Column: Looking for Unconditional Love in a Time of Fear and Hate

For the Valley News
Thursday, July 05, 2018

Two writers I’ve come to trust, Andrew Sullivan and Michael Pollan, recently made a case for the “overwhelming love” they experience with psychedelic drugs. In “Why We Should Say Yes to Drugs,” a column in a recent issue of New York magazine, Sullivan responds to How to Change Your Mind, a book in which Pollan says this of a psychedelic experience: “The flood tide of compassion overflowed its banks ... a cascading dam break of love ...”

Sullivan describes the same kind of experience this way: “I found myself overwhelmed with the feeling of love for others, for boundless compassion, sometimes almost painful empathy.”

To say I’m skeptical about love and empathy found by ingesting pills is an understatement. We live in a time when widespread opioid addiction has become a crisis that can result when people seek shortcuts to happiness or comfort or peace of mind. There is more than a little desperation and danger in looking for chemically induced love.

Still, Sullivan and Pollan are onto something in a time when much of our political discourse is aimed at inducing fear and hatred.

Maybe they are seeking to understand the most difficult claim Martin Luther King Jr. made for the civil rights movement.

In his 1964 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, King put it this way: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” I confess to having found this claim difficult to comprehend and almost impossible to act upon. But maybe people from widely divergent political backgrounds are finding “unarmed truth and unconditional love” when they oppose our Justice Department’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that separates children from their parents. When Thetford resident Sherry Merrick told a Valley News reporter why people might be interested in a local forum on the implications of our new “zero tolerance” policy, she put it this way: “Anyone that is a parent or an aunt or an uncle knows that you don’t separate young children from their parents.” (“Upper Valley Activists Plan Forums,” June 19.)

Another way of making Merrick’s point might be to say nearly all of us have felt the power of unconditional love.

The political possibilities in this claim are great. Consider all the hope we’ve invested in the students from Parkland, Fla., who have set out to foster gun safety laws. Their empathy grew from a massacre at their school. Now ponder what could result from millions of us imagining the consequences of our government’s decision to divide families as a way of deterring immigration.

We might seek ways of acting on our recognition that our country is doing something deeply inhumane, terribly wrong.

Brutal images have appeared in the media, along with powerful words like “hostages,” to describe children taken from their parents to deter immigration. Both the words and the images suggest a public imagination that sees what our country has been doing to the children of illegal immigrants and feels as shaken by the consequences as if these were our own children. Few people appear to be taking seriously explanations provided by the Trump administration, including the insistence that Democrats are to blame for it all.

Maybe widely felt, unconditional love for these children has begun to call us back to “unarmed truth.”

Just as “zero tolerance” has done damage to many children’s lives that will continue far beyond Trump’s executive order to stop the separation of families, it seems likely the love it inspired will write a new chapter in resistance, growing more bipartisan.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.