It’s gotten far easier to allow ourselves to hate than it is to choose to love.

We’re getting it from all sides. Controversy sells better than sex, and when you combine the two you have pretty much every magazine you see in the grocery store check-out line. We’re told to be terrified by our news people, that message is reaffirmed by our Facebook friends, and then we bring those messages into our social circle echo chambers and bounce them around. Don’t rinse. Repeat.

If you’re “conservative” you’re reminded on an hourly basis how the “liberals” are evil and actively working to undermine civilization. If you’re “liberal,” ditto the opposite. The actual ingredients of the message change daily, weekly, monthly, but the recipe has been the same for over a dozen years: exploit ignorance using fear, reintroduce fear byproduct to perpetuate ignorance. Create distrust, and through that distrust breed dependence on You as the Sole Trustable Message. Create a small “Us” and emphasize how big and nefarious of a “Them” we’re up against.

We need need to make a bigger Us, and a smaller Them.

We need to stop exploiting and demonizing ignorance, and start celebrating it as an opportunity for learning, expanding one’s perspective, and increasing one’s connection to others. Ignorance isn’t a bad thing. We’re all ignorant about a lot of things, and all started out entirely ignorant to whatever we think we know so much about now. Willful ignorance, something we’re encouraging with our demonizing of ignorance, is dangerous. If you beat someone back into a hole enough, they’ll stop trying to come out and start realizing how nice it is in their hole.

You Have a Choice

It’s comforting, sometimes, to think of the world as black and white, easily understood, where there is one “right” and one “wrong.” If someone does/is/believes X, then they are Right, they are on my side, we’re buds, I love them, let’s hug. If someone does/is/believes Y, they are Wrong and I hate them and wish they were dead dead dead. This is a nice, dualistic, simple way of thinking about things. Unfortunately (and fortunately!), the world allows for a mangled, cognitively complex, complicated way of thinking about things. And, among the myriad choices in life you have, one of them is whether you’ll embrace the comforting, misleadingly simple white/black of dualism, or the uncomfortably accurate grey of cognitive complexity.

You obviously have more choices than that. In fact, the choices at your disposal are limited only by your imagination and caffeine intake. But in the spirit of embracing the comfort of dualistic thinking while nudging toward cognitive complexity, here are two BIG choices we all have in how we act toward others:

We Can Keep Allowing Ourselves to Hate

The people we don’t understand; the people we think we disagree with; the people we know we disagree with; people whose belief systems are different from ours, or harmful, or wrong, or weird; people who have done bad things; people who aren’t nice to us, or don’t love us, or hate us; people who are part of Them, not one of Us.

Or We Can Start Choosing to Love

The people in the last paragraph, as well as everyone else. We can recognize our power of choice, understand that understanding can be more fruitful than willful ignorance, and start to believe that it’s possible that if we allow and encourage people to come out of their holes they might like it more out here (even though it will be scary at first, but that’s why we’re here to help).

Everyone doesn’t need to have the same beliefs, we just need to start believing in everyone.

Choose to Love

If this is sounding like something you want to get onboard with, here are the sometimes-daily steps I run through in my effort to choose to love more, and allow myself to hate less:

  1. Remind myself, first and foremost, that I do have a choice. “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters” or however that Epictetus quote goes. No matter how horrible, nefarious, or Disney-villain-evil someone seems (or is), I choose how I will make sense of that an act.
  2. Try to find the good. And I mean actually find it. Don’t trick myself into believing something about the person is good “Well, they said they hate gay people but that’s only because they love families — families are cool.” There’s likely genuinely something about this person you’ll deem good, if so, great! If not…
  3. Try to understand the bad. This requires asking the person questions and actually listening to the answers, not just listening for your cue to jump in and destroy them. Sometimes just asking those questions (a lot of “why?” questions — that they may’ve never been asked with genuine curiosity) will be enough, and the person will realize how dualistic they were viewing things. But even when it doesn’t, it’ll help you realize how dualistically you’re viewing them.
  4. Now, forget about all of that and remember what your goal is. Your goal is to choose to love this person, and the goal of that is to create mutual understanding of one another, your differing perspectives, and hopefully replace fear with respect (or at least unfear). To do that it doesn’t matter if you can’t find any Good and you can’t understand any of their Bad.
  5. Replace the Courtroom in your head with an Elementary School Art Teacher. We are so often the prosecuting attorney, defense, judge, and jury in these elaborate cases we play out in our heads when determining someone as Good or Bad. Instead, be more like your art teacher from elementary school and give the kid who painted a beautiful, almost photorealistic sunset the same grade as the kid who ate glue and created a color abomination that only makes sense to a kid who is super high on glue.
  6. Choose to love. It’s usually harder to choose to love than to allow yourself to hate, but like with other hard choices (“Should I get up after my first alarm or stay in bed for the rest of my life forever until I die?”) it’ll do you more good. And it gets easier if you work to make it a habit.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Incidentally, my friend slash wonderful person I look up to a great deal, Kevin Wanzer, named his LLC “Choose to Love” after a poem he wrote (that he published as an illustrated book). Please don’t consider this article to be affiliated with or an endorsement of Kevin and his work — it’s just coincidence in phrasing and a shared philosophy we have. But please consider this is an endorsement of Kevin and his work: buy his book, bring him to your campus/org to speak, and tell everyone you know about both.