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Love in a time of hate

My friend Rupert lives in Cape Town, South Africa. On a recent Zoom call he reported that he was witnessing intensification in hate, greater even than when he lived through the apartheid era. “It goes in all directions,” he said.

We witness this in our country too. Cops killing Black men, Black Lives Matter protests turning violent, and a steady stream of rancor and vicious name calling by our politicians.

What we have, on all fronts, is a crisis of leadership. Leaders are supposed to lead, to provide an inspired example for others, to meet problems with solutions, not just blaming others. And leaders embody a special ability to suspend their own opinions in order to create a safe space for others to voice theirs, and then engage together in collaborative efforts that improve quality of life for everyone. Sounds like a lost dream in 2020, doesn’t it?

So, why do we hate? And how is hate different from anger? Researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel recently wrote in the Sage Journals online that “an anger target is appraised as someone whose behavior can be influenced and changed. A hate target, on the contrary, implies appraisals of the other’s malevolent nature and malicious intent. In other words, hate is characterized by appraisals that imply a stable perception of a person or group and thus the incapability to change the extremely negative characteristics attributed to the target of hate.”

They went on to further clarify that while we may get angry because of the actions of others, “if that very same person changed their behavior, the levels of anger would be reduced and the person would be forgiven. However, the entire configuration of hatred appraisals focuses on the innate nature, motives and characteristics of the target itself and therefore a momentary change in certain behavioral patterns will not necessarily diminish levels of hatred.”

We see this phenomenon on display in the almost universal political polarization today. A “conservative” hates a “liberal,” not for what they do but for who they are. And a “liberal” can’t find anything positive about a “conservative.” Why? Because it isn’t about behavior, it’s about judgment, labeling and, ultimately, a denial of basic humanity. This “other” is fundamentally wrong, forever flawed no matter how they might change, and they don’t deserve my love. Therefore, I will hate “them” and that will not change. Period.

Is there anything that could shift this grim deadlock? Change is hard, and big change can be overwhelmingly difficult. But change begins with making a new choice and taking a first small step. In my counseling work, I notice how paralyzed many people feel about changes they want to make but can’t. Overcoming inertia, breaking deeply entrenched habits, is the biggest challenge. But there’s no way around it. That first step may be the hardest, but unless we take it, nothing will change.

Here’s a first step I propose: respond to hate with love. In the moment, reading the news, hearing something troubling, watching another hateful attack on TV, notice what rises up in yourself and, instead of passively entertaining those thoughts and feelings, consciously focus on an attitude of understanding. Ironically, this usually involves acknowledging that we don’t understand the whole situation, that our judgment is based on limited information. So, we might downgrade our hate to anger and then release it, because we choose to provide what’s missing.

This kind of leadership is woefully lacking in the world today. But it’s always just one simple choice away. Learning to pause, interrupting our knee-jerk emotional reactions, and choosing to provide what’s missing, why not learn how to do that?

Love in a time of hate this could be the medicine that heals our lives.

Will Wilkinson is the author of a dozen books including “Now or Never, A Quantum Guide for Spiritual Activists.” Email 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Sally McKirgan at innerpeaceforyou@outlook.com. McKirgan will be on vacation in September, so Inner Peace will be return in October.