We all face times when it seems there is little genuine love in the world. Perhaps we’ve been seeing a lot of depressing things in the news, or perhaps it’s more personal. Maybe it’s been a long time since people close to us have shown any love to us. Maybe it’s a general feeling regarding people we don’t even know, but interact with day to day – people in stores, employees at businesses we patron, neighbors, fellow drivers, etc. Whatever the source or the cause, it can be discouraging when we think of how the world could be – when we think about how we know human beings could be toward one another – and then face striking contrasts to that over time or in a single significant incident.
Responses to this can range from anger to melancholy. We might ‘toughen up’ our outer shell in response; becoming more like the worst we’ve been noticing. Or, we might simply resign ourselves into a quiet depression and withdraw from interactions; looking down as we pass others, being abrupt, and so on.
Here, we’ve found ourselves in a dark corner of the world. There seems to be no love present here. But there is another way to handle times like these.
We might feel we are like batteries, charged by love, and who need to exchange that supply with others. So, in times like these, we feel drained of our charge. We look for, and yearn for, others to come along an recharge us. We wonder how much longer we can hold out.
But this view of human beings and love is a little off base. We are not so much like batteries, which store a charge, than we are like power sources. All goodness and love enters the world through beings that love. If we feel drained and in need of a charge, it may be that we have forgotten a power that we possess. Or, maybe we knew we had this power, but we are thinking that our ability to love isn’t the issue because that would be an outgoing commodity instead of an incoming one. But this too is forgetting the nature of love and of loving.
I would recommend that, whenever we feel we are in a dark place, that we consider this a sign that we’ve been tagged by the cosmos – we’re “it”. Or, if you prefer, we are up to bat. When it seems we have entered a time or place without love or compassion, this means it is our turn to be the source of love for that time and place. I think we would find the results well worth it.
The trick is to make sure that it’s real love. Real love is selfless and not based on reciprocity. If we take on only the first part of this, and go out doing a bunch of nice things for people, we might end up worse than we were after seeing them fail to appreciate our actions or return the love. Some people get the idea that the reason we love when we need love is because others will return it (or be more likely to) and we will therefore benefit. When this doesn’t happen, they imagine their efforts to get a ‘love exchange’ going have failed, and more sadness and feelings of futility ensue. Even in cases where love is returned, this is only an exchange of diminishing returns, and inherently unstable as a source of happiness in the long-term.
The truth is that love and compassion doesn’t work that way. Rather, it is the giving of compassion itself which can be the source of our happiness, if we can recognize it and appreciate it as such. As an example, consider making a small animal in a cage happy with food, who may not realize you as its source. Or, consider an ideal mother who is made happier by caring for an infant who, by nature, cannot yet fully appreciate her actions. She doesn’t have to wait several years to get a return on her investment. She is happier because she truly loves the infant. Likewise, we can cultivate a true, selfless love for others, and not see them as a resource – a place from which to get love – but an opportunity to practice a love of our own. When we are able to cultivate that kind of empathy and compassion, then in our efforts to gain happiness from giving love we cannot fail. We have been made happier through our acts alone – they are not dependent upon the responses of the object of our love.
As just one example, Dr. Emma Seppala has written an article in Psychology Today: “The Best Kept Secret to Happiness: Compassion”. There she provides several research projects which have shown how acts of compassion stimulate the same pleasure centers as when we are the recipients, and the happiness can even be greater. She also describes a host of other benefits beyond mere happiness.
So, when things seem darkest, remember that you can be a source of love. This, in fact, is how humanity can illuminate all the dark corners – by each of us acting as the light when no others are. Every day is another opportunity to be compassionate when least expected!
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.