Yesterday an old song that I hadn’t thought of for years popped into my head. It was “Ah sweet mystery of Life” from the 1935 movie, “Naughty Marietta” with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. I remember seeing it as a child but can’t tell you much about it. Here is an excerpt from the song.
Ah sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found thee.
Ah I know at last the secret of it all.
All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning…
For tis love and love alone that can repay
This song was written about two people who were in love but the words could also suggest a more transcendent love. It speaks of yearning, seeking, striving and finding. For much of my life, I yearned and sought for love, mostly outside myself. Now as I approach the end of my life, I hope that I am a little closer to finding the secret of it all. I do find it a mystery – what life is all about and why I am here. But I am pretty sure of one thing and that is the simple truth that love is the most important thing in life. I believe it is why we are here, to learn to love God and all beings, human and non-human.
When I was young, I was very romantic and hoped for a perfect love. Life soon shattered these illusions. I then tried to practice love through service to others in my social work profession and in ministry. This never seemed enough because I think unconsciously I was seeking God’s love through good deeds. I now believe that each one of us is loved deeply and extravagantly by God just for being who we are and not for anything we have done or not done to deserve it. How utterly astounding is that!
Most of us love our family and close friends and this is important, as it teaches us a lot about how to love. But what about loving our enemies as Jesus taught us - those who are different from us, unlovable or even violent. Yesterday I listened to an interview with Father Gregory Boyle, who started Homeboy Industries in L.A., a rehabilitation centre for gang members. These hardened former gang members were offered services such as employment, training, education and tattoo removal. But the most important thing they were offered was love. One recovered gang member recently released from prison put it this way. “All my life I have been watched. But until I came to Homeboy, I was never seen.” These tough guys and girls were cherished, accepted and loved for who they truly were beyond their façade of tattoos and violence. When we see the other and are seen for who we truly are, something beautiful emerges. Sadly it doesn’t happen often enough because our eyes have scales of conditioning that prevent us from seeing the beauty of other beings.
Why do we find it so hard to love our “enemies” or the people who are very different from us? Pogo, Walt Kelly’s funny animal comic strip character, had a surprising answer to this question. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This is a very profound truth. So often we reject in others the things we don’t want to see in ourselves. I have discovered a rather alarming truth and that is that I am more like my mother in ways that I don’t want to be. She had a tendency to be angry, critical and judgmental. Me too. I have been learning to face and accept these unacceptable qualities in myself. If we are to love others, I think we have to start with loving ourselves just the way we are, even the things that are not so nice. Surprisingly, as I accept and love myself including these negative qualities, I find myself feeling more loving toward others and myself.
I am coming to realize that these negative qualities that I don’t like in myself are coming from my own wounded inner child. All of us have been wounded to some degree by life in the form of parents, teachers, other authority figures or our peers. We can heal from these wounds if we learn to love ourselves without conditions. Most spiritual teachers and sages teach that it is not what happens to us that is the problem but what we think about what happens. My experience bears this out. The anger and hurt I feel comes from my inner child and was her armour against what she felt was criticism. Sometimes a good question to ask this little, inner kid is “how can I best love you?” Usually the answer I get is “just love me the way I am.” Through a process of mindfulness meditation and self-inquiry, I have become more aware of what I am telling myself about my experiences. I don’t criticize myself for feeling this way – that would only add another layer of criticism. It is somewhat like cleansing my body from toxins. This process takes persistence because if I don’t stay aware, those unhappy thoughts can return and taint my perception.
This would be an overwhelming task except that we don’t have to do it alone. In fact, we can’t do it alone. I constantly ask for divine guidance on how to handle these difficult feelings – questions such as “why do I feel this way? What can I do about it?” The only thing that makes all of this possible is that our true nature is love. We often forget this and need to remember that we are each an aspect of God and we have our unique part to play in bringing light and love to the world. This may sound naïve since if we look around, there is lots of negativity and anger in the world. Yet if we look past the outward appearance of others, including ourselves, we can see into our true essence which is love. I find it difficult not to react angrily when I meet anger. What helps me is to start with the assumption that most people are doing the best they can, given their life circumstances. We can never really know what another person is dealing with and so how can we possibly judge them? I have learned from these little experiments of mine that love is not just a feeling. It is a choice. I have to keep reminding myself to choose love.
Tis the answer, tis the end of all of living
For tis love alone that rules for aye.
I wonder what it would take for love to rule the world. Perhaps each person practicing love in their own way.