Love One Another

This week I was reminded that life pretty much boils down to one thing: love one another. I didn’t make this up. I heard it at church on Sunday.

The priest didn’t make it up, either. Jesus said it a few times. And he didn’t make it up—he learned it from the Jewish tradition. I don’t know all the world’s wisdom traditions backward and forward, but I’d be surprised if any of them didn’t at least mention this idea.

I don’t always remember to love, though, and even when I do, I don’t always practice it. It’s not a complicated teaching like algebra or a foreign language, which can be hard to learn and easy to forget. Yet I don’t spend the majority of my day thinking, “What would be the most loving thing to do in this situation?”

Or maybe “love one another” is hard to learn and easy to forget. Hard to learn because we’re taught that other things—wealth, success, physical beauty—matter more; easy to forget in the constant barrage of daily messages advertising any number of things that are supposed to make us feel loved, none of which include loving one another.

On top of that, there is this whole problem of being human. For reasons I don’t understand, we have a lot of fear and failings built in. No one had to make up greed and envy either, we do those unprompted.

But we also love unprompted and maybe we just need to practice more. It can be daunting if we start with the equivalent of the quadratic equation or irregular verbs, so we could take some guidance from David Roche, who leads the Church of 80% Sincerity. In the Church of 80% Sincerity, as Anne Lamott puts it, “everyone has come to understand that unconditional love is a reality, but with a shelf life of about eight to ten seconds.”

And miraculously, that is enough. The priest said one other thing: only love will change the world, not policies, not wars, not this cause or that one, only love. Amen.

Not So Little Anymore

I declare this week Little Sister Appreciation Week because my little sister is awesome. In both the really great and fills-me-with-awe meanings of the word.

My sister is six years younger than I, so every time she hits a milestone—driving, college graduation, thirty—it reminds me how old I am. But to make up for that, she amazes me with who she has become. Recently, I keep realizing that she has become a grownup.

The author and her sister under a blooming cherry tree
My sister, me, and some cherry blossoms.

Her most recent demonstration of grownup-ness consisted of caring for my dad after hip surgery. My dad is a lot of wonderful things, but he’s generally unresponsive to people telling him what to do. If they could measure stubbornness, I feel certain he would be in the Guinness Book of World Records. He also resists cleaning even more than I do, which is a strong statement to make.

My mom had a couple of surgeries a few years ago, and even though I mostly showed up at the hospital and smiled, I was pretty much of a train wreck. My sister, on the other hand, had to figure out house cleaning, buying new furniture, modifying a walker, cooking two weeks’ worth of meals to freeze, and coaching Dad through his first physical therapy sessions. And she is deaf.

Deafness gives you a whole new way of experiencing the world; it also makes parts of life more difficult because most of our institutions, services, and processes are designed for hearing people—hospitals and furniture stores, for example. Yet she navigated all this expertly. Color me amazed once again.

Just for fun, here are a few of the many other reasons my sister is awesome:

  • She is a talented artist.
  • She makes me laugh so hard I can’t breathe.
  • She celebrates her deafness.
  • She is always learning more about her profession.
  • She has impeccable taste.
  • She tells it like is.
  • I can’t think of anything that makes me happier than seeing her when one of us has just gotten off an airplane.

Thanks, Little Sis, for being you.

Be Kind, Be Kind, Be Kind

I voted today. Tomorrow, or tonight if you stay up late enough, almost everyone will have a reason to despair because of the results of a local or national election.

I believe, however, that neither politics nor economics ultimately decides the quality of our lives. I am not saying these systems don’t affect us. A leader’s decision to go to war, for example, changes lives forever. I am saying that there are other, more powerful forces at play.

I base this conclusion on the version of history taught in American primary education, which is mostly if not exclusively politics and economics. If history consisted only of the events in the history books, I’m convinced the human race would have wiped itself out long ago because, according to the official version, very little good ever happens. People and nations in power attempt to retain or expand that power and harm or kill a lot of other people along the way. If nothing stood in opposition to that story, the world would be a much more dismal place than it is.

I think what keeps or doesn’t keep us going is how kind we are to one another. While trying to figure out the motivation of the characters in my novel, I wrote to a few friends and asked them what they wanted out of life and why. My former Chinese religion professor wrote back and said, “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”

At the time I thought, that is not an answer, but now I wonder if it might be the only one worth pursuing.

Much of life is beyond our control, even in a country where we get to choose our leaders and in certain cases our laws. Sometimes being kind is all we can do for another person and all we can do for ourselves.

I think we often see kindness as a small gesture and forget what a tremendous difference it can make. It can change the course of history.

Help Matters

Sometimes crappy things just happen. I did not come up with this idea. Someone has made millions of dollars marketing products espousing various forms of that sentiment.

I recently watched a Zulu language film called Yesterday about a woman in a tribal village in South Africa who contracts AIDS. Though not based on any one person’s true story, I’m sure it’s a true story many times over.

The main character, Yesterday, is patient and wonderful and gets this disease that entails more suffering than those of us with access to hospitals and morphine will ever guess at. It’s hard not to wonder why the world is not more justly constructed after watching this story.

As the priest Anne Lamott quotes in one of her essays says, why is not a useful question, though I still want to know the answer. Seeing as I am not likely to get it, I decided to review what I think I know.

Here are some things I don’t believe:

  • God tests us.
  • God gives us trials to strengthen us.
  • Bad things happen so that good things can come from them.
  • We attract—through our attitudes, beliefs, or ways of living—everything that happens to us. Some things, sure, but not everything.

