Is Love Always the Answer? Response from Dr. Kyler Shumway.

December 18, 2020

“Do we always need to love?”

This question about love was posed to our team by one of our therapists after a deep discussion with one of their clients.

To many, the answer to the question is simple. Some, like The Beatles, would argue yes, “All You Need Is Love.” Love thy neighbor. Make love, not war.

But what about when it’s hard to love?

Do we feel loving towards people who commit heinous crimes and inflict suffering on others? Do we embrace those who have abused us, victimized us?

The honest response is “no,” right?

No, we don’t want to love those who make our lives hell. We don’t care about those who’ve hurt us – they don’t deserve it! We can’t risk lowering the drawbridge to those who attack our walls.

The answer to “do we always need to love” is tough. It isn’t so black and white. But here at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy, we love sitting with ambiguity and wrestling with these kinds of questions. Please feel free to share with others and respond with your own thoughts by contacting us through our website.

What is love?

“Our world would be so much better off if we could all learn to respond better to those who are hard to love.”

Kyler Shumway, PsyD

The word “love” is the first tricky part of the conversation because what does that even mean?  Is love a feeling?  A choice?  A spiritual connection?  A neurobiologically evolved survival mechanism?  A social construct?  All of the above, or maybe something else entirely? 

Regardless of the answer to what it is, we can ask the question of function – why should we love, or how is it useful.  Love brings us together; whether that’s for companionship, the perpetuation of our species, or cooperation and social progress.  The last of these is most interesting from a functional standpoint because then we can think about “love for the sake of cooperation and social progress” as connecting with empathy and compassion. 

We help those who are suffering or are less fortunate or helpless because we feel what they feel and we want to help make things right, and that’s a form of love.  So there’s this major piece of interconnectedness that I think is embedded in the idea of love and why it is most functionally useful.  I wish I could claim credit for this idea, but Steve Hays and the rest of the ACT theorists talk about language and interpersonal connection as being the crux of our advancement as a species; so, arguably, love is the reason we are no longer living in trees and murdering each other for bananas (… most of the time).

When love is unthinkable…

So then, what does it mean to always need to love, to love unconditionally?

Give companionship and sex to everyone?

Probably not.

But, maybe it means being attuned and responsive to others.  That’s hard when that “other” is a murderer, right?  It’s so hard for us to get into the mind of someone that we so easily outcast as bad or other.  But, what if we can find a way to see past the badness and imagine what it would take, what pain and desperation might be lurking beneath, for someone to act in ways that are horrific and disturbing?

People do desperate things because they are desperate, much like a drowning victim pulling a lifeguard under water just to get a gasp of air. 

 People do desperate things because they are desperate, much like a drowning victim pulling a lifeguard under water just to get a gasp of air.  And sometimes when we react to those “others” with rage and shame, we increase their suffering.

Our world would be so much better off if we could all learn to respond better to those who are hard to love.  I think those responses would be easier if we could tap into our wells of radical compassion.

What is radical compassion?

Radical compassion was an idea coined by philosopher Khen Lampert.  It states that, for good of our society, we must reject our fight-or-flight instincts in order to make a healing choice for another.  This is more than just “turning the other cheek.”  At the root of its meaning, compassion is “to suffer with.”  

Radical compassion, then, is “to suffer with all – even those who make us suffer – and take action to make the world a better place.” 

That doesn’t mean that we set aside justice or let damaging behavior go unaddressed.  Instead, can we address those actions with a heart for healing and a recognition of the intrinsic value of each person?  Can we provide support for going to therapy or getting education and training for someone who has done wrong, rather than placing them in the holding pattern of incarceration?  Could we find better ways to help the abusive partner get the help they need to overcome their illness while also ensuring the safety of those they harm? 

Love is a Choice

Again, I want to underscore that loving those who harm us does not mean ignoring justice or allowing harmful behavior to go unaddressed. But rather, it means choosing to act in ways that are loving, even when you yourself cannot experience love or compassion, for the good of another.

Here’s my challenge for you.

Sometime soon, you are going to be hurt by someone. It’s part of life!  It may be obvious – someone might mistreat you or bully you.  It may be subtle – someone gives you a disgusted look, cuts you off in traffic, or ghosts you on a date.  It might be someone you know.  It might be someone you love.  It might be a total stranger.  Who knows, it might be me (sorry!).  

We are human – which means we will inevitably harm one another, whether we mean to or not.  We can’t always control whether or not we are hurt. However, we can choose how we respond.

Responding with Love in the Face of Hurt

In that moment when you feel hurt by them, I want you to notice the loss of empathy. Notice the instinctual reaction of fear, anger, and aggression.  And then, I want you to do something unnatural.  I want you to see past the badness.  See the person who is struggling, imagine the wounds that led them to lash out in cruelty.

And then, respond with love.

Maybe that means just walking away, instead of striking back.

Maybe that means offering them forgiveness and letting go of any bitterness you feel towards them.  

Or maybe it means reaching out with a compassionate word or an offer to help.  If they are abusive or emotionally unwell, you might not be the right person to help directly, but you could be the perfect person to let someone else know. Sometimes the most loving choice involves making sure they get the care they need to heal.

Most of the time, when you do this, you won’t notice any difference.  And that’s okay.  Maybe you planted a seed of kindness in the other person, or maybe you stopped a seed of cruelty from growing in yourself. 

If nothing else, rest easy knowing that your actions have made the world a better place – even if it’s just a little bit. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to witness the transformational power of choosing love.

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