Phillip Hallie, while studying the Holocaust, came to this realization:
Institutionalized cruelty, I learned, is the subtlest kind of cruelty…. in a persistent pattern of humiliation that endures for years in a community, both the victim and the victimizer find ways of obscuring the harm that is being done. Blacks come to think of themselves as inferior, even esthetically inferior (black is “dirty”); and Jews come to think of themselves as inferior, even esthetically (dark hair and aquiline notes are “ugly”) so that the way they are being treated is justified by their “actual” inferiority, by the inferiority they themselves feel. (337)
Cruelty, then, is the end result of a denial of our interconnectedness with one another; the denial of love. And it most often occurs as the result of institutionalized behaviors and attitudes – things which we, as individuals, believe we can do nothing to change. We have been taught that we can do nothing to change institutions because we are not enough – not smart enough or tough enough or savvy enough – because we have been taught to deny our ability to love and be lovely.
In such a world, silence is valued over self-expression. We are encouraged to keep the peace, not rock the boat, be normal, be quiet, don’t make waves. By keeping silent, the majority implicitly validates the perpetuation of institutionalized cruelties. We say that it’s okay for women to earn less than men on basis of their sex (NOW); that queer people deserve to die because of how they love (Becker); that anyone who is different than us is not a person at all, but a thing. That they, as things, are undeserving of love and respect.
It is clear that “hatred is not the opposite of love; indifference is” (Ó’Murchú 206). Indifference, separation, silence: they are all symptoms of our disassociation with love, the outcome of living in fear. Dr. King lamented: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people” (368). In order to change that, not only for others but for ourselves, we must free ourselves from fear. We must give in to love. Ó’Murchú says that “love is an interdependent life force, a spectrum of possibility, ranging from its divine grandeur to its particularity in subatomic interaction. It is the origin and goal of our search for meaning” (206). It is that which connects us together and keeps us whole. In many critical ways, the old axiom is true: love shall set us free.
Becker, John M. “BREAKING: LGBT People Should Be Put to Death, Says Aussie Salvation Army Major.” TWO. Truth Wins Out, 22 June 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <http://www.truthwinsout.org/blog/2012/06/26448/>.
Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho. Ethics for the New Millennium. New York: Riverhead, 1999. Print.
Hallie, Phillip. “From Cruelty to Goodness.” Ethics: The Essential Writings. Ed. Marino, Gordon Daniel. New York: Modern Library, 2010. Print.
King, Martin L. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Ethics: The Essential Writings. Ed. Marino, Gordon Daniel. New York: Modern Library, 2010. Print.
Noddings, Nel. “Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education.” Ethics: The Essential Writings. Ed. Marino, Gordon Daniel. New York: Modern Library, 2010. Print.
Ó’Murchú, Diarmuid. Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics. New York: Crossroad Pub., 2004. Print.
“Women Deserve Equal Pay.” NOW. National Organization for Women, n.d. Web. 21 Nov 2012.