[NOTE: I regularly invite faculty to share a brief reflection with students and colleagues at all-school assemblies. Today, on the day after Valentine’s Day, I shared my own thoughts on a subject close to my heart.]
So yesterday was Valentine’s Day. Did you wear red, or hearts, or something? Around me, there was a lot of chocolate, cards about love, and exclamations of “Happy Valentine’s Day!” I had a few moments of anti-Hallmark sentiments, but in general as you know I am a big fan of love.
It’s silly and cliche sometimes, but I actually do think that love, real love, proper love, can save the world. But I don’t think love is for the faint of heart. It requires a remarkable amount of bravery, and it’s not always nice. Sometimes it’s downright demanding.
And what do I mean by that? Well, by way of explanation, let me say that I think some of you know that I have a hand-painted banner in my house, made by my sister and her sons, that says, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength. Loving someone deeply gives you courage.” It is attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, from 6th century BCE China. I think about these sentences a lot.
There are so many movies about the courage of parents in particular, the lengths people will go to save the ones they love—you know, people crossing vast deserts, carrying their loved ones, or people struggling in the ocean for hours and days to save their loved ones. Nowadays, and certainly for centuries up to now, parents emigrate with (or even send) their children to other countries, to find them a safer, better life. Many of the people in this country came here in search of a better life for their children, hoping to escape war, or abject poverty, or totalitarianism, or slavery. Some people’s ancestors were brought here as slaves, people who endured horrible experiences, including being separated from their own children, whose courage in the face of abominations breaks my heart to think about. And when I look at my own family, I understand the sentence, “Loving someone deeply gives you courage.” I would brave many things, fight many things, for my family. I would throw myself in front of any danger threatening my children. And your families feel the exact same way about you.
My sister once referred to my younger son as a “fierce little miracle.” And he is. But so are you. Every one of you. My goodness, are you a miracle. Given the precariousness of life, I am routinely shocked that we are successfully on track to overpopulate the planet. But, more than that, you are fierce. You are smart, you are demanding, you are ambitious, you are completely spectacular. Of course your families would fight to the death to protect you: you are amazing. So yes, you are worth protecting and defending. As is the person sitting right next to you, and in front of you, and behind you.
Look around; everyone here is a fierce little miracle. So just take a moment, and see them in that light.
But let me spend a minute with the other sentence, which is equally important: “being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.” You can, if you want, think about the people in your life who love you, think about how it does actually make you feel stronger. You somehow feel a bit more self-assured when you know someone has your back and, more than that, when someone feels that you are profoundly valuable and worthy of love.
I think one of the challenges humans face is that we often feel we are not worthy of love. I doubt there’s a person in this room who hasn’t questioned their worthiness at some point—even the people you look up to, even the ones who seem most fabulous to you. We have all wondered whether in fact we are lovable; it’s a strange aspect of the human condition.
So you have it in your power to really change the world. I say this to you a lot, but I mean it slightly differently this time. You have it in your power to show others how much they are worthy of love. Sure, you can easily cut them down and pretend that makes you the better person. You can insult them, leave them out, purposefully throw a jab. You can definitely hurt other people. But why? When you have a much more profound and extraordinary power: you can show them they are loved. Why wouldn’t you spend this very short time we have making things remarkably better? Why not love people? Why not ask about their lives, and listen and sympathize? Why not find the connection you have? Why not show them their own amazingness?
Every religious tradition I know is based on love, so I could speak to any number of traditions that try to remind us of capacity for it, and our obligation to offer it. You might know that this semester, I am teaching a class on the Bible as Literature. We have not gotten there yet, but one of my favorite parts of the Christian bible is the Gospel According to Luke. There are four gospels in the Christian Bible, and each casts Jesus in a slightly different light; Luke’s Jesus is often seen as focusing on society and social justice. He worries more than in the other gospels about socioeconomic status, about the social outcasts, about the stigmatized people, including lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes, among others. And, in that gospel, Jesus really loves food. There is almost always a meal in the gospel of Luke and even after the resurrection, practically the first thing Jesus does is ask for a piece of fish to eat.
So there’s a natural consequence to these two threads: sitting down to a meal with people who are very different from you. Some places nowadays create Lukean tables, where members of a given church invite others to a meal, where those who have been unloved or unwelcome elsewhere are asked to dinner and treated with the love and respect every single person deserves. And so I often think about this: what would it look like to host a dinner in which we invited people we don’t know, people who seem quite different from us? What about the people trying to escape a life of war, famine, poverty, and degradation? What would it be like to share a meal, and talk? What would we say to each other?
Which leads me back to love. It’s a radical thing to offer love where there is suffering, or cruelty, or indifference. It’s a radical thing to welcome into your embrace people who are not at all like you. And yet, everyone is a lot like you. We only have to open our eyes to see it.
My 7-year old son often looks at the phrase “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength,” and just last week he said to me, “Mom, being deeply loved by someone can make you shy.” And I understand that.
Start small, of course. Love the girl in your class who bugs you. Try it out. Then move on from there: love the classmate who was actually mean to you last year or last week. Now try loving the one who was mean to you this morning. And try also to love the one you were mean to. It costs you so little to be kind, and to offer love. And it costs you so much to be mean. Build up the people around you, and yourself. Love with abandon, and often.