When I was a child, I thought like a child. And I was taught by those who invested their time in teaching me, as a child with a child’s understanding. I expect that that was true for you, as well. As a result, we learned to identify two strong proclivities towards things and persons: “I love that” and “I hate her.”
Love and hate—they were the two driving forces that you learned to recognize in yourself early, that you labeled, the lenses through which you viewed the world.
Later, when you were thought to be a bit more sophisticated in your thinking—or maybe you just stumbled into an interesting conversation—someone might have pointed out, “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s fear.” And that gave you cause to think. And a little light shone on your experience, and you thought, “Maybe life is a little more complex than it first appeared.”
- “I hate walking to school because I’m afraid of those kids who block my way when I try to cross the street.”
- “I hate going to bed early because I’m afraid to face the dark and I want to put it off as long as possible.”
- “I hate backing the car out of the driveway because I’m afraid I’ll back it right into the flow of traffic.”
Love is the opposite of hate. But, maybe, fear is the opposite of love.
We can proceed from here with dictionary definitions of the terms “love” and “fear” and, maybe, “hate,” as well, but all of us here have experienced those emotions, or those feelings, many times in our lives, so we have our own experience to be our guide.
If you have spent any time in mindful meditation, you have probably experienced the emotions of fear and love and many other emotions from a vantage point of “disinterested interest,” to coin a phrase. Emotions emerge as we sit, sometimes as a result of the thoughts we have, sometimes immediately preceding a thought. We all have fears, and there is a wide variety of stimuli that produce those fears.
I expect that you are more interested today in real-life experience than dictionary definitions or clinical descriptions, so I will invite you all, all of us, to take some time calling up some experiences of our emotions and to sit with them together for just a little bit.
I invite you now, if you are willing and if you experience this church community as a trustworthy-enough place, to bring to mind something that makes you afraid. Something that may be looming on the horizon of your life, like a job interview, or something that you perpetually have to deal with, like waking up alone in the morning or at night; or a fear of loss—your partner seems less and less interested in interacting with you these days.
Now, I realize that this is asking a lot, and you certainly don’t need to participate, but I think if we wish to delve into this topic of “love and fear and everything in between”, we would do well to take a risk, a modulated risk in the midst of your spiritual community (and we’ll be doing this exercise with the experience of love in just a little bit).
I expect that most of us cannot just place ourselves in an emotional mindset at will, whatever the emotion might be, so let’s assume that we’ll need a few minutes for this. Let’s take two minutes for this. I’ll sound the bell of mindfulness and assume that it will take most of us a minute or even two minutes to place ourselves in that recalled emotional state; we’ll try to sit with that for one or two minutes. The whole exercise will take two minutes; I’ll set a timer for us.
[sound the bell of mindfulness; wait two minutes; end exercise]
My first question: how many of us were able to do this—a show of hands, please. For those who were able to successfully complete the exercise: what did you observe about your breathing rate, your heart rate, and any other associated physical changes?
[short discussion period]
[I report on my own experience with the exercise]
Now, if you are willing, let’s turn it around a little bit. Think of a time when you made someone afraid. Maybe it was inadvertent—you came upon someone suddenly when they thought they were alone. Or maybe it was purposeful. You thought a younger brother or sister needed to learn a lesson. Or—you were in a position of authority that felt unfamiliar and you found yourself asserting your authority in a manner that was designed to strike fear in others. In this case, you are not a victim (we can go into depth psychology later if you like), you are a perpetrator: you are deriving some personal advantage in asserting your authority. (Of course, not all authority assertion is purposeful. If you are a state trooper and you pull over a driver for speeding, that driver may lapse into “fear mode” because of their own conditioning. You are just doing your job.)
This isn’t necessarily a pleasant exercise, but I think it’s worth the time it will take to place ourselves in this position. I’ll strike the bell of mindfulness in a clangy kind of way. And I’ll ask you to imagine yourself into a position of authority wherein you recognize the feelings associated with making someone else afraid.
[sound the bell of mindfulness; set timer for two minutes]
Let’s take a few minutes to share the outcome of this experiment.
[an opportunity for response]
Now, let’s talk about love. There are many references to love in the world’s religions, and in articles every month in the UU World magazine. We all have our own idea of what “love” means, and I truly hope that we all have had the experience of loving someone and of being loved. Whether or not love is the opposite of fear is something we can talk about in a while if you wish, but for now, let me share with you some thoughts about love from the Christian scriptures. You are all almost certainly familiar with these words from First Corinthians, as they are so often used at wedding ceremonies.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
–1st Corinthians 13: 4-8a
There are ways to identify love by its qualities: Love is patient, love is kind. (Pictures come into my mind as I say these words.) There are ways to recognize love by what it is not: Love does not engage in envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others. It is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered. It doesn’t keep track of those things which feel like wrongs. It does not delight in evil, of course. It rejoices in truth. And it acts: It protects, it trusts, always; it hopes, always; it perseveres, always. One thing it does not do: Love does not fail.
So, now, I ask you to think of a time when you loved. If possible, think of a time when you loved with such depth and breadth and commitment as the love which is described here in First Corinthians. And if there has never been such a time, don’t despair, don’t be discouraged. This kind of love is a very high goal to strive for. It is, perhaps, the purest form of love—a perfect love.
