Watching the news these days can leave you with a case of whiplash. One day we see images of white supremacists skirmishing with counter-protestors in Charlottesville, then we watch as scores of volunteers rescue neighbors and strangers from flooding in Houston. Are we a nation of hate or love? Are we divided or connected?
All this has left me thinking a lot about the second commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” A Quaker lobbying organization recently sent our Meeting a batch of pins and bumper stickers that read “Love Thy Neighbor: No Exceptions.” I offered them to those lingering after silent worship one day but had few takers. I hesitated as well, knowing I was unlikely to apply one to my bumper. It seemed to set too high a standard, one I would fail every day. As another Reno Friend said, with a rueful smile, “what if I don’t love my neighbor?”
Ah, the thorn in the garden of love. The difficult neighbor who fails to live in a neighborly fashion, the officemate who undermines your work, the friend who knifes you in the back. Even worse are those whose beliefs and principles baffle us. How are we to love them? How can we engage in meaningful dialogue if we dislike each other?
This is one of the biggest challenges facing our fractured society. Friends’ testimony asks us to speak both truthfully and lovingly when trying to resolve conflict, whether within Quaker Meetings or in the outside world. But that can be difficult. Truth-telling often seems harsh rather than loving. Quaker writer Alison Sharman tells of finding herself in the middle of “a difficult exercise of Quaker decision-making.” She wailed to an older and wiser Friend, “how can I speak the truth in love when I feel no love?” The older Friend answered, “unless you speak the truth there never will be love.”
Perhaps, but how do we bridge the distance between truth and love? In search of answers, I ran across a quote from Anne Hillman, a poet and author who writes on spiritual issues. “Love is not a feeling,” Hillman says. “Love is a great power, an intelligence to which we are all heir and have been forever called.”
The idea that love is not a feeling felt strangely liberating. If we are not required to feel love, it frees us from getting tangled in the honest stirrings of our hearts. As social creatures, it is natural for us to like and dislike different people, just as we like and dislike certain foods or experiences.
If we think instead of love as a power, the door opens to all kinds of fruitful exchange. As Hillman says, it’s a power and an intelligence. By that she means it is a power to be used thoughtfully, appropriately, with grace and care. Love, then, becomes the context for communication. Love becomes the action of seeking understanding. Perhaps this is what Quakers mean when we say “Look for the Light of God in everyone.” The simple act of seeking that Light is how you convey love to those you don’t understand.
These are difficult times, without a doubt. Author Susan Vreeland observes: “No matter where life takes you, the place that you stand at any given moment is holy ground. Love hard, and love wide and love long and you will find the goodness in it.” I’m taking those as my marching orders. Maybe now I can put that bumper sticker on my car.
Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting
email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting