Some sixteen years ago, just after my mother died, I wrote the following phrase in a notebook: “The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is fear.”
I was pretty messed up at the time, but I’ve often come back to that phrase since. It’s stuck with me as somehow important, though I’ve always struggled to say exactly why.
If you think in dictionary definitions, it isn’t true: the opposite of love really is hate. But in actual life, hate often functions more as a perversion of love than as its opposite. Hate somehow seems less fundamental–more like a love cell turned cancerous (and hence horrible) than like something with its own independent definition and dignity.
Anyway, this difference isn’t the one I had in mind when I wrote that quote. At the time, I was thinking less about a particular emotional state than about the different stances we can take toward the world, the different attitudes through which we can greet it. In particular, I was thinking about how my mom always tried to set aside her fears and approach the world with love.
To give just one example: I remember going with mom at Christmas time to sing carols at a nursing home in our neighborhood. We went with a group of maybe 20 people from our church, and I was roughly 10 at the time–just a few years older than I was in the crazy picture of us above. Mom was the church pianist and a good singer, so she helped to lead the caroling. But more important and impressive than her musicality, at least to me, was her fearlessness inside the nursing home.
If you’ve ever been in the worser wards of a hospital, you know what the place was like. It stank of chemical disinfectants, and the fluorescent lights in the hallway carried hints of pale blue that made everyone’s skin look grey. It was whitewashed and tiled and felt utterly barren and hollow, even though it was home to hundreds of people.
And, much as I hate to admit it now, those people were the scariest thing of all to a 10-year-old boy. Many couldn’t stand, much less walk. They had breathing tubes in their noses and sore spots on their skin. Worse, several were completely unresponsive: they just stared blankly ahead, as if barely holding on to the last shreds of life.
But mom was completely unfazed by all that. While the rest of us strolled down the halls, struggling to sing in key and keep moving–and while I steered safely to the center of the pack of carolers–mom walked right up to those scary-seeming people. She even went into their rooms if necessary. And she looked them in the eyes and sang to them and spoke with them and smiled and even held their hands or hugged them. You could see how much that meant in their faces–the ones that could still react at least.
It wasn’t that mom was angelic in those moments, though it’s somehow tempting to say that now. I had no sense of her being otherwordly. It’s really that she was bold enough, fully human enough, to offer up love in a place that was suffused with the idea of dying. She didn’t let fear–or the sickening smell of disinfectant–stop her from being open to others, from greeting them with love. In fact, she looked at them with eyes that didn’t find them scary at all.
It was a fundamental virtue she had that I’m still trying to cultivate–that ability and willingness to always look to find the best in people.
It’s obviously a source of tremendous power. After all, we each greet the world at every moment with a variety of emotional feelers out–with expectations and assumptions that affect our whole experience. When we greet the world with fear, we’re predisposed to shrink away, toward the seemingly safe middle of the pack. And from there we tend to see the world as filled with frightening things. But when we greet the world with love, we light up people’s faces. We connect. We deny decay and pain and all the ugly things that otherwise tear us down. And we might just inspire the children watching us to be a little braver.
I suspect that’s one way to make the world a better place. I’m certain it’s a better way to greet it.