One of the most difficult things to do as a writer is to rescue a worthwhile idea from a long-time association with kooky people.
Ideas that were once novel eventually become tiresome, then embarrassing, and end up embraced only by people on the fringes of mainstream culture. In 1967, young people could still speak without irony about uninhibited, indiscriminate love for all human beings. John Lennon believed catchy slogans could change the world, and his anthem “All You Need is Love” really resonated—the single went straight to number one and remained there for the rest of the summer.
But the feel-good energy of the love movement soon dissipated. By December 1969, when a gun-wielding concertgoer was stabbed to death by security in front of the Rolling Stones at the Altamont Free Concert, some people were beginning to feel embarrassed by the notion that all you need is love.
Every cultural explosion is naïve to some extent—in order to achieve any momentum, a movement needs to include a lot of supporters who aren’t thinking about it critically. But the ensuing backlash is usually overboard too. The naiveté associated with the movement is what’s remembered, and any valid or unresolved points are forgotten. (See: Kony 2012, Occupy Wall Street.)
Today, “All you need is love” is still a nice thought (and a great song) but it isn’t often seriously represented as a philosophy to live by, at least outside of the population’s remaining Hippie and New Age fringes.
Even though I write about human well-being, I try to stay far from vague concepts like energy centers, cosmic balance and spirit guides, and still write coherently about ideas that are often mentioned alongside them, like oneness, inner peace and the universe being conscious.
Some genuinely useful ideas are at risk of being dismissed because of their popularity among New Age quacks. I spent a fair bit of Making Things Clear reiterating that meditation is not a religious or mystical activity, despite its conflation with Eastern mystics and Western kooks. I’m sure many people have dismissed it solely because of that association.
One of these suspicious-by-association concepts is the idea that love is an effective response to nearly every problem. “All you need is love” is a bit glib, as are all slogans, but I don’t think it’s very far from the truth. Almost any situation can be improved with the clear-minded application of love.
Love is practical
Even now, just typing the word “love” makes me a bit self-conscious. Outside of its use in describing romantic or family relationships, the word often comes off as naïve or sentimental.
But love is a very practical quality. It is useful and productive. Cultivating love in our interactions with others (and with ourselves) can help us cut through the distorting effects of aversion and self-indulgence, freeing us to make better decisions.
Love is all about creating more well-being with your actions. I gave one example of this in “How to Be a Good Stranger“. It’s a nearly-perfect technique for handling grating encounters with strangers, such as when you’re trapped behind a slowly-moving person on a sidewalk. The moment you notice you’re feeling ill will towards a stranger, decide that you will help this person if they need it. Whatever annoyance they’re creating for you, decide that if this person trips and falls, you’ll help them up. If they look lost, you’ll offer directions. If someone harasses them, you’ll step in.
The effect is amazing. You immediately lose interest in whatever ill will you had. Assuming the role of a secret guardian is much more fun and meaningful than the low-brow indulgence of quietly resenting a stranger for how they walk or park their car. This tiny intention to help leaves no room for ill will to accumulate and affect your mood. What would have been one of perhaps several ugly and divisive experiences that day will instead become a moment of genuine goodwill, which will improve your mood and your day. You feel like a better person, and you are.
But there’s an even simpler and more universal way to apply this idea. Whenever you have a dilemma, ask yourself: What is the loving thing to do here?
A co-worker is being really snarky and critical towards you. Your normal response might be to ask him what his fucking problem is, or worse, say nothing, and for the rest of the day imagine telling him off, even while you’re driving home, and again later when you’re trying to sleep.
But when you ask yourself what the loving thing to do is, suddenly you become more aware of his experience, and its relationship to his behavior. Maybe he’s not feeling like his opinion is valued, or he’s irritable from quitting smoking. You could politely ask what’s wrong, or maybe just quietly hope for him that his day gets better.
It works even when nobody else is involved. Imagine it’s a Saturday and you have a list of overdue errands, but you accidentally watched almost the whole first season of Narcos instead. It’s 4pm, the stores are closing soon, and you kind of hate yourself. What should you do?
Most of us would feel quite justified in saying “screw it” at that point, and resume the binge-watch, with the idea that we can get an early start the next day. You would feel a bit of relief at that decision, and also feel kind of bad, but either way, that choice is the end of the “problem-solving” process in this instance.
But if you instead asked yourself, “What’s the loving thing to do here?” it would become quite clear that you would feel far better if you’d just put on some pants and go get one or two things done, even if you feel sluggish right now. There’s simply more to be gained that way—it would improve both your Now and your Later.
Love makes solutions clearer
You might wonder how you know what the loving thing to do is. You won’t always, but once you frame the problem that way, it is surprisingly easy to come up with a productive, low-stress response that makes you (and others) better off.
Dilemmas almost always trigger some sort of fear or aversion, and so that’s the mode of thinking we first bring to our responses. We feel like we have to evade, ignore or destroy the problem. Identifying the loving response starts your problem-solving in a totally different place, putting the well-being of the people involved at the North on your compass, instead of feelings of relief or escape.
Your friend is late meeting up with you? What’s the loving thing to do?
You keep skipping piano practice? What’s the loving thing to do?
Too much suffering in the world? What’s the loving thing to do?
Sometimes the loving thing is going to be challenging or intimidating. It might mean having a difficult conversation instead of avoiding it. It might mean confronting someone about their bad behavior. It might mean apologizing, or deciding to let something go, or staying up late to finish something. But it will almost always create more well-being than an aversion-based response.
There’s nothing cold or unloving about using love for practical things—unless it isn’t really love. It doesn’t work if you’re trying to fake it. If you’re not really concerned about the well-being of the people involved, even if it’s just you, then it’s not love. Comforting yourself with a chocolate cake after missing a workout isn’t self-love, it’s really the opposite.
Do I sound like a kook? Maybe, if you’re really cynical. Love isn’t something to indulge in, it’s a higher mode of operation, which human beings are only now learning how to use. It’s a beautiful, intuition-based capacity that always points us towards well-being. How lucky are we to have that?
But love is also quiet and delicate compared to our more reptilian motivations, so we have to stop and consciously ask ourselves what to do with it. Maybe it isn’t all we need, but if you know you need something and can’t figure out what, love is probably it.