When Fear Seems Like the Only Response

Most of the folks behind Love Not Fear live in Florida, so maybe that’s why the school shooting in Parkland looms larger than the too-long list of mass shootings our country has endured over the last 20 years. It shouldn’t, because each of them has been horrible enough to have captured our attention, and the sum of them has led us to grow numb to the horror and shocked that we have gotten to that point of numbness. But here we are.

Policy is important, and I don’t mean for this to replace the discussion about the range of policies that might reduce the risk of harm from these shootings. This is not “instead of” gun and mental health and school hardening and all of the other political issues.

It can seem Pollyanna-ish to talk about choosing love and not fear when students, worshippers, moviegoers, frankly all of us have to cope with the reality that we could very well be in the line of fire of the next guy with a gun (and I say “guy,” because so far the mass shooters we’ve seen have been mostly young men). In that moment when bullets fly, maybe fear is the only response; it’s certainly the natural one. In this moment of dreaded anticipation of the next mass shooting, maybe fear is the only response as well.

But let me offer this. One of my heroes is a guy, Father Greg Boyle, who started the largest gang intervention program in the country, Homeboy Industries. He makes a point of saying that in 30 years of working in California prisons and with gang members, he has never met anyone who is evil. (And you would think he would have.) He has met many who have done evil things, for sure, but when you get down to it, he has realized that they all suffer from a one or a combination of three things: 1) A lethal absence of hope for their future. 2) Unspeakably painful childhood experiences that they have never been able to process, such that they can only transmit their pain rather than transform it. 3) Mental illness. He claims (and I don’t have the experience to counter) that it is always one or more of those three things at the heart of the awful behavior he witnesses.

Homeboy succeeds as a gang intervention program by offering a wide range of services that help former gang members create new lives, services like job training, tattoo removal and legal services that provide hope, counseling and support groups that address and transform pain, mental health care that addresses mental illness. But what has made Homeboy work for 30 years is the community of kinship and compassion that it has built. When others looked at gang members with fear, Boyle welcomed them with love.

But along with those changes that are being debated, we need to find a way to bend our culture toward love. We need to love the odd kid rather than fear him. We need to reach out to the kid who has had a hard life rather than avoid him. We need to get help, real and sustained help, for the kid who might be dealing with mental illness rather than stay away. That’s way easier said than done. But if we are to address the “supply side” of the mass shooter equation, it’s by working to build a circle of kinship and compassion such that nobody stands outside of it, leaving nobody to cycle from isolation, anger and illness into unspeakably evil acts.

There is this, too. In Parkland, as in every mass shooting before it, the bios of the victims are heart-wrenching. What is striking about the people who lost their lives are the stories of heroism – the assistant football coach who threw himself in front of students to shield them, the teacher who unlocked a classroom to give kids a route to safety, the kid who was holding the door open so others could flee. Even in that moment, they chose love, not fear.

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Which Wolf Will You Feed in 2018?

Today an old legend came to mind. While its origin is murky, the story is relevant:

An old man is talking with his grandson and says there are two wolves inside us which are always at war with each other. One of them is a good wolf filled with kindness, courage and love. The other is a bad wolf, filled with hatred, anger and fear.

The grandson asks “Which wolf wins?”

The old man answers, “The one you feed.”

The story comes to mind in the context of Love Not Fear, because the very premise of this movement rests on the wisdom in the story. If you feed fear, fear will win. If you feed love, love will win. Here are three paths Love Not Fear will take to feed love, not fear.

Social Media. “Feed,” of course, carries a new meaning in the social media age, as we talk about our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds. Just as we control which wolf we feed, we have the power to control what our social media “feeds” us. A project I hope Love Not Fear can complete in 2018 is bringing tools to our page that help social media users better shape their Facebook feeds, so that they in turn will be fed by them with love, not fear.

Real life gatherings. In The Economist‘s 2018 look-ahead, Bill Ridgers makes a point about social media that points to its limits to help us feed love and not fear:

Stress seems to have been exacerbated by social media. Those without social-media accounts worry less about the political future than those with one, according to the APA. Two out of five American adults say that political discussions on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have produced anxiety. According to John Cacioppo, a loneliness expert at the University of Chicago, social media work well for those who already have an abundance of friends and family to interact with. Indeed, for such people, Facebook and the rest are likely to add to their happiness. But they have the opposite effect on the lonely. For them, these are merely a way to watch other people socialising, which entrenches isolation.

