“Love and say it with your life.”
–Augustine of Hippo
Saturday afternoon found me driving through some of the most rural parts of Iowa. You’ll know you’ve arrived where I was going when you’re almost to South Dakota and not quite in Minnesota.
Early in the drive, I talked on the phone (using the bluetooth feature in my car, in case you were worried about my safety). But there’s virtually no cell service west of Waterloo, so my preferred recourse for entertainment was Iowa Public Radio. A podcast called Snap Judgment began airing, and I found myself transported to Joplin, Missouri, May 22, 2011 – the day an EF-5 multiple vortex tornado tore the town apart.
Like me, you may recall news stories about a group of people who survived the storm huddled together in a gas station beer cooler. All told, 24 people survived in that small space, while everything around them was destroyed. People sheltered in beer coolers in other gas stations and didn’t survive. But for some reason, these folks did.
The podcast revisited that day, talking to several individuals who had been present. I listened to a mix of their reminiscences and audio taken at the time of the tornado. One young man spoke of getting to the gas station with his best friend, moments before the tornado hit, and pounding on the locked doors to be let in. He told about lying in the dark cooler as the storm raged outside, fearing for his life. Into that chaos, his buddy whispered “Hey man, I love you.”
That’s when they cut back to the audio recorded that day in the beer cooler. You hear a youthful male voice say, “I love you. I love all you all.” He’s answered by other voices, calling out to the strangers sheltering beside them in the dark, in the storm: “I love you.”
Listening, alone in my car and hurtling down the highway with nothing in my sights but blue sky and green, green cornfields, I felt goosebumps break out on my arms. Tears came easily to my eyes, rolling down my cheeks unchecked. Love. It is the natural state and impulse of the human soul, I thought. We get busy, we get distracted, and we lose sight of this truth amongst all the static modern life throws our way. But love comes back to us in moments of extremity: its the impulse that made so many on a plane over Pennsylvania or in the twin towers on 9/11 call their loved ones; the urge that made people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando text love to their mothers and partners; it is in the reflex that makes brave souls run toward a burning building or a car crash to help – or causes a Dallas police officer to shield a mother and her sons from a sniper’s bullets.
Love is our highest calling and our most natural state.
Love is the only house, as the song says, big enough for all the pain in this world.
Love makes us human. And yet, being human, we constantly lose sight of it.
Thinking this, isolated and alone in the bubble of my car, I wept. I allowed everything within me to mourn a week in which all of America seemed to have forgotten about love; to have forgotten that we are made to love one another. I cried for Philando Castile; for Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Laquan McDonald. My tears fell for Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Krol; for Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa. I cried for their families, friends, communities and for all of us gripped by the overwhelming grief of their deaths. I cried for my own inability to know how to help or change things, and I cried because I am complicit in all these deaths through my own privilege and inaction. I cried because the impulse to love is not enough if it doesn’t lead to some expression: I love you. I love all of you.
In the aftermath of my crying jag (seriously, it was an ugly cry with snot and everything), I remembered a conversation I had once with my Dad. I had been recalling my grandfather telling me about the gun he kept in his glovebox “because of the niggers”. I told my father, who had just been named the local NAACP Chapter’s Man of the Year, that I was proud of him for overcoming the racist attitudes he was raised with. He said, “That’s your mom’s doing. I fell in love with her and she taught me to be a better person.”
There it was again: love. That powerful force that calms fear in chaos and can teach us to be better versions of ourselves. Love, it shelters and it nudges. And it is what will get us through these dark days if we allow our truest selves, our deepest humanity, to be our first and best impulse. After last week, after the recent months of anger and discontent and violence, it must be clear that choosing love is not the easy route; nor am I advocating some fluffy Pollyanna-ish wish-upon-a-star. Love in action is often hard. It calls upon us to stand up and speak up and lead up. It calls us to be our best selves and to look for the best selves not just in others but in “The Others” – whomever that is in our lives. When it gets particularly difficult to do, take this sage advice from C. S. Lewis, ““Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” Acting from a place of love will always take us somewhere better than acting from fear, disillusionment, anger, blame or finger-pointing ever will.
Whatever darkness we are in: a beer cooler in a tornado, or caught up in a wicked storm of discontent, violence, divisive politics – love is the light that will illuminate it. Move toward that light; choose love.
I love you.
I love all of you,