by George Handley
A lot of people feel strongly that a lot is at stake right now in our country. The problem is that there is a lot of disagreement about what, exactly, is at stake and what is to be done about it. Some may be convinced that this is no time for patience and kindness and may doubt, as the old adage has it, that love is really the answer.
Standing up, standing tall, and boldly holding firm in the face of opposition are all deemed required strengths in the great battles of life. But the fact is that most psychologists confirm what Jesus taught a long time ago, that conflict is exacerbated, if not created, by poorly aligned judgment: we are far more likely to overestimate the blinding mote in our enemies and underestimate the blinding beam in ourselves.
I don’t have an argument with standing up and standing tall. My suggestion is merely that we should never forget that great strength and effective action come from real humility and passionate love. Our love for what is good must be greater than our hatred for what is wrong. Our willingness to see our own flaws must be greater than our eagerness to identify those of others. Besides, it seems to me that maybe we grant battles over ideas a kind of primacy that they don’t deserve. I am not aware of any religion that purports that right thinking is more important than right behavior or that ideas matter more than character. That isn’t to say that right thinking or correct ideas are not worthy pursuits, nor does it mean that falsehoods should be accepted. But the moral quest, according to the world’s religions, is to bring our behavior and our very being into harmony with ideals. The greatest battles of life, in other words, are fought in the privacy of the individual human heart.
It is not hard to imagine that our current culture of hot-headed rants and blood vessel-bursting takedowns of the perceived moral idiots in our midst has been influenced by the anonymity and algorithms of social media, the ideological leanings of cable news, and the many poor examples we see in public. But in the end, the responsibility is ours. Behavior on social media is still human behavior. What we say about others who think differently than we do are still our words, formed in our mouths, and stemming from our hearts. I like the advice I heard once: never say anything about any individual or group of people that you wouldn’t have the courage to say in their physical presence.
So let me make a modest proposal: it is indeed time for us to take a stand. But the stand we must take must be against the very tendencies of our own hearts to denigrate, demoralize, and even dehumanize our opponents. What is called for is the old-fashioned advice to love our enemies. Let us not mistake this for weakness or even for acquiescence in the face of wrong-doing and injustice. It is powerful to see the humanity of another enough to open yourself to critique. It is powerful to listen to anger long enough to be instructed by it. It is powerful to do your own thinking instead of borrowing from the ideas, memes, and takedowns provided by the many manufacturers of contempt. It is powerful to deescalate a situation with kindness and with common ground.
One of the effects of learning to love our enemies is that we discover we have far fewer than we thought. This gives us more energy for fighting the battles that really matter. It will also give us powers of persuasion unavailable in any other way and even teach us new ideas and new perspectives we had never considered.
So, yes, love really is the answer.
George Handley currently serves as Chair of the Provo City Council. He writes and teaches about the humanities at BYU.