Doubling Down on Love

Helping Hands

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

A jumble of thoughts awaken me each morning in the past few weeks as I seek to listen in silence for my response to the current migrant-refugee family crisis, not only in the United States but worldwide.  As I dipped in and out of the news recently (a steady dose feels too toxic), I found myself nauseated.  The aching in my heart has not left.  To see innocent, unknowing children being taken from their mothers and fathers, to hear the cries of babies and young children in shock wondering what happened to their families, to the familiar, shakes my soul.  I wondered what was the purpose of traumatizing children as adults fought over their family’s fate.  

In the next moment I think back to the fall semester of my junior year in college.  I’m sitting in a physics class and wondering why I enrolled in it.  I had long since disabused myself of any desires to attend medical school.  That fantasy flew from my sleepy first year head as I watched televised lectures of biology 101 in my friend, Linda’s dorm room.  My small group of friends and I gathered together each Monday, Wednesday and Fridays at 8:00 am knowing that one of us would be snoring in the first 10 minutes. I slept more than I absorbed the basic foundations of biology.  I reflected later that completing one semester each of biology and physics was one in a collection of symbols of my decade long struggle to prove myself.  Although I wasn’t nearly as excited about physics as psychology some information remained with me.  One piece was Newton’s third law of motion—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  

I selected this law, modified it by being the opposing reaction.  Then I intentionally applied it to many things—exercise, health, psychological dueling with others, even writing.  It seems that every time I attempt to push through the endless obstacles toward a disciplined writing schedule, for example, the resistance slaps me back in the face.  I persist through the feelings of immobilization to counter this reaction.  

I also utilize this construct in a positive way in my spiritual life.  For every negative or unloving act I observe, I deliberately perform a loving or positive act.  I think of it as—fighting darkness with LIGHT. Each time I observe someone engage in an activity that lacks empathy and compassion, I hear a more powerful call to double down on love and mercy.  Yes, my new adage is “Double-down on love.”

I understand the feelings of helplessness that come from viewing these tragedies play out in the daily news and on social media.  Yet there are so many moments during the course of a day that provide opportunities to express sensitivity.  Maybe a person cuts me off on the highway, or the receptionist at the doctor’s office acts rude or indifferent.  Rather than respond to a driver with an ugly gesture or act rude in return, I smile, bless them with kindness and gentleness instead. 

I am so moved by the news of people countering unloving behavior with loving acts.  My favorite couple of the year, Charlotte and Dave Willner, feeling powerless about the fate of the separated children, raised over 20 millions dollars for RAICES, a legal fund for migrant families.  One of my retired colleagues chose to help two women in her retirement home who were without legal status.  From her walker, Barbara relentlessly called friends and lawyers until these two women received their green cards. There are many churches who for a number of years have offered sanctuary to immigrant and refugee families.  This reminds me of chain transplants also known as organ paired donations, a movement that has grown in popularity.  There are endless chances to pay it forward encouraging a contagion of love. 

Great good can emerge from cruelty and callousness.  I believe response to FEAR (and isn’t that at the core of the crisis) with LOVE.  It may sound counter-intuitive but I’ve always believed the Biblical passage, “Perfect love casts out fear,” (John 4:18 ).  You can extinguish darkness with light.  But the opposite is never true.  You cannot eradicate light with darkness.  Although dimmed temporarily, light triumphs over darkness every time.  However, when I walk into an unlit room, rather than fear the darkness, I must engage in the action of turning on the light.

What kind of loving acts can you counter fear with or pay forward?  In what ways will you bring light and love to those who feel as if they are stuck on the bottom of a barrel of darkness?   On your spiritual journey would doubling down on love help to uncover more of the peace and joy in your heart? 

No copyright infringement intended on the helping hands image.

Looking Beyond to the Collateral Beauty

“Don’t cry because it is over.  Smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

Although the Academy Awards have come and gone, conversations about the Oscars spur me to view as many of the nominated films as I can.  However, one of my favorite films last year, Collateral Beauty was not considered for any awards.  I didn’t understand the horrible reviews and small audiences for a film with such a profound and deep message.  I concluded after a year in which most media outlets devoted their time to trash, to the very base instincts of society, that people are addicted to fear, insults, fake news, and social media overload.  Thus, I suspected that Collateral Beauty, a movie that contains no sex or an overabundance of violence (i.e., no kill count), seemed boring to many.  Yet when I looked beyond the unrealistic storyline, I found some engaging dialogue and an overall message of love designed to speak to our souls and uplift our spirits.

