Variations on the obligation to love one’s neighbor show up across both the religious and secular spectrum. They tend to provoke a range of responses – from those who attempt to sort out what loving people who are not part of your immediate tribe would mean, to those who reject the necessity. This is not an easy idea – and even if you can sort out what it means to love people who you may not know well, or like much, or even trust, or know how to get to knowing, liking and trusting – it is a damned hard thing to put into practice. I want to talk a bit more about why even use the word love, or why we might want do the hard work of finding a way to love others.
Because rather than talking about “working” with your neighbors or “getting along” or “building community” – all languages I use at times, I did want to talk about the problem of actually loving them, despite the difficulties that the word “love” evokes. I think it is the correct word, in fact. Instead of thinking of “love” as a particular feeling you have to evoke, we think of it as a larger structure for our relationships, an economy if you will, in the, literal sense of the world, a way of organizing our world.
The danger, of course, of speaking about love is that it evokes a range of things – religious beliefs, romantic and familial feelings, and occasionally a certain dippy, intellectually vacant inspecificity, the idea that our relationships will all be productive if we do group hugs and sing in a circle regularly. But in fact, I’d make the case for a language and world of love that is as rigorous as any mathematics, as formally structured as any economy.
That is, it is not loving people to express things lovingly all the time. It is not loving one another simply to articulate your common ground, or to allow everyone to “express” their differences, being universally supportive, or falling backwards off a chair. Love is needing each other – not in easy or cheap ways, but really, truly needing one another. It does not require that you share beliefs, or even like each other – all of us can call examples from our biological families that support this fact.
In this, love is not a feeling, or a particular social practice. It is the replacement, at least when possible, of a world that thinks in terms of maximization of personal profit and extraction with one that maximizes interdependence and the well-being of the group, not just the individual. And it requires that we risk depending on one another – that we give up the personal washing machine, and trust that our neighbors will share. That we trust that our children will care for us when we grow old, and they trust that we will help them as they get started. It requires, that is, that we extend outside of our most intimate world our need – and allow others to fulfill it, knowing that things may never come up truly even.
I think it may be that the most frightening thing about the loss of our fossil energies is that we will again be thrown back upon our own resources – and if we think of our personal lives as having to replace each and every watt and gallon, we know we can never make it happen. So “our own” has to expand into a larger community. We have to be able to risk that to survive. And that risk is ugly and frightening if we think that all it is is a risk – but it changes when we begin to think about that vulnerability as both creating the conditions to be loved, but also, creating and increasing the capacity to love.
I think a lot of people find the notion of being dependent upon others frightening, and not without reason. Other people are, after all, much less reliable and far more complicated than lawn mowers, dishwashers and private cars. And when, as often happens, the balance of what they do for me shifts, and I’ve done less and they’ve done more, I’m grateful, but uncomfortable with the necessity of gratitude at times. Risking owing someone more than you can pay is frightening. Indebtedness is difficult. No one wants to be the one who owes more, and most of us are on some level afraid of being taken advantage of as well. But more than being owed, I think we’re afraid of owing.
We have this notion that all debts must be paid, when in fact, the only way all debts can be paid is if you live wholly and purely in a money economy, and never at all in the economy of love. We probably cannot love one another if we are too afraid to share. And we cannot go forward by replacing in each private home, a full set of low energy, private infrastructure. As Auden put it, the stakes are simply these – we must love one another or die.
And in fact, the economy of human love is what we’re moving towards as we give up our electric tools and our reliance on the grocery stores and replace them with reliance on our neighbors, our families (biological or chosen) and our communities – that is the basic nature of community, or family – an unbalanced, imperfect, inadequate set of exchanges. Barter, and sharing and community are, as people often point out, far less efficient than money. That lack of efficiency is entirely the point.
Money allows you to figure out what things are “worth” – with barter or simple sharing, there are things that can never be quite worked out. Is that firewood equivalent to 20 dozen eggs and a bushel of plums? Was it really enough for me to babysit in exchange for the help getting the gutters cleaned out? Should I make some cookies too? What is the correct repayment to some for loving your child, or helping care for your elderly parents, or for chasing the local pest dog across an icy field to rescue your chicken, or pulling your car out of that ditch, other than someday doing it for them, or for someone else in need?
Things never come out evenly. You always have to be grateful, and thus, dependent. If we give up all the things that have stood as barriers between ourselves and the people we need, that have enabled us never to be dependent, we’re never again going to be square. The only hope is that the person you are working with or bartering with or sharing with is secretly afraid that she/he hasn’t done his fair share either.
But then again, that’s what love is, isn’t it? I’ve never met anyone who loved someone, or was truly loved by someone else who didn’t secretly think that their spouse (or parents, or child or friend) was crazy to love them, that if they could really see all the way through, they’d realize how inequitable things are, and how little they deserve that love. So you end up just being grateful, feeling damned lucky that this time, you got more than you ever deserved. That some miracle, or gift appeared to you, and someone loves you.
Now we may never feel love for the guy down the street who leaves his motor running all morning in the same way we love our partners or children or parents. But we can have with him and with most people (not all, but most) those same moments of feeling we haven’t done enough to deserve the help we get, the trust we can have in him when he drops off the kids at school or helps you fix the roof. You don’t have to even like him to feel that moment of certainty – that you have gotten better and more than you truly deserve. And then you find a way to return that feeling, to make him say “Well, they are weird, but we’re lucky to have them.”
That is the love economy – the sense that you can never quite be even, that you never get only what you deserve or what you earned. It is hard to articulate what it is that you do get – that along with the eggs or the hands or the shoulder to cry on, came something that most of us know now only through lovers, children, parents, G-d, if that’s your sort of thing. I think the easiest, although religiously laden word for it is “Grace.”
My claim is not that the money economy is going away, not that we will all have the energies to live entirely in the world of love every moment, that every exercise in dependency and community will be a success. It is simply this – we will learn to love each other, or we will face a much harder and darker world. And our success in that world will almost certainly depend on the space we can find for an economy of love in the economy of money, and a culture of love in the culture of distance.
Sometimes all you and your neighbors will have is is “I’ve got honey, will you give me carrots?” And sometimes all neighbors are are someone you can ask to help pound the fence pole in. And sometimes all friends are is the person you sit down at the table with you and laugh. But the day you start to trust that your neighbor will remember that you need some carrots, and the day that your neighbors step away from their own work, no matter how urgent, because keeping you secure and your sheep in is more important than their work, and the day that the friend sits at your table, and shares the fruits of her garden and you the fruits of yours, and you eat and you eat and you eat and you are full together of what you share, you have achieved not just community, but grace, and an economy of love.