How to Love
One of the great intellectual puzzles that daily life forces all of us to consider on a slightly too regular basis is: ‘Why are other people so awful? How come they are so unreliable, aggressive, deceitful, mean, two-faced or cowardly?’ As we search for answers, we tend quite naturally to fall back on a standard, compact and tempting explanation: because they are terrible people. They are appalling, crooked, deformed or ‘bad’; that’s simply how some types are. The conclusion may be grim, but it also feels very true and fundamentally unbudgeable.
However, when things feel especially clear cut, we may be goaded to try out an unusual thought experiment, which stands to challenge a great many of our certainties and render the world usefully more complicated: we can try to look at our fellow humans through the eyes of love.
The experiment requires particular stamina and is best attempted at quieter, less agitated times of day. When we manage it, it may count as one of our highest ethical achievements.
We are normally resolutely on our side, deeply invested in our own point of view and prone to trade in settled and moralising certainties. Yet, very occasionally, we have the strength to look at other people through a different lens: we notice that their reality is likely to be far more complicated and nuanced than we first expected – and that, contrary to our impulses, they may be deserving of more sympathy and consideration than we thought, even though they have hurt and frustrated us, even though their behaviour runs contrary to what we expect – and even though the temptation is to call them idiots and numbskulls and move on.
Looking at another person through the eyes of love involves some of the following:
Moralistic-thinking identifies people closely with their worst moments. Love-thinking pushes us in another direction, it bids us to use our imaginations to picture why someone might have done a regrettable deed and yet could remain a fitting target for a degree of understanding and sympathy. Perhaps they got very frightened, maybe they were under pressure of extreme anxiety and despair. They might have been trying to say or do something else, and this was all they could manage.
Those who look with love guess that there will be sorrow and regret beneath the furious rantings or a sense of intolerable vulnerability behind the pomposity and snobbishness. They intimate that early trauma and let-down must have formed the backdrop to later transgressions. They will remember that the person before them was once a baby too.
The loving interpreter holds on to the idea that sweetness must remain beneath the surface – along with the possibility of remorse and growth. They are committed to mitigating circumstances; to any bits of the truth that could cast a less catastrophic light on folly and ‘nastiness’.
– Hurt Not Bad
Love-thinking refuses to believe that there is ever anything such as evil pure and simple. Bad behaviour is invariably the consequence of hurt: the one who shouts did not feel heard, the one who mocks was once humiliated, the constant cynic had hope snatched from them. This is not an alternative to responsibility, it is just a knowledge that acting badly must be a response to a wound, and never an initial ambition.
The fundamental step of love is to hold on, in the most challenging situations, to a distinction between a person’s overt unpleasant actions and the pity-worthy motives that invariably underlie them.
– A Story, Not a Headline
Moralistic thinking likes headlines; love-thinking goes in search of stories. ‘Angry spouse abandons family’ will have its origins decades before, in the old house, at the hands of unsteady parents, when innocence was first lost and stability destroyed. ‘Scandalous CEO ruins company’ isn’t a story of greed or venality, but one of loss, grief and mental illness. In the face of caricature, the task of love is proper curiosity.
– The Child Within
To consider others with love means forever remembering the child within them. Our wrongdoer may be fully grown, but their behaviour will always be connected up with their early years. We’re so keen never to seem patronising by treating someone as younger than they are that we overlook the need occasionally to ignore the outward adult sides of others in order to perceive and sympathise with the angry confused infant lurking inside.
When we are around small children who frustrate us, we don’t don’t declare them evil, we don’t bear down on them to show them how misguided they are. We find less alarming ways of grasping how they have come to say or do certain things. We don’t readily assign a negative motive or mean intention to a small person; we reach around for the most benevolent interpretations. We probably think that they are getting a bit tired, or their gums are sore or they are upset by the arrival of a younger sibling. We’ve got a large repertoire of alternative explanations ready in our heads.
This is the reverse of what tends to happen around adults; here we imagine that others have deliberately got us in their sights. But if we employed the infant model of interpretation, our first assumption would be quite different. Given how immature every adult necessarily remains, some of the moves we execute with relative ease around children must forever continue to be relevant when we’re dealing with another grown-up.
– The Possibility of Tragedy
Moralistic thinking is sure that people get what they deserve. Love-thinking believes in the existence of tragedy, that is, in the possibility that one can be good and still fail. Tragedy teaches us that the most shocking events can befall the more or less innocent or the only averagely muddled and weak. We do not inhabit a properly moral universe, disaster is at points distributed to those who could not have expect it to be a fair outcome, given what they did. Love-thinking accepts a remarkable, frightening and still-too-seldom accepted possibility: that failure is not reserved for those who are ‘evil’.
Moralistic thinkers reach their certainties swiftly; love thinkers take their time. They remain serene in the face of obviously unimpressive behaviour: a sudden loss of temper, a wild accusation, a very mean remark. They reach instinctively for reasonable explanations and have clearly in their minds the better moments of a currently frantic but essentially loveable person. They know themselves well enough to understand that abandonments of perspective are both hugely normal and usually indicative of nothing much beyond passing despair or exhaustion. They do not aggravate a febrile situation through self-righteousness, a symptom of not knowing oneself too well – and of a very selective memory. The person who bangs a fist on the table or announces extravagant opinions is most likely to be simply rather worried, frightened, hungry or just very enthusiastic: conditions that should rightly invite sympathy rather than disgust.
– Redeeming Features
Love-thinkers interpret everyone as having strengths alongside their obvious weaknesses. When they encounter these weaknesses, they do not conclude that this is all there is, they know that almost everything on the negative side of a ledger could be connected up with something on the positive. They search a little more assiduously than is normal for the strength to which a maddening characteristic must be twinned. We can see easily enough that someone is pedantic and uncompromising; we tend to forget, at moments of crisis, their thoroughness and honesty. We may know so much about a person’s messiness, we forget their uncommon degree of creative enthusiasm. There is no such thing as a person with only strengths, but nor is there someone with only weaknesses. The consolation comes in refusing to view defects in isolation. Love is built out of a constantly renewed and gently resigned awareness that weakness-free people do not exist.
– We Are Sinners Too
The single greatest spur towards a loving perspective on others is a live awareness that we are also deeply imperfect and at points quite plainly mad. The enemy of generosity is the sense that we might be beyond fault – whereas love begins when we can acknowledge that we are in equal measures idiotic, mentally wobbly and flawed. It’s an implicit faith in their own perfection that turns some people into such harsh judges
Looking at the world through the eyes of love, we are forced to conclude that there is no such thing as a simply bad person, and no such thing as a monster. There is only ever pain, anxiety and suffering that have coalesced into unfortunate action. We are not just being kind in this notion; this isn’t merely an exercise in being nice, it’s an exercise in getting to the truth of things, which may – when we get down to the details of human psychology – be roughly and almost coincidentally the same thing.