Inspiring Story: Love in Action
Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination. — bell hooks, author and professor
Dear PEERS readers,
Every day, people all over the world are working to transform the massive power imbalances and abuses that pervade society, and to heal communities riddled with conflict and incivility. In my previous work as the restorative justice and wellness coordinator for a public high school, I was deeply humbled by my efforts to help transform unjust and dysfunctional systems eroding the health of our educational institutions and communities.
Going deeper, I've witnessed profound transformations in the troubled youth I served, as well as in the families, teachers, administrators, and police officers I closely worked with. Despite the great challenges, love and human goodness continued to show up powerfully, revealing itself in the form of community and meaningful relationships being built across differences.
Martin Luther King Jr. felt that cultivating a vision of love in the midst of injustice and community conflict was a moral imperative. Beyond boldly shaping the U.S. civil rights movement, he was also a courageous voice in speaking out about the growing concerns of the U.S. military industrial complex during the Vietnam War. He identified the Greek word agape as a form of love that is key to the human experience. Instead of it meaning something sentimental or affectionate, agape is the understanding, redeeming goodwill for all. Furthermore, agape is the willingness to go to any length to restore community. This includes the people we deem as enemies and oppressors, whose actions dehumanize and detract from society.
Below is a personal story that speaks to what love in action like this can look like. May we remember the simple power of telling a story, letting it inform us of what it means to be human and what connects us across our (often) vast differences. As medical doctor Rachel Remen shares, "Everybody is a story. Telling stories is the way the wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us to live a life worth remembering. Despite the awesome powers of technology, many of us still do not live very well. We may need to listen to each other's stories once again."
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
He was fifteen years old when I first met him. Teachers were terrified to be near him, and even his special education case manager had given up on him, expediting the expulsion process just to get him out of his hair. What most people saw was a kid who drank and smoked cannabis all the time, got into countless fights with sharp knives, and aggressively confronted any adult who got in his way.
In the beginning, I was no exception to his distrust in authority. But I kept showing up, talking to him in the hallways when he was actually at school. Eventually, I began calling him into my classroom where we slowly got to know each other over the course of several months. I showed him I wasn't afraid of who he was.
Over time, I learned that he got into fights because kids would make fun of his older brother, who was born with serious birth defects and cognitive impairments due to his mother's opioid use during pregnancy. I learned that he was 7 years old when he witnessed both of his uncles get shot in the car, dying right in front of him, while he hid in the backseat. I learned that much of his anger came from watching his father get drunk and beat his mother endlessly almost every night. I learned that he witnessed his brother attempting to end his own life many times, and would drive him to the hospital without a driving permit, after experiencing too many times where ambulances failed to show up in a timely manner.
At one point, I invited the young man into a circle I held for boys impacted by the juvenile hall system. I was surprised when he showed up later that week, standing at the doorway for the first few circles. The next time, he sat in a chair and joined the circle, refusing to make eye contact. That session, I asked each of us to speak to this question: What was something you wish people you love would say to you? I still vividly remember the responses as if it happened yesterday.
"I forgive you."
"I'm here. I gotchu."
"I love you no matter what."
"You aren't your mistakes."
"You don't gotta be strong all the time."
"You ain't a pussy for crying."
"It ain't your fault."
When it came to him, he looked up for the first time in the circle and made eye contact with me.
"I feel like you're the only person that really loves me. Cause you see me for who I am. Like I matter. I'm not a nobody."
His voice cracked on that last line. He balled up his fists, knees bobbing up and down, feeling the discomfort of the vulnerability that he brought into the circle.
The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return."
— "Nature Boy," Nat King Cole
Many of us don't know the difference between approval and real love. Our family, cultural, and institutional systems teach us to fit into boxes and suppress our own needs to be accepted. Going deeper, most of us find that it's rare to have a person in our life that truly sees and accepts us as we are, including our mistakes, imperfections, blind spots, and limits. Yet this is exactly what it takes for us to heal, and to bloom in our own radiance. The more we learn how to give this unconditional love to ourselves, the more we attract people who can reflect this back to us.
You know, a lot of people don’t love themselves. And they go through life with deep and haunting emotional conflicts. So the length of life means that you must love yourself. And you know what loving yourself also means? It means that you’ve got to accept yourself.
