Friday, March 23, 2012

What Love Does

There's an awful lot in our world telling us what can't happen, what isn't possible--feeding us an endless progression of stats, probability, facts, past occurrences. And we tend to bank our lives on these numbers. These narratives. We give a heck of a lot of credence to what's been done, in other words.

And we often make a throne to disbelief. Consider: to discredit something, to critique something, to interrogate a text or a person or a dream or an idea--all these are afforded high regard. Respect.

When James Meredith attended the University of Mississippi as the school's first black student--enduring relentless attacks both verbal and physical--there was no fallback. There was no past occurrence of this event. No stats other than this one: zero percent of the university was black.

When Dave Eggers wrote his heartwrenchingly beautiful A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, there was no example of a literary work that came before like it: a memoir that read like a novel which was searingly honest, ironic, and postmodern.

When Anita Hill demanded the right to defend her own dignity against male oppression and power, there was little evidence of this kind of speaking truth to power. Few statistics that would tell her it was okay to speak so openly, so boldly against that ever-present and deeply forceful institution of power the world over: patriarchy.

The thing about love is this: it doesn't bank on stats. Love doesn't calculate cost-effectiveness or probability of success or even cultural laws and norms. In the words of Lewis Smedes in his powerful book Love Within Limits: "Love shatters disbelief."

As a young man, I felt the constant pressure that a lot of young men feel: to be tough, to hide emotional truth, to pretend. When I became an (older) man, teaching high school and middle school students, I saw the very same tendency in the young men I taught: towards a fake stance of power rather than an acceptance of who they really are. Jackson Katz documents the horrifying cultural norm of violent masculinity, patriarchal power in his documentary Tough Guise.

And for young women, Jean Kilbourne has movingly documented the absurd pressures women must face every second in her Killing Us Softly documentaries.

In a sense, we're trained from a young age to disbelieve: to disbelieve ourselves, to disbelieve the possibilities for different paths, different ways of being and living and working and growing. Instead, fear pressures us into a very narrow life-journey--fear that's abusively proffered by people like Rush Limbaugh. In his recent attacks on women (and, his historical attacks on women, which have been ongoing for decades), he urges people to disbelieve: don't think men can change; don't think the world can change; don;t think there are other narratives to tell, other ways to live.

The beauty of novels by remarkable writers like Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Gary D. Schmidt, Neesha Meminger, Harper Lee, A.S. King, and so many other fabulous writers is this: they're telling stories about other possibilities. They're sharing the narratives of the lives we know are possible--the belief that we long to embody in ourselves--and they're doing it in the face of a culture that pressures the status quo relentlessly.

There is little more beautiful in life than watching someone love or be loved. And one way love happens, I think, is when we come across a narrative that echoes something in our soul. It might be something we sensed as kids, but which got buried by pressures to act certain ways as males or females, as members of a certain culture or race or religion. It got buried by people who peddle fear, knowing that the marketplace looks so favorably on that wizard of oz.

But love shatters disbelief. And one place love emerges for us is in the imaginative narratives that haven't historically happened yet--but might. Love leaps off pages of novels where we find characters taking the chances we long to take, rejecting the norms we long to reject, and becoming the people we long to become.

When I first met Atticus Finch a decade ago, his journey leapt like that for me. It showed me a different way to be a man. Not by trying to attain patriarchal power, but by following the cause of justice in the world. Not by violence, but by defending the rights of the marginalized and the silenced. Not by bravado but by inner strength of conviction.

Not by disbelief, but by faith. Because the work of love, if it does anything, shatters disbelief.