Two different conversations on-topic with this coming weekend’s conference* converged on this morning’s readings. The questions posed, both within the context of our nation’s fractured political discourse, are:
- How do I love this group of people I find so utterly repulsive?
- How do I dialogue with people who have no common basis for deciding what is real and what matters?
There is an answer for this, which is illustrated in today’s Gospel. However, caveat, Jesus-level intensities of love and forgiveness don’t come easily. So don’t take this as a facile “If you would just . . .!” Knowing what to do is very different from remembering and succeeding in pulling it off.
13 Once again he went out along the sea. All the crowd came to him and he taught them. 14 As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. 15 While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners sat with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. 16 Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors and said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 Jesus heard this and said to them, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
So here’s the weird trick, and to understand it, read the story in flipped order. The Pharisees ask a question just like the two questions above: Why is the Lord eating with them. With those people. That kind. People from that group.
And here it is important to read “sinners and tax collectors” as “my political or cultural opposites, the people who are very, dangerously, complicit-with-evil wrong in what they believe and how they impact my nation.”
We’re used to ganging up against the Pharisees, but understand that they have legitimate reasons to be concerned about the behavior of tax collectors, who are collaborating with the very cruel, heavy-handed occupying force. This is something that Zacchaeus, another tax collector, affirms, when he promises to make restitution for his past sins against his fellow citizens. Zacchaeus recognizes that his fortune has been made by hurting others. The Pharisees are questioning why Jesus is dining with that kind of person.
But, here’s the clincher: Jesus doesn’t dine with those people. He has an encounter with one person. That’s Levi (Matthew) in today’s reading; Zacchaeus stars in another round of dining with those people. He identifies and calls that one person. The other people who show for dinner are, in turn, specific friends of that person, not generic ne’er-do-wells rounded up via casting-call.
This is the way that Jesus loves, one soul at a time. He doesn’t walk the dusty roads searching for generic political enemies, he identifies specific human souls, by name, who are longing for Him and may or may not even realize it.
So how does that apply to our one weird trick?
Implications of Love and Dialog
To love is to will the good of the other. To dialog is to be in conversation with the other. Now we can speak in a general way of loving or communicating with a group of people, but in fact these collective actions only happen because of a summing-up of individual loves or individual conversations.
When I say “I love my family” those words are only true if I love each member of my family — spouse, children, siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, in-laws, and so forth — individually. (I do, btw, in case any were wondering. Y’all are pretty darn easy to love.)
Likewise, I’d be lying if I said, “I love my students” but actually I didn’t love that kid in the back, or the one who is always late, or the one who just transferred. Either you love them all, each individually, or you don’t love them, you love some of them.
Maybe, for that matter, you love the concept of “family” or “students”, but you don’t actually love the people. In that case, you don’t love your family, don’t love your class, don’t love the persons, you love an idea.
It is the same way with dialog. Here I am blogging, and this post will be read by many, many people (that’s the goal, anyway). I will likely never know, barring some revelation in the afterlife, who all the people who read this even were.
And yet, I’m not in conversation with a generic lump called “readers”. I’m in conversation with individuals. There isn’t a collective readership-mind that digests my posts and disseminates ideas in the mist. There are individual persons who read what I say, think about what I say, and react to what I say.
This encounter is so personal that even among people who generally have the same reaction (good or bad), there will be differences in how exactly the piece touched them and what reactions it sparked.
So to ask, “How do I love them?” or “How do I dialog with them?” is to ask an impossibility and a non-question. With love or with conversation, there is no them. The are only many, many different, unique, individual persons.
Practicing the Weird Trick
This one-vs.-many thing probably sounds like semantics. Maybe pie-in-the-sky happy-talk. But it’s not. It’s your very practical first step in learning to love and to converse with wrongheaded people who drive you bonkers on a good day, and do much worse the rest of the time.
The thing is that you don’t have to love groups of people. You’ll fail if you even try it, because, recap, it’s a non-act. It’s worse than a fiction, it’s a lie.
What you do is love this one right here. So that may require you to do some searching, if you live surrounded by like-minded peers. But probably you don’t. Probably you have a relative or a colleague who is so, so, so amazingly wrong about so many very serious issues, and honestly you can’t stand that person.
