"Love your enemies for they tell you your faults.”
A few weeks back I took my son Andrew to an appointment at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital (Penn) which was founded by Ben Franklin. He was actually born in Boston, Massachusetts, but ran away at the age of seventeen to live in Philadelphia which was known as “the City of Brotherly Love” because the city’s founder, William Penn, was a proponent of freedom of religion and felt that all people should be permitted to practice the religion of their choice without persecution. Franklin himself was not a member of any particular church, but throughout his life he made considerable financial donations to many different churches around Philadelphia because he believed they were necessary to keep people focused on virtuous living and that would be the foundation of a successful republic.
One of the first acts Franklin did at seventeen when he arrived in Philadelphia with no money and barely any food was to give away some of the small loaf of bread he had to a widowed mother with two small children. I believe that became foundational and symbolic to the rest of his life which focused so much on philanthropy (which is another word based in the Greek word for love just like “Philadelphia”).
In recent years I’ve come to believe that all human emotion and behavior comes primarily from only two basic emotions which are love and fear. I don’t know if this quote comes from somewhere else but about twenty years ago a friend said to me that “all that is not love is fear” and that has really resonated with me in the years since. Virtues including the thirteen which Franklin identified to try and live by are based in things like philanthropy, goodness, community, collective wellbeing, service, kindness, and ultimately in love. The opposite of virtue is immorality and includes things like greed, sloth, envy, cruelty, and evil. So it really is all either love or fear.
I’m sharing these thoughts because I’ve become increasingly aware of how much our world needs love and how much all of us as individuals need love which includes being loved and loving others. This notion is summarized best I believe by one of my favorite quotes from the late Fred Rogers of children’s television fame; someone I have come to admire as much as Ben Franklin. Rogers said: “Love is at the root of everything – love, or the lack of it. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and are capable of loving.”
If you have read other things I’ve shared in the past you might recall my challenge to try to talk intentionally to strangers you encounter in your daily living. At the time I shared this challenge I included the fact that psychological research has found repeatedly that talking to strangers not only makes the stranger feel nice afterwards, but it actually makes you as the speaker feel nicer afterwards too. Talking to strangers is a random act of kindness which raises the happiness factor in both the giver and receiver. I would take this further to say that at its root, that act of kindness is an act of love towards a fellow human being. Giving love to others generates love in ourselves.
So with Valentine’s Day on the horizon, you have a great excuse next week to be thinking about love. Is there someone in your life that you love or someone who loves you? Could that be a parent, child, partner, spouse, friend, neighbor, or colleague? The notion to “love” one of these people may sound a bit awkward or unusual but if you consider all the virtues which emanate from love, then you can start to realize there are many ways to show love to those around you – even to strangers.
Over my years providing counseling and therapy to many people over many parts of the world, I’ve often encountered men who have told me they no longer love the women in their lives such as a husband saying about his wife: “I just don’t love her anymore.” My answer to that comment has always been “then start loving her” which in most cases I’ve had to go on to explain the difference between being “in love” versus actively “loving.” The first is something we experience, the second is something we do. When we stop being in love, it’s always because along the way we first stopped loving.
I believe understanding the connection between giving love and receiving love is the ultimate formula to improving our emotional wellbeing, our mental health, our communities, our nations, and our world. Far too many people have stopped loving others and have come to dislike, distrust, and ultimately to fear or even hate others. We are bombarded with messages every day which tell us why we shouldn’t love ourselves or others. If you don’t understand that, then let me explain why I notice this every day.
So much of the world and our media messages tell us that we need to look better, to be thinner, more fit, to eat better, to acquire things we don’t have, or to be like someone else. We are led to idolize people who symbolize all that we subconsciously begin to think is lacking in our lives. We are pressured to not like ourselves or to not love ourselves because of all the ways we are failing or don’t measure up. This begins to erode our confidence, our self-acceptance, and our happiness.
At the same time the world is eroding our love for ourselves, we are influenced to see a world separated between “us” and “them” with messages rooted in fear. Look at the headlines right now wherever you get your keep up with news and you’ll see messages telling you something bad about someone else or other groups of people. We divide ourselves politically, religiously, racially, nationally, economically, and in multitudes of other ways. You will have to search quite intentionally to find positive or love-based messages about any of “those” groups or people.
What saddens me in this time is to see how much division between us and them has eroded our humanity and our capacity to love others. When we can highlight our differences and classify others by those differences, we have taken a step towards the risk of diminishing someone’s humanity. Conversely, when we can realize that someone is more like us than different from us, we have taken a step towards embracing humanity and that is love’s response to fear.
In my twenty-two years of psychotherapy work I have never encountered more people than in just the past three or four years who have expressed so much fear. I believe this has been fueled mainly by news and social media and some trends of political leadership. I’ve also reached that conclusion from interesting and revealing discussions I’ve had with some of my adult graduate students about some of the things polarizing our communities these days on topics such as vaccinations, wearing a mask, owning or carrying guns, distrust of science or government, and anger at opposing political parties. The most interesting part of these discussions is realizing that regardless of the hot topic, the hard feelings about the topic didn’t become so strongly polarized until about three or four years ago.
The solution to all these issues in my humble opinion is love. We need to take time to talk to others in meaningful ways and to try to understand each other. It can be helpful to recognize fear which can underly our perceptions or interpretations and to counter that fear with love. Remember that kindness and love expressed towards others will in turn generate feelings of happiness and love within yourself.
Consider that giving to others raises our own happiness to higher levels than giving to ourselves. Giving to others activates regions of our brains associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. You might be surprised to learn of studies demonstrating conclusively that elderly people who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than were non-volunteers, even after controlling for their age, exercise habits, general health, and negative health habits like smoking. Similar studies have found that individuals who provide practical help to friends, relatives, or neighbors, or give emotional support to their spouses, have a lower risk of dying over a five-year period than those who don’t. Interestingly, receiving help is not linked to a reduced risk of death which should really affirm the fact that loving others does even more for ourselves than it does for others.
So my challenge to you this week is to use Valentine’s Day as a great excuse to love someone. It could be someone who loves you or someone you know casually or even a stranger. Feeding a hungry person is an act of love. Volunteering your time to others is an act of love. Being courteous while driving is an act of love. Telling your spouse or partner something you appreciate about them is an act of love. Even an anonymous act of kindness no one else discovers is an act of love.
Of course, there are also all the popular or traditional ways to show love to someone as Valentine’s Day approaches and those are good too. If something like that is your plan then I encourage you to do that for sure but also think of something additional or unusual you can do to express some love to someone else or anyone else around you. You’ll help make the world a better place, and you’ll end up with a smile on your face – I promise!
Have a great week!