So Love Not Fear will continue to look for ways to gather people in real life ways that help build true connections to reduce fear.

Encountering others. When Creative Loafing Tampa Bay asked people for their 2018 wishes, I was stunned to see this:

Jacqui May, Grand Central District Association: To personally and professionally, support, represent, and wherever possible, elevate those who have not yet found their voice. We need to keep the dialogue going so many topics, in particular notions of “the other;” we need to identify where those ideas emerge from, why they are problematic, and how individuals and communities can be agents of change to end hatred and violence born out of a lack of awareness and understanding. I am proud to be involved with groups centering on notions of diversity, including the emerging Love not Fear movement, based here in Tampa Bay which focuses on changing cultural perceptions about those different than themselves and to build a community. Maybe I’m naive, but I can’t help but hope the world will be a less scary place if we accept that we’re all in it together and look at what we as silly humans have in common vs. focusing on “the other.” lovenotfearmovement.wordpress.com

Last year, Love Not Fear participated in an interfaith encounter at the Florida Holocaust Museum called “Love Lives Here: No Place for Hate,” and in the process developed a playbook that can be used in other communities and on other intersections of “others.” While that was a big event that we may try to replicate, we’ll also be working on models for smaller events like “diversity dinners” to create healthy environments to get to know people you might otherwise have thought of as “different” or “other.” We’re also looking to showcase ideas for other bringing people together to see our common humanity while learning from what makes us each unique.

This is, you might say, open source. Love Not Fear hopes to be a platform to launch the ideas of anyone willing to work on these issues. Let us know what you want to do together!

We put people in boxes. We need to let them out.

Inspired by my hero, Homeboy Industries’ founder Father Greg Boyle, I opened a staff meeting this week with a thought for the day, not unlike the one Homeboy posts on its Facebook page each day. It was sparked by my reflection on a volunteer who had passed away the day before. I’ll share an idea of what I said here.

We put people in boxes in our mind. Maybe we do it so we can keep track of them, to keep all the people we know organized somehow. I don’t know.

Sometimes we put them in boxes based on how we first met them. Sometimes we put them in boxes based on their worst choices. Sometimes we put them in boxes based on how they differ from us. Regardless, when we keep people in boxes, we miss a lot of their beauty, a lot of who they really are. We need to learn to let them out so we can appreciate the whole of them.

A lot of people on my team started their career with our organization in one role, but have grown in responsibility or changed streams or otherwise do something now that’s different from when they started. And in that process, they have to, at some point, remind the people they work with, and a lot of times remind themselves, that they aren’t in the same role as before.

This is a huge issue for parents, of course, who think of their 40-something multiple-degree-holding accomplished children as the same kid who didn’t know how to tie his or her shoes and who ate anything they could pick up off the ground. But it’s true for me, too; about 1/3 of our staff interned with us at some point, and not only do I not appreciate who they were before they walked into my life, but I also tend to remember them as interns long after they have outgrown that role. And I have to let them out of that box.

Sometimes we put people in a box based on their worst choice. I told the team the story Fr. Boyle tells about Frank, who prompted Homeboy’s tattoo-removal service. (It’s worth watching the 5-minute video if you don’t know the story.) And the volunteer I was remembering had made some suboptimal choices, nowhere near as stark as Frank’s, mind you, but still memorable for their impact on the organization. But to box her into those choices would have left out the hugely positive impact she had on our team internally and on her community externally. I kept her in that box way longer than I should have.

Sometimes we put people in a box based on how they differ from us. This volunteer, she liked the spotlight. We are all the heroes of our own personal story, I think, but her story seemed more dramatic in the telling than others, and I am someone who, despite initial appearances, dreads direct attention. I am allergic to compliments, for instance; I take them horribly and would rather not have the fuss. So because this person had a different style, I kept her in a “drama queen” box for a while, and if I didn’t let her out, I would have missed the beauty of her soul. I would have forgotten how quick she was to help me when a family member was diagnosed with the same chronic illness she wore so gracefully. I would have overlooked how gentle and kind-hearted she was.

We put people in boxes to make them easier to understand, and when we do that, we can fail to understand them at all. We miss some of the best parts, we don’t see their souls dance, because we trap them in a box. And maybe it makes us feel better to have the power to label someone and put them on an interior shelf, but the reality is whatever satisfaction we gain from that feeble, false power is more than overcome by the loss of encounter of the full beauty of that other person.

So if we catch ourselves putting someone in a box today, let’s be sure we let them out.