What is collateral beauty you might ask?  I had no idea how the concept was being framed for the movie, in fact I hadn’t thought about what it might mean until the end.  I had heard of collateral damage, defined as the ”general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target.”  In military terminology, it is frequently used to account for “the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants…The unintentional destruction of friendly targets is called friendly fire.”

I’ve always felt, though, that collateral damage is a euphemism designed to distant or distract people from digesting the real death toll and destruction wreaked on the lives of “unintended targets” who find themselves in unwanted wars and physical conflicts.  I wonder if people who engage in domestic violence in front of children, or gang members whose bullets miss the intended victim and instead kill or maim a child or elderly person, consider the long-term consequences of the damage they inflict. The deception of describing the loss of innocent life as incidental, just a person at the wrong place and at the wrong time, keeps us all from feeling the brunt of such news.

Given that definition, then, could collateral beauty denote?  It is that stubborn new growth that occurs after a fire has destroyed a forest or a community of homes.  Sometimes the new growth manifests as the loving actions of those who are moved by a tragedy to offer their help by making meals, bringing clothes, warm blankets, and water to fellow human beings who find themselves in a tragic situation.  I find collateral beauty everywhere.

When I think of examples of collateral beauty in my life, my transplants and recovery from various illnesses immediately come to mind.  My donor family lost a beloved daughter and sister and in the midst of their grief, they chose to donate a heart, liver, two kidneys, and some cornea that immediately brought new life to five people.  One family’s heartbreaking loss became a joy and relief for another.  And as I suffered through my recovery, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances emerged from their busy lives to offer prayer, food, company, and rides to and from the transplant clinic.  Incredibly, six women from my former support group in Detroit each chose to take vacation time and travel by plane, train and bus to spend a week caring for me after my mother exhausted her unpaid family leave.

Collateral beauty frequently appears during the terminal illness of a loved one.  Elizabeth Lesser writes about her experiences of donating bone marrow to her sister in the memoir, Marrow: A Love Story.  Lesser describes the poignant healing that came as a result of conversations with her sister which resulted in their reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict.  Sometimes collateral beauty appears in just those moments of presence, the baring of souls when people realize that their time together is limited and waning.  In essence, collateral beauty is the love that emerges in the midst of devastation, whether it is in the loss of a loved one, destroyed homes, or a tragedy that affects an entire community.

In addition to introducing moviegoers to the notion of collateral beauty, the movie also elicited questions about how do we spend time, what love looks like in our lives, and what does life mean when one realizes their death is inevitable and possibly imminent?  Recently I spent a week being present with my older brother who was visiting.  We are both older and less physically vibrant than we were a few years ago.  He suffers some effects of a stroke he experienced six years ago and I deal with chronic medical issues as a transplant recipient.  We shared stories.  I cooked for him and we reminisced about the events that bonded us for life.  I knew that clearing the calendar and sharing this precious time with him was what love looks like and the best use of our time in the midst of our mutual physical suffering.

It takes time to see collateral beauty and frequently I don’t possess the patience to pause long enough.  It requires looking beyond what I see with my eyes or hear with my ears.  It allows a glimpse into the often unseen love that permeates all.  Wherever there is seeming devastation, there is also collateral beauty—the healing, the joy of what has been, the celebration of a certain heavenliness on earth.  If I stop for a moment to savor all of the beauty and goodness of life rather than focusing on what is missing or how I might want it to be, I gain a certain sacred perspective.  It reminds me that beauty can be seen in anything as long as I allow my heart to see it, to feel the sadness and the joy, to perceive the whole rather than the fragments.

I believe Howard Thurman would characterize collateral beauty like this:

The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat…It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent, and inactive.  These things are always positive, even thought they may be destructive rather than creative.  But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation be involved.  The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years.  If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky!

Meditations of the Heart, p. 82-83

Where are the moments of collateral beauty in your life?  Would pondering such times or being present to others bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?

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