Attempts to render us more loving tend to try to focus our minds on those people that, in the ordinary course of things, we are prone to step over without the slightest thought or feeling of guilt.
Historically, this has tended to mean one category above all: the poor. In most societies since the dawn of time, the materially underprivileged have received opprobrium and neglect. They have been left to starve outside of the city gates; they have been kicked and abused by guards; they have been splattered with mud by the passing gilded carriages of aristocrats.
It was the accomplishment of Christianity in the West and Buddhism in the East to speak with special generosity about this ignored category. Thanks to parables and songs, sermons and exhortations, societies’ empathetic powers were opened up to the needs of the unemployed and the hungry, the homeless and the destitute. It was the feat of these religions to nudge well-housed people into thinking about vagrants in alleyways, to prompt princes to clean the feet of paupers and to so needle the consciences of the mighty that they would endow schools and alms-houses.
However imperfect the results may be, we can’t doubt the sizeable victory of the initiative. Our education in empathy has been so thorough, when we hear talk of needing to exhibit greater love outside of a Romantic context, our minds tend immediately to picture those who are deprived of material resources. Yet if we become forensic about the word ‘love’ and return to first principles, what it really means to be a loving person is to be prepared to extend sympathy to all unfamiliar targets – all those whom a heedless world is used to mocking and cursing, judging and sidelining. It is the unfamiliarity that is essential and ethically admirable – but quite who happens to be an unfamiliar target will shift along with changes in public awareness and sensibility.
As we look at the contemporary world and wonder who might especially deserve love, we may, with a proper understanding of the word ‘love’ in mind, come to a few surprising conclusions. The hungry and the homeless are worthy recipients, of course, but other proper objects of love might include powerful politicians who have lost elections and face the ridicule of the media, well-remunerated industrialists who have been fired from their jobs after a sudden dip in the share price, famous actors who have been caught up in scandals and blacklisted, or acclaimed singers who have fallen into mania under the pressures of fame. We might need to direct love to the right-wing newspaper magnate who is a favourite figure of hate in progressive circles.
By saying that we need to ‘love’ such people, we don’t, crucially, mean that we should approve of them or think them admirable, or give them whatever they ask for. What we mean is that we should, under the aegis of love, be ready to accord them imagination, a lack of vindictiveness and a rare degree of sympathy; that we should be ready to look beneath the obvious externals, the bluster and the arrogance, the unfortunate manner and the privileged contempt in search of the damaged, lost and confused child within. Despite every encouragement to disparage and curse, we might delve with enlightened interest into what might have moulded a particular human into their present challenging form. Against the headwinds of public opinion, we might exchange anger and righteousness for curiosity.
It must have taken immense bravery in early Christian times to invite a pauper into one’s house for dinner or to make a speech in a palace in praise of the integrity of prostitutes. These were deeply unfamiliar targets of love. No one had ever before spoken of loving someone with leprosy; there had never been sermons in temples in honour of those who couldn’t afford to buy a pair of shoes.