What I didn’t mention, because I try not to confuse Love Not Fear with work, is that one of the exercises that had such a huge impact in our interfaith “Love Lives Here” event was based on a video about boxes.

You probably think this song is about you.

We live in a scary time.

Our society has been promoting a culture that prioritizes tradeoffs of short-term, individual interests over long-term societal interests, and for a long time it seemed like a good idea. People did well. It felt like progress.

But what we didn’t recognize was that there is a certain momentum that comes from aggregated individual decisions to choose the immediate and selfish thing over the greater good, and as that momentum of culture intersected with public policy and business decisions that agreed with those decisions, the pace of change has gotten faster and faster and the gravitational pull of that change has become harder and harder to reverse. So now that the numbers are beginning unarguable that the change at hand is significant and destructive to the very things we hold dearest, experts are fretting that we may be very close to the point of no return. In fact, a lot of them think that point is already past.

That’s scary enough, but up until now, there has been at least some hope that we can get our country’s leaders to recognize the problems, implement changes and turn the ship around. It may be that we got into this mess through decisions that weren’t made by government, but the state wields a lot of power, and we were perhaps naively optimistic that it could stop the bleeding and put us on the right track.

But now, now it’s clear that the federal government will not be our calvary riding in to rescue us. And that recognition adds a level of gloom to the situation.

Our only hope, and it’s not a bright one, is that we can fix this problem ourselves, not relying on the Feds to save us with policy but circling the wagons of those who understand the nature of the threat at hand and changing our behavior while pressuring others to do the same. Lacking confidence in our leaders to lead, now our hope is that they’ll just stay out of the way.

Does this sound familiar? Did it have you nodding your head?

If you’re progressive, you probably think I’m writing about climate change.

If you’re a social conservative, you probably think I’m writing about the dismantling of the traditional family.

+++

In the aftermath of the news that the US would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, I heard this line of argument a lot, and it reminded me of what many cultural conservatives have been saying ever since the Obergfell decision legalizing gay marriage. And it made me wonder if there was a hope buried in this common script of gloom and doom.

I don’t mean to argue for the equivalence of these issues or the moral superiority of one over the other here. What I want to point out is that we spend a lot of time thinking about people who think differently than us as inscrutable, at best, and malevolent, at worst. To which I offer this:

If the argument outlined above resonated with you on an issue – either one of the ones I mentioned or on something else – can you consider that a potential key to understanding people you don’t agree with? When you engage with someone who has a different view than yours on a big issue, you can choose to discover the underlying narrative that fuels their passion. And if it’s a fearful one, like this is, you can, if you choose, take a step back and recognize it as one that you have felt, albeit on a separate issue.

That won’t obligate you to change your views on the issue and agree with them. But it will allow you to see them as someone who has hopes and fears that maybe based on a different set of facts and a different set of values, but share the same humanity and a concern for our common future.

The goal isn’t to get to agreement here. The goal is to develop empathy for the person you disagree with. If you can say, “I think I can relate to the concern you have, even if I don’t agree with the particulars,” you can open the door to a respectful, empathic sharing of perspectives rather than just name-calling.

From “How Could You?” to “How Can We?” A Story and A Playbook

(From Jeff):

At the end of a lunch conversation I had with someone who wanted to learn more about Love Not Fear, the person I was talking with told me this story about the experience that drove him to look for us. He sent it to me later via message, and this is what he said:

My partner voted for President Trump; I voted for Hillary Clinton.

Neither I nor my partner, nor many, many other people, had good answers for what happened next.

Post election my partner and I, who up to that time were having what I would describe as a loving, healthy relationship, become angry at each other when we talked about the election.

I had to be ‘right.’ I would not accept her reasons for voting for President Trump as a good choice, or even a valid, rational response to the realities of the political/economic/social situation(s) as I understood them. My perspective was ‘correct.’ I did not accept her perspectives of what happened, why, and consequently the validity of the choices she made. And that included her expectations.

As a result our relationship was dissolving before our eyes. Neither of us knew what to do for certain. As I said there was no ‘playbook.’ We did agree that we valued our relationship. And we valued each other: everything about each other, even the things we didn’t like, because that’s who we were.

We agreed to stop reading Facebook, because we found it inflammatory, incendiary. FB was an addiction, an emotional fix that reinforced our perspectives and made it increasingly difficult to communicate with each other. Each time we talked and at least partially bridged our gap, merely reading FB, or listening to other news sources, emails, etc., set us at odds again, sometimes with even more certitude.