But, think of a time in your life (even now, this moment) when you felt the presence of love in your heart. And join me as we enter into silence together to recreate that time and bring it to life in this sanctuary.
[sound the bell of mindfulness; experience the presence]
Make a note: Was this an experience that took effort or did you just have to allow yourself to do something that felt very natural? If it took work, where did you feel that in your body? Was it in your heart? In your brain? Where, exactly, in your brain? Did you feel it generally throughout your body? I wont ask you to respond, I’ll just ask you to note the bodily sensations associated with the act of loving.
Now comes the fourth and last formal exercise today. This will feel like slipping into a nice warm bath for some people. For others, it will feel difficult, challenging, disappointing, possibly discouraging. So, take this risk only if you choose to.
To feel love is to feel accepted without restraint, to feel authenticated, to feel appreciated, to feel cherished: yes, to feel loved. And if this is a feeling you have not felt very often in your life, I suggest that you open yourself to the energy in this room, the energy that we will create as we move into that psychic and emotional space.
Remember a time when you felt fully loved, fully accepted, recognized for who you are and authenticated. I will sound the bell of mindfulness ad invite us all to step into that space of acceptance and nurturance and appreciation.
[sound the bell of mindfulness; step into the silence]
Let’s just take a moment to sit with that.
These are our emotions. They accompany us through life. Sometimes they can control our actions. Some people try to repress them because they don’t feel comfortable. Some people are embarrassed about expressing some emotions because the vulnerability feels too great. (It’s easier to mock them: Remember the “sensitive New Age man” label?) The best course, of course, is to be aware of our emotions, pay attention to them when they come up, and use them as a guide for action.
The discipline of meditation in the various traditions which use it as a practice leads to an openness and an expansiveness that can be experienced as an all-accepting form of love. But what about our range of choices when we are not quite so advanced in our development? The title of today’s presentation is “Love and Fear and Everything in Between,” so let’s talk about what is in between.
To some stimuli, we respond with fear: we provide a fearful response. To some stimuli, we respond with love: we provide a loving response. In the middle of these responses is “respect.” Responding out of respect is almost always an appropriate response, though it’s less an emotion than a quality of character: choosing to interact with others with respect means to make a character-driven and a character-building choice. Accepting respect as your due is healthy. Demanding respect, expecting respect—well, you can’t control the responses of other people, so, I’ve learned (though it’s a slow learning), you’ve got to roll with the punches.
Also between fear and love—and maybe a fusion of the two, now that I think of it, is “determination.” The reason that I’ve been thinking about these things lately, and the reason that I chose our topic today, is that the political climate in this country, including every day’s developments, is making me angry and fearful, and often enough, I feel filled with something much like hate. It’s not something I like, and it’s not something I feel comfortable with. And it’s not something I plan to continue living with. And so, I’m working on determination. Perhaps, something like that is going on in your life, too.
If you choose determination, what, exactly, are you determined to do? Now, I recognize that we don’t all share the same politics, so I don’t plan to try to talk you into my political position, but I’ll share with you something that came across my computer screen yesterday that made me sit up and say, “Yes! That’s what I’m talking about!”
It has to do with responding to those who encourage me (and many of us) to “work together with the new president and new administration in Washington because he won the election and so, is everyone’s President.”
I recognize that I can be determined, though, to not cooperate in certain things.
I will not “work together” to persecute Muslims.
I will not “work together” to build a wall.
I will not “work together” to shut out refugees from other countries.
I will not “work together” to help the President use his office to line his pockets and those of his family and cronies.
I will not “work together” to weaken and demolish environmental protections.
I will not “work together” to sell American lands, especially National Parks, to companies who then despoil these lands.
I will not “work together” to remove civil rights from anyone.
I will not “work together” to slash funding for education.
I will not “work together” to suppress scientific research, be it on climate change, fracking, or any other issue where a majority of scientists agree that administration and its supporters are wrong on the facts.
I will not “work together” to increase the number of nations that have nuclear weapons.
I will not work together to give the Ku Klux Klan or any white nationalist group, including the “alt-right,” a seat at the table or to normalize their racism.
I will not “work together” to deny health care to people who need it so that corporations can make obscene profits.
I will not “work together” to suppress the rights of reporters to ask questions that the administration doesn’t like.
I will not “work together” to remove or reduce ethical oversight at any level of government.
To my mind, these are not so much political positions as moral positions. To stand for my right of conscience is to stand for the fifth principle that unites us as Unitarian Universalists—the right of conscience. So, I will make my voice heard and my values known in those arenas where I think I can make a difference. And that’s the invitation I extend to you today, to extend the effect of your values in the world.
Fear and love can be seen as opposites, that one must be absent for the other to thrive, but I am reminded of the stories that we have all heard of a mother who sees her child trapped under a car and suddenly, beyond the powers of reason, is able to lift that enormously heavy vehicle in order to free the child she loves. That is love and fear joined together. And I suggest to you that we all need to get ready to make such choices inn the weeks, months, and years to come. Understand the fear, understand the hate, experience loving and being loved. Choose to take a stand while still treating others with respect. Stand up for what you believe to be right. Do that alone, in couples, in groups, as a community. Don’t allow others to make your choices for you. Live out the values you wish to see in the world.
- biblestudytools.com: 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8
- Facebook meme: “If you agree with the sentiments here, copy it and add your name.”
Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly
at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY
on February 19, 2017