Saturday, August 11, 2012

Messing Up the Greatest Commandments

I’ve always thought that I’m safely within the bounds of orthodoxy when I say that the Christian faith is about loving God and loving others.

I was wrong.

I realized this as I read an article about the brilliant poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. (And yes, I understand that this is essentially a declaration that I am a hopeless literary nerd.) The author said that, like many genius intellectuals, Shelley had a fatal flaw: “He loved humanity in general but was often cruel to human beings in particular. He burned with a fierce love, but it was an abstract flame and the poor mortals who came near it were often scorched. He put ideas before people and his life is a testament to how heartless ideas can be.”

I’m an idealist. I love ideas and the power they have to shape our thinking. That’s one important reason why this blog exists. So this concerned me, because I never, ever want to be like that.

That’s when I realized that Jesus was very specific when naming the second-greatest commandment. It’s not “love others.” It’s “love your neighbor as yourself.” And he got even more specific when pressed to explain what that meant, telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s not “love humanity.” It’s “love the guy you walk right past who needs your help.”

Clearly, Jesus wasn’t talking about loving others in some vague, abstract sense. He was talking about loving the person right next to you. The kid with the runny nose who keeps wiping it on his sleeve. The student who raises his hand and argues with everyone just because he likes being right. The waitress who glares at you as if you’re inconveniencing her when you politely request a new glass of water because there’s a dead fly in yours. That chatty coworker who doesn’t seem to understand that you have other things to do besides listening to a travelogue about her Alaskan cruise.

That’s what loving your neighbor means. And that’s a lot harder. When you can zoom out to humanity in general, you can see all the good things about our species: consciousness, progress, self-sacrifice, unity.

Take a look at the commercials during the Olympics for a good example of this. Because, in a vague sense, the entire world is working toward a noble goal alongside each other, the ads often exalt the universals: our admiration of hard work, love for moms, drive to succeed, and so on.

But then when you listen to interviews with individual competitors, American or otherwise, things get slightly less feel-good and rosy. These are people. Admiration of hard work was the force that kept the teenager from having a normal life. Love for mom, sure, but watch his parents in the stand shouting in frustration when he gets a silver medal. And that drive to succeed? Sometimes it comes out in overly competitive jabs at teammates.

When you look at humanity, it’s easy to love. But then you look at humans, and it gets much harder.

And I think I know why, at least for myself. The farther back I zoom from people, the more they look like me. When I get close enough to see faces, I can also see differences of opinion, ugly habits, hypocrisies, and annoying quirks.

And sometimes I forget that I have a lot of those too.

It doesn’t mean pretending that people are inherently lovable, because they’re not. But neither am I.

Love God. Love that person right next to me. That’s what it’s all about.

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