Fortunately, over the course of the next several weeks we began to understand that we were the only true reality. Not manipulative FB posts that prompted an emotional response of a certain kind. Not TV commentators or news articles written from a certain bias.

I came to realize that she had valid reasons for her beliefs, reasons that I in fact shared. I couldn’t make decisions for her, run her life. I couldn’t. Only she knows what’s best for her. I had to give up my superiority, my control, and just be who I am, just be ‘me,’ and let her be ‘her.’ That was good enough.. In fact it had to be because that is all there is.

It was better for both of us. We can share who we are; not hide behind our knowledge, education, etc. Its honest. Its getting to know ourselves and each other; growing together. (We can only ‘be’ ourselves when we’re with someone else.)

“Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.” — Anais Nin”

That notion of a “Love Not Fear Playbook” was one that we had kicked around before in a couple of contexts, and it struck me that this man was describing one of the core experiences that led me to start Love Not Fear. So I asked my friend and Love Not Fear Leader Amy, who is a clinical psychologist, to comment on what a playbook might look like, and here’s what she said:

 This is a great story. It reminds me of the poem by Rumi that starts:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
If we are to write a playbook for how to restore and maintain relationships across differences, especially political differences in this age of hyper-partisan politics, then it contains these basic moves:
First, identify who is important to you, and then notice if your actions are moving you toward that person or away. Being “right” feels so good, and it’s so hard to be kind to people we believe are dead wrong, or else willfully ignorant of the facts as we know them.
So another important move is the willingness to hold lightly our ideas about right and wrong and the way things should be.
Remember “the dress” that achieved internet fame a couple of years ago? I remember showing my husband the picture of the white and gold dress only to have him describe it as blue and black. It was truly upsetting to me. How could this person that I know so we’ll see this simple picture so differently? I actually spent some time researching explanations for the phenomenon, all of which boiled down to this:
Seeing is perception, and perception is influenced by both our biologies and our histories. Perhaps my husband and I perceived different colors because he has a different history with colors than I do. I needed to be able to let go of being right in order to try to understand how someone else could see it differently.
If our histories influence something as basic as color perception, how much more do
they influence our perspectives on weightier matters like politics, religion, and
parenting?
Trying to understand where someone is coming from is literally that – asking what has been this person’s life experience? How does it make sense that they perceive the world as they do? And how does my particular life journey make sense of the beliefs I hold?
If we can do this with kindness and compassion, we can love even when we disagree.

A message to the Love Not Fear community about the last 24 hours

Welcome to 2017. In a few weeks, the Love Not Fear idea will be a year old, and in that time we have built a Facebook following of more than 700 people and a group of more than 50 people who have raised their hands to be leaders or volunteers for the movement. With great thanks to Sid we have incorporated as a non-profit and on January 19 we will hold a strategic planning session to lay out our goals for 2017 and beyond. Through all this, I continue to find people who resonate with the idea that a) there is too much fear in our world, b) love is the antidote and c) we ought to work on countering fear with love somehow. People tell me they want to do something; they (and I) just aren’t sure what.

For all this, it feels kind of like we’re stuck. Several board members have said that we need new blood and new energy, that their lives have gotten crazier,  that maybe they’re losing some motivation. And let me say here that not only do I understand that intellectually, but I’ve had days where I’ve felt it, too.

The last day, though, has been the latest example of a nudge from beyond myself about this, and I want to share with you what’s popped up for me to see if any of you get a nudge as well.

As a preface, Love Not Fear needs to be open to everyone if it’s to be anything, and that includes people of all faiths including those of no faith. I truly do not believe that the concept of love overcoming fear is limited to people with a certain name for the Divine, nor is it out of the grasp of those who claim there is no Divine. But all that said, part of being inclusive is being wholly real, so I kinda have to say at this point that I do believe in a personal God, and while I’m not all that clear on the mechanics, I do believe that sometimes God brings stuff to our attention for a reason.

Late yesterday afternoon I had a meeting with a couple of friends at Panera that was primarily about a non-work, non-Love Not Fear small project, and after talking about that project and some other unrelated issues, my friends said, “Let’s talk about what’s really important.” Through their work, which is neither political nor theological, they’ve identified some trends that have them convinced that we are at a crisis moment in society, that the central institutions of our world are coming apart, that something big and new is coming that we can’t see yet. They don’t think the world is ending but do think it may feel like the world is ending for a lot of people. And they wanted to tell me that they were convinced that my Love Not Fear idea is an important element of getting to the other side of it and they want to be connected to it.