So that’s a great place to start. But maybe don’t start by trying to understand their politics. Start by learning more about other things they love. Pets? Hobbies? Best friends? Favorite colors?
You probably have some prejudices that you need to sidestep. (This is a big one for teachers, learning to disregard all the legacy aversions to the perennial cliques that plague school life — you grew up rejected by the nerds or the athletes or the cheerleaders or the drama crowd, and now you have to love their next generation?) If you hate sports, don’t start with learning all about your colleague’s fantasy football team. Start with something you can understand and accept.
Try to search out something, anything, you have in common with this person. Sometimes the two of you are so different that you must resort to first principles: He hates summer and I hate winter, but hey, we have the commonality of both of us having strong feelings about our off-season.
Work work work this.
Next, open your mind to understanding something that is weird to you, but doesn’t offend you. One time I finally broke down and asked someone, after about ten minutes of polite smile-and-nod listening to a vacation tale, what on earth was the appeal of catch-and-release fishing? I mean, seriously, why are we doing this? What is the point??
(I don’t object to fishing, so the mystery was: Why are we throwing back all that yummy dinner??)
The answer was beautiful. Astonishing. Perspective-changing.
So level-up, when you’re ready, to low-stakes practice understanding a radically different, but non-threatening, point of view from this other person who is difficult for you to love.
Meanwhile, begin contemplating this person’s virtues. Some of those virtues will be easy for you to acknowledge. He can’t argue his way out of a paper bag, but he sure does show patience with his neighbor’s dog barking by his bedroom window all night long.
Others virtues will require some holding of your nose while you look for gems in the muck. She is the most stubborn, pigheaded, obnoxious person I’ve ever met, but at least you have to give her credit for perseverance.
Finally, next level, begin exploring how this person came to be in his or her situation. What was his childhood like? How did her parents treat her? Who had the most influence on him? How did she end up spending so much time with that group? Find out about sources of suffering, and also sources of affirmation in this person’s life.
(Do this by listening to freely-told stories of the person’s life, not by being some nosy pseudo-psychiatrist. Sheesh.)
It would be erroneously facile to say that “to understand is to forgive,” but understanding does help build at least a little bit of compassion. The person might be painfully, horribly, repulsively wrong . . . but at least you have a glimpse of how they got that way?
Conversation is Different from Arguing
These beginner steps on learning to love a wrongheaded person are the same steps to conversation with someone whose worldview is radically incompatible with your own.
It is true that you cannot hold an argument with someone who cannot agree on basic facts or basic concepts of logic. But it is not necessary to have an argument (pleasurable though it is when you can get one).
Indeed, even if the person is well-disposed to listening courteously, your logical explanations will not yet have meaning. I can speak from experience here, having been on the receiving end, as a young adult, of perfectly rational arguments I would not understand for another decade, because as much as I wanted to make sense of my friend’s explanations of his Christian faith, my mind wasn’t there yet.
Rather, what you start with is conversation. Your goal is to understand the other person, and find ways of relating that are meaningful to him or her. Through what is usually a long, slow process, you can hope to eventually reach a breakthrough moment, when the two of you suddenly understand one another — probably not in every way, but at least in some ways.
You keep working from there.
It is hard. It takes effort and patience.
Pro-tip: Basically everyone longs to know they are loved by God. Not to hear someone parrot the words, but to know it. So if you make it your goal to help the other person know this — not hear it, but experience it profoundly, viscerally, unshakably — that’s probably gonna help.
Another pro-tip: You might be struggling with that suggestion because you yourself don’t really know that you are loved by God. Well, you are, but my saying so won’t necessarily cause you to believe it. Don’t give up on yourself. Give it time.
Anyhow, conversation is a subset of love, and love is the act of willing the good of the other. Neither you nor the other may really know what’s good for you, let alone want it. But do what you can to grapple your shared way towards uncovering real, enduring, genuine goods in your lives together.
The question many people of goodwill are asking right now is, “How do I love that group of awful, horrible, no-good, rotten, very-bad hating hateful haters who are out to destroy my country?” You know, via your Christian faith or via your inherently human common sense, that you should love other people. But you look at these putrid rabble-rousers and you just can’t see your way.