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life" Sermon
The Dalai Lama once said that love is the absence of judgment. I would modify that slightly, and say that love is the suspension of judgment. It's deeply human to judge. Judgment is rooted in our survival, our ability to sense threats and possible harm. Yet judging is how most of us solely relate to ourselves, each other, and the world. They're usually based off of unchecked assumptions and projections that reveal more of who we are. Love transcends the judgments of differences within ourselves or others, making room for managing those differences with understanding and open communication.
I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility. Not this “In order to love you, I must make you something else”. That’s what domination is all about, that in order to be close to you, I must possess you, remake and recast you.
— bell hooks, author and professor
During that circle, I had written down every statement that was said about what these young men wished people they love would say to them. Turning to each boy, I said their chosen words out loud to them. For 30 seconds before moving onto the next person, all of us would meditate quietly for this boy, wishing him the strength and courage needed for him to believe those words. By the end of the circle, most of us were in tears, silently processing the whole experience. The energy in the room was palpable.
This was a deeply significant moment, as many of these boys couldn't stand to be in the same room with each other at one point, caught up in judgments showing up as gang affiliation and racial pride, but deeply rooted in traumatic childhood experiences and unhealthy beliefs about masculinity.
At the end of the school year, the young boy that I closely worked with worked his way up to B's and C's, and had a 90% attendance rate. He stopped doing drugs, got a job, and used his paycheck to buy new clothes and level up his fashion style. He was laughing more. He played basketball with other kids from the school. Teachers were shocked by how different his energy was, and how smart he actually was. While a part of me rejects the notion that people are considered successful just by measuring the grades they get or the clothes they wear, his behavior and choices showed that he was gaining self-confidence. For the first time in his life, he began to care about his life. He started to trust his own humanity.
One moment of unconditional love can invalidate an entire lifetime of uncertainty and doubt.
Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor who advocates for humanizing and recovering the sacred in medicine, once said that the heart is an organ of vision, a way of seeing and knowing. The heart allows us to find meaning in the ordinary daily events of our lives, no matter how tough or gritty they are. In the presence of love, that deeper meaning reminds us of our own goodness, our potential, the qualities that make us lovable and worthy.
When this young man graduated, he gave me a piece of paper. He had written down a poem by the famous rapper Tupac Shakur. In the past, we would often read it together, noticing deeper insights and feelings every time we read it.
You try to plant somethin' in the concrete.
If it grows, and the rose petals got all kind of scratches and marks,
You not gon' say, "Damn, look at all the scratches and marks on the rose that grew from concrete."
You gon' be like, "Damn! A rose grew from the concrete?!"
Same thing with me.
I grew out of all of this.
Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's laws wrong, it learned how to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keepin' its dreams,
It learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete.
I've met hundreds of students with stories of trauma, violence, and neglect. We learn love through the ways in which we were cared for (or not) growing up. In my own abusive childhood, I developed my own version of seeing love and vulnerability as a painful experience, inseparable from shame, drama and violence.
As poet and historian Aurora Levins Morales puts it, "We are a society of people living in a state of post-traumatic shock." A society in which toxic social conditions produce internalized experiences of powerlessness and fear, which cause people to turn to systems of violence and domination for self-protection. This isn't just for the troubled kids I worked with, or those impacted by socio-economic disparities. Trauma plays a role in how human rights abuses and covert corruption can even occur at the hands of special interests within our own government and corporate systems. As ponerology studies reveal, a small percentage of our society are sociopathic, and they often rise to power and engage in abusive deeds that we "normals" can't even begin to fathom... to the extent that we remain unaware of the very real existences of these atrocities. Most, if not all, of these sociopaths came from households devoid of real love or a secure attachment. Thus, their lives are spent organizing around what they've learned: abusive power and control.
For Martin Luther King Jr., love constituted a kind of power, the power that is adequate to the task of overcoming cycles of injustice and oppression. If the right conditions of community and love emerge like they did with these young boys in the circle, this inspires us to take responsibility for our lives, awakening to the greatest challenges in our lives as we work to transform humanity's great challenges. Love is an end in itself, as well as a means to good ends. Centering an ethic of love with what we do in the world reminds us of what is most important, and what is possible... beyond solely focusing on what's going wrong in the world.
At PEERS, we believe that personal and societal transformation are interconnected, and are necessary to build a better future. Where and how does love show up in your life?
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www.momentoflove.org - Every person in the world has a heart
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