Last night, Amy, who is leading the Love Not Fear Research and Education team, tagged me on Facebook to share this sermon she found. You should really read the whole thing, but this part at the end jumped out:

“There are messengers of love all around. And again, and forever, they say: do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. For in the heart of God there is enough love to cast out fear. It is from this heart we come and to this heart we return and it beats around us and is shown in the shimmering love that absolutely covers this world. There is enough love to cast out our fear. And it’s everywhere.”

This morning, the readings that came up in my devotional included this quote from I John 3: “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” And the reflection on that passage was an extended quote from a guy named Clarence Jordan who died the year I was born:

“[It] is not enough to limit your love to your own nation, to your own race, to your own group. You must respond with love even to those outside of it, respond with love to those who hate you. This concept enables men to live together not as nations, but as the human race. We are now at the stage of history where we will either take this step or perish. For we have learned with consummate skill to destroy mankind. We have learned how to efficiently annihilate the human race. But, somehow or other, we shrink with horror from the prospect not of annihilation, but of reconciliation. We will either be reconciled – we shall love one another – or we shall perish.”

He wrote that about 50 years ago, but it sure sounded like the conversation I had at Panera with my two friends the day before. If we are to make it, we need to embrace the reality that we all belong to each other.

This confluence of conversation and sermon and scripture and reflection in so short a timeframe (it was probably 12 hours from first to last) struck me as meaningful. As a divine nudge to keep at it.

And here’s what the “it” is: it’s about building a Love Not Fear community. Look, I work in the world of policy, and I’m wearing a t-shirt as I type this with a quote from Daniel Burnham on the front that says “Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s souls.” So my mind goes naturally to how the economic, political, cultural and environmental dynamics make love hard and fear easy, and left to my own devices, I’d start working on an opus for how to change policy to shift that balance. But the world we build reflects our collective heart. If you really want to change the world, start by changing hearts, and that kind of change happens one by one in a community.

Whether you just liked the Facebook page because someone asked you to, or because we posted a message that stuck with you and made you smile, or whether this is something you’ve been looking for, you’re already on the way. As we start a new calendar year, ask yourself whether you’re feeling a nudge to do something, to “love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” And if you want to get involved in building the skills of love and empathy together and inviting others to join us, let’s figure out together how. We need you. Drop a comment on this post, e-mail me at lovenotfearmovement@gmail.com, message the Facebook page, and we’ll get you added to our leader group so you can weigh in on what we should focus on first and how to move forward.

The Day After the Election: How Does Healing Begin?

As the election season ends and we look to make peace within our families and communities, remember that the peace and justice we want to see in the world starts with our abilities to see what another sees, to feel what another feels, and to allow our hearts to be broken.


Very soon this election will be over. Yet the acrimony and the deep divides among us that the political process has exposed will not simply fade. The divisions between us need to be healed actively and intentionally. How do we begin?

 

Prominent behavioral psychologist Steven Hayes recently wrote about the three essential psychological skills that research shows are needed to be able to enjoy and love others. First, we need to be able to take another’s perspective. We need to be able to put ourselves in another’s shoes and see the world through her eyes, understanding how her perspective might be different from our own. Second, we need to be able to feel what the other person is feeling – to feel his joys and sorrows. And third, we need to be open enough to our own emotional experience to not shut ourselves off from the other person’s pain, even when it is hard. When we can see another’s perspective, and feel what they feel, it can be painful for us, especially if they are different from us. If we try to protect ourselves from those uncomfortable feelings, we shut down our ability to be truly compassionate. Loving those who are different from us is hard and, sometimes, heartbreaking. Glennon Melton, author of Love Warrior, says this about opening ourselves to the pain of others: “Do not run, do not turn away: follow your heartbreak…Everything beautiful starts with a broken heart.”

 

These, then, are the essential ingredients to loving others: perspective taking, empathy, and openness to experience. Research in psychology tells us that the opposite is also true: when we are lacking in these three skills, the result is that we judge, objectify, and dehumanize others. The good news is, we can strengthen these skills with intentional practice.

 

Hayes concludes with this: “The modern world needs to take seriously the battle between hate and love. If it is to be love, we need to go behind the eyes of, say, women being groped … and then we need to take a deep breath and take the much harder journey into the mind of a groper. We need to go behind the eyes of a Mexican child on a school bus being shouted at to go home … and then pause and feel what it feels like to be the middle-aged man shrieking at him or her.”

 

by Amy House for Love Not Fear Movement