It’s a bit like asking: How do I climb Everest?
Don’t try to climb Everest. What the heck do you need to go up there for?**
Try to love one person. One real person you know in real life, a person you can spend time with, but not too much time with. Pick a Trump-voter or a Biden-voter who is, though obviously out to destroy all you hold dear, otherwise pretty easy to love.
Pick someone who is friendly, kind, has interesting hobbies, but also happens to hold dangerously wrong-headed political views.
Perhaps you’ll discover an aptitude for love, and be able to move on to loving a second such person, and then a third, and then a fourth. Maybe it will take you many years to love even one single person, no matter how good a companion otherwise, whose politics are wrong.
Whatever your speed, don’t push yourself beyond your abilities.
What would you give to save your own soul?
Loving enemies, even junior-varsity enemies with comparatively moderate faults and winsome virtues, is not easy work. If the enemies are family members or colleagues, you may need to seek counsel on healthy ways to set boundaries so you aren’t overwhelmed.
But remember that many relationships are optional. You don’t have to immerse yourself in the conversation of that brazen YouTube demagogue, nor the simpering of his brainwashed devotees. You can turn off CNN. You can pare down your social media presence, or cut the cord altogether.
Amy Welborn has begun an excellent series of reflections on the place social media holds in our lives, and why backing away quickly may be the more excellent way. Read the first, second, and third installments and give them a fair hearing.
I say this as the person who gets paid for your page views. Your soul is worth more than my paycheck. Ask yourself: Am I wrong?
Is it so vitally important that you spend time immersing yourself in the company of people who inflame your anger that it would be better to stew in ever-festering bitterness than change the way you live?
If you don’t love yourself enough to take care of your own tranquility, you’re not going to get far with loving other people either.
I didn’t say I was good at it.
It is hard to do what is good for you. It is hard to fight the temptation to gratify natural impulses. Personally? I am much, much better at being angry than I am at being longsuffering and loving towards people who aggravate me. Come on, I’m a writer. I am a professional at making the words zing. I am very, very good at stirring up wrath.
There’s temporary satisfaction in venting spleen. It feels good to find just the right words to capture how absolutely abominable someone else’s behavior is. And yet, weirdly, none of the beatitudes run blessed are they who eviscerate their enemies and leave them bleeding by the roadside, metaphorically of course.
So I’m with you on the struggle. I dislike that writing this darn article has caused me to recognize certain relationships where I had settled into self-satisfied anger rather than continuing to do the work of loving the other person.
But also? It feels way, way better when you remember you do have skills, however beginner, and you can use them, and you can feel love for this person who was, until maybe even moments earlier, someone you let wreck your peace of mind.
So I can attest that these weird tricks are worth trying.
Photo: Tonight’s dessert before it went into the oven. Consists of a lot of a bad apples, one good one, and a desiccated tangerine. Butter pan, dice fruit, top with cinnamon, cover, 30 minutes @ 350, fantastic. The reason it doesn’t taste horrible is because you slice off all the bad parts, and also give the cores to the rabbit, of course. (FYI – that’s light reflecting on the pared-off bits of bad-apple on the counter, not mold. C’mon. I’m not that bad a cook.)
*Please see the note about registrations. Please e-mail the agooddiscourse at gmail address for assistance if you appear to be caught in the vortex.
**If you’re currently on the Everest of Enemies Demanding My Love, please don’t ask yourself, “How do I build a cabin up here?” It’s Everest. Ask yourself: “How do I descend as safely and quickly as possible, so I can get someplace with more oxygen and not so much hypothermia and frostbite?” And again, that’s a relationship-downclimb that will likely require expert guidance.
Related: Approximately twelve of the chapters in the How-to Book of Evangelization address these two questions within the context of the practical how-to’s of parish evangelization, and the other chapters deal with these topics more obliquely. So if you need a resource for applying today’s blog-talk in your life as an ordinary Catholic who wants to evangelize, it’s okay to read a cheerful, encouraging book for Lent this year. If you could use a bit of that.