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Liberating Power of Choosing Love

The liberating power of choosing love. That phrase prompts three questions for me. What is love? Can we really choose love? And how is it a liberating power?

To have this conversation, first we need to get “falling in love” out of our heads. Certainly, we can argue that we don’t choose who we fall in love with.

So, if we get that out of our heads, how do we define love?

Author bell hooks says she finally found an adequate answer for that in The Road Less Traveled where M. Scott Peck defines it as, “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Spiritual, in this sense, refers to the core of our being where mind, body, and spirit are one. Some call it a soul or a life force.

Love, therefore, is our will, our intention, our choice to act in such a way that nurtures and helps our core self, or another’s, to grow. Love is an action. We do not have to act in, with or for love, it is a choice.

Connecting to someone emotionally is not love, though it gets confused with love all the time. People can connect to someone emotionally, insisting this is love and yet hurt or neglect them. But hooks says, “when we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abuse cannot coexist.”

This is the main reason that a punishing, vengeful, God who loves us makes no sense to me. It’s contradictory. A God who loves does not rain down fire on people, or send them to hell, or cause bad things to happen in their lives.

In John 13:34-35 Jesus makes it clear that love is a choice when he says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus is referring to how others are treated.

Over and over the gospels give us examples of Jesus choosing to act in love. He healed the lame, sick and blind, regardless of who they were. He held children, he included women, he didn’t judge or condemn anyone but the religious authorities who were using their power unjustly and without compassion. Jesus taught to forgive a lot, to “do unto others,” to love your neighbors and your enemies, and so much more.

Jesus clearly understood that it was a choice to love others. A choice to act and speak in love. And if you do this, he said, people will know that you are my disciples.

Once upon a time, in a land to the east, a Dervish (Sufi) holy man and his student were walking from one village to the next. Suddenly they saw a great huge cloud of dust rising in the distance. They stood and stared at a grand carriage, pulled by six horses approaching at a full gallop. Riding on top were two liveries dressed in red, each holding a rein. The Dervish and the young student soon realized that the carriage was not going to slow down, let alone veer to the side to avoid hitting them. The carriage was coming at such a speed that they had to throw themselves from the road and jump into a ditch to save themselves. Covered with dirt and grass, the two got up. They looked after the carriage as it sped away into the distance.

The student was first to respond. He began to call out and curse the drivers. But the teacher ran forward, laid a hand on the student’s arm to quiet him, and called to the carriage: "May all of your deepest desires be satisfied!"

The student stared at the teacher and asked, "Why would you wish that their deepest desires be satisfied? They nearly killed us!"

The old Dervish replied, "Do you think all their deepest desires are satisfied? If they were happy, would they be so thoughtless and cruel as to nearly run down an old man and a student?"

The young student had no answer, for he was deep in thought. And so, in silence, the two continued their journey down the dusty road.

Who chose to respond in love? What enabled that?

Obviously the old holy man. He looked deeper to seek understanding, to love the people on the carriage as they were, and from there was able to take a step back and send love instead of anger and judgment.

Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton once stood on a busy intersection in Louisville, Kentucky and had an amazing vision. For just a moment every person in sight radiated light. It was a profound moment that changed forever how he looked at others.

Merton described it this way: “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

Or maybe the “problem” would be that we would act differently toward each other. Dare I suggest choosing to see the light in others might also result in choosing to love others?

What If we chose to see the light in those least like us? Those whose political and religious views are opposite ours? What if we trusted that each person has a “light” that they are born with, a deep beauty that has nothing to do with how they behave or what they say? Could we then act with greater love?

Traumatic events like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, or the wildfire on Maui, or the devastating tornados this year all break down the barriers between people for a time. Suddenly what divides us no longer matters, and our shared humanity comes to the surface and people respond in love, compassion, generosity and caring. Somehow it is easier to choose love for everyone in the face of major disasters.

Pema Chodron in Welcoming the Unwelcome, talks about a cartoon that was in the New Yorker a few months after 9/11. It showed one woman talking to another and saying, “It’s hard, but slowly I’m getting back to hating everyone.”

That, too, is a choice.

So, what is the liberating power of choosing love? First and foremost, I believe that choosing love liberates us from the burden of our judgments, our prejudices, our assumptions, our dislikes. And, it liberates others from receiving our judgments!

Psychologist Eric Fromm once said, “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.”

May we all keep practicing.

Love & Light!