In teaching both my World Politics course and an honors course on “Children and War” I co-teach with an Early Childhood Education professor, I use the book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning by Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning former New York Times war reporter, who has witnessed some of the worst conflicts of the late 20th century. The book is an attempt to show the reality of war — to tear away the mythology of nationalism and the abstractions of honor, glory and service, and look at the human suffering war causes. 80% of casualties in modern war are civilians, many of them children. There are also families broken apart, children who grow up in war zones, and the impact that has on a culture. Even Americans families far from the battlefield suffer. Besides the cases where people lose a father, mother, brother or sister, families are torn apart by multiple deployments, soldiers returning with PTSD, and stresses and traumas that often tear apart marriages and cripple family life. Yet those things are rarely talked about.
Today, though, I want to think less about that entire argument than the closing quote in the book, where Hedges writes:
“To survive as a human being is only possible through love. And, when Thanatos is ascendant, the instinct must be to reach out to those we love, to see in them all the divinity, pity, and pathos of the human. And to recognize love in the lives of others – even those with whom we are in conflict – love that is like our own. It does not mean we will avoid war or death. It does not mean that we as distinct individuals will survive. But love, in its mystery, has its own power. It alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has the power to resist in our nature what we know we must resist, and to affirm what we know we must affirm. And love, as the poets remind us, is eternal.” – Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Basic Books, 2002.
I’ve found that quote an amazing way to end a book on war, especially one that takes us through the hell of some of the worst of the Balkan, Palestinian, Iraqi, and Central American wars. Hedges is neither naive nor soft, he has seen hell, and his book is an honest reflection on both what he observed and how he dealt with it. Yet at the end there is only one answer: Love.
Love is not respected in modern academic discourse. It is mushy, soft, and emotional. We look for objective observations, hypotheses that can be tested, and rational arguments. Love, if it means anything, is a psychological state responding to various stimuli. Yet that misses something.
Life has to have meaning in order to be enjoyed. We need to believe there is a purpose for this existence, otherwise we wander aimlessly, wondering what we can and how we should live. People thus find it easy to get caught up into movements that provide a rush of excitement. Cheering on the Red Sox to the pennant, fighting to elect Barack Obama, getting into the drama of who will be the next American Idol — all these are attempts to fill our lives with, if not meaning, at least something to distract us from the lack of meaning.
If Hedges is right, all these other attempts to give meaning to life, including the drama of nationalism, war, and conflict (which he compares to an addiction, one he himself succumbed to), are at best ways to fill time and hide lack of true meaning from oneself. Even romance, often called love, gets elevated in ones’ mind to fill that lack of meaning, though romantic excitement is at best the first phase of a truly loving relationship.
Hedges’ quote, however, suggests love as something much more than romance, or even a long term loving relationship. Love is, at base, the recognition that the other is not unlike the self. It is to recognize in others the same emotions, drives, weaknesses and strengths that the self has. To realize that others are just as human and just as valuable as oneself. Why would that give one meaning?
First, think of what this entails. If one is to be able to love others in this way, one must love oneself. Without self-love, other-love is impossible, and thus love loses its capacity to give meaning. By self-love, I don’t mean narcissism. Rather I mean self-trust and the ability to forgive. Self-trust is that capacity to look ones’ own weaknesses, be honest about them. Often people get so torn apart by guilt that they avoid honest self-reflection. Instead they blame others for their problems or refuse to think deeply about why they do what they do. This makes it impossible to change, it leads people to protect and defend that which they should be trying to alter. To know what drives ones’ life, one must be completely honest with oneself. The ability to engage in non-judgmental and constructive self-criticism allows growth, forgiveness, and fosters the ability to truly love others.
Once one loves oneself, then we see others as like ourselves, and can relate to them. When they do something mean spirited or careless, rather than think, “what a jerk,” we can respond as we would when we do something mean spirited or careless. When we do something cruel or ignorant but are not yet capable of self-criticism, we make excuses and blame — we blame the situation or others to excuse our actions. Psychologists call this the attribution error. That tends to always work biased towards oneself and against others. This isn’t usually conscious either — we actually believe that others are causing our negative moods or actions.
If we respond as self-critical humans we knowingly recognize that the negative behavior of others is something we engage in ourselves, and we recognize the factors that make us prone to that: Stress, being tired, misunderstanding, getting defensive, or simply having a moment of extreme weakness. I am convinced that if conditions were right, we all could find ourselves engaged in actions which would horrify us otherwise.
We can then understand the person who earlier would piss us off, and can not only avoid lashing back and starting a spiral of anger and emnity, but can instead respond positively and may even be able to help.
To me that’s the essence of love. The other is a part of the self. I should try to understand rather than just to judge, whether it is myself or someone else. To look at another with all the caring and understanding I have when I examine myself — constructively critical, but also understanding. If we could do that, think of how our relationships with friends and rivals would change. Think of our own experience of everyday life could change. Think of the world we could create!
OK, I think I’m in the mood to listen to some Todd Rundgren now…