Here are some things I do believe:

  • Grace happens.
  • There are things that help.
  • These things are extremely important even though they appear small.

It helps to cry or yell or beat the pillow. It helps to lay all the crappiness before God and say, “What the hell? Would you do something about this please?” It helps to eat a hot fudge sundae with a friend or go for a hike.

Help doesn’t mean that the situation changes, that a miraculous healing occurs, that the next day a job offer arrives out of the blue. Those things may happen, but a lot of the time they don’t. More often, we feel less alone and more able to keep going.

That seems insufficient in the face of the AIDS epidemic in Africa or any number of other global disasters, but an epidemic is composed of individuals. In the movie, one person stands by Yesterday. When they are together the awfulness lifts a little. Bring on the hot fudge.

Share the Wow

I have a lot of older friends, and I have serious retirement envy. Having recently attended yet another retirement party, I have one more reason to look forward to that occasion—people say a lot of nice things about you.

As the speeches were starting, the person whose party it was said, “I hate these things. They’re like funerals except you’re here.” Just as extended families sometimes never gather except for weddings and funerals, we humans tend to save all the good things we have to say about each other for leave-takings or eulogies. Why do we wait until the end of things to tell others what we appreciate about them? Why not do it along the way?

It’s hard, I think. It took me a long time to learn even to compliment a new dress or pair of earrings, much less tell someone I admired the way she ran a meeting or wrote a sentence. It feels unprotected, not knowing how the person will receive or react to the compliment. It is a little bit like saying, “I love you” without being certain of the reply.

Giving someone else credit is a deeply humble act. We take ourselves out of the picture for a moment; we abdicate control of the situation; we do not know whether the gift will be accepted. If we can get over that momentary panic of self-disappearance, though, it feels good to voice the wows we often think to ourselves but sometimes don’t say.

With practice, it might get easier. We might discover that, strange as it may sound, others are delighted to hear what they’re good at. They may not know what to say in return; they may shrug it off or try to deny it because they are as out of practice at accepting praise as we are at giving it. But I can think of many less-pleasant things to spend time practicing.

Falling Back In

Going back in time is a dicey proposition. I tested it out last week in Chicago when visiting with some friends I hadn’t seen in seven or eight years.

We had not kept in close touch. I am a lousy correspondent; five Christmas cards constitute an overachiever year for me. I also tend to get wrapped up in the local day to day, leaving little time for those far away.

The bus ride to my old neighborhood gave me a jarring sensation of the familiar turned foreign, as in a dream when you know you’re at school but the building is clearly your Aunt Millie’s house. Visiting with old friends, on the other hand, felt surprisingly normal—no awkwardness, no tension, as if I dropped by for lunch on a regular basis. Though we had only an hour and spent most of it catching up on life details, simply being in each other’s company gave us all a good deal of joy. Something within us still fits together in whatever ways first drew us to one another.

These people’s presence in the world makes me happy. It still matters to me how their particular corner of life is turning around. Their idiosyncrasies still charm me. How can I claim all that when we rarely take the time even to shoot off an email? I suspect that friendships are amazing, elastic things, and our capacity for love exceeds the time available to us, taken up as it is with the necessities of work, laundry, and the like.

There are people scattered across the globe whose daily lives used to intersect with mine but now diverge completely. Some of them I can reasonably hope to see again; others I likely never will. Yet I find it comforting that I care what happens to them and that they may return the favor.

Creating Possibilities

I don’t often celebrate my birthday by discussing the demise of the world, but that’s where the conversation turned during one of my many birthday meals (remember that bit about eating). Most of the table agreed that, given the current political and economic situation, the future looks bleak. Those factors alone, however, do not determine our fate.

A quick scan of K-12 history books, which record largely political and economic affairs, might lead one to wonder how the human race has survived this long. I think we’re still around because the way we treat each other on the small, daily scale makes as much of a difference as those forces we generally consider global. (One political scientist’s research on disaster survival supports this idea.)

Of course politics profoundly shape people’s lives. I just finished reading Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, his autobiography of growing up in Alexandra, South Africa, under apartheid. Arguing that sharing a meal together would undo what he and others suffered under those laws is ludicrous, but by the same token, no political or economic shift allowed him to survive. His mother’s dedication to his education and an American tennis player’s friendship and follow-through brought him to the U.S. well before the end of apartheid.

How does the removal of one young man from an oppressive regime contribute to the end of that regime? I don’t know, but perhaps one person spared from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual starvation imposed by that system is one more person imagining something better. Perhaps that person tips a balance we can’t measure.

When Mathabane left South Africa, he could picture a world without apartheid, but he probably couldn’t describe how that change would happen. In the middle of the Cold War, who would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall? Transformation happens regardless of our ability or inability to foresee its exact nature.

None of the people at lunch that day live as if they believe their choices and kindness don’t matter. One offers gracious and impeccable hospitality; one supports and enjoys an unusually close-knit family; one radiates enthusiasm and joy wherever she goes; they all provide compassionate leadership at work. They don’t believe these actions will save the world, but maybe their caring, and that of others like them, is as powerful as a failing economy and a divisive political situation.

I believe the communities we create on a daily basis and the generosity and good humor we offer one another create possibilities. William Stafford captures this idea in his poem “Yes,” a more eloquent closing than I could hope to write.


It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out — no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.