In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, a hate crime that targeted members of the LGBTQ community, a number of published responses have focused on love. People have waxed about the need to love furiously, to love deeply, to love radically, to love defiantly. I value these sentiments.
As a couples’ counselor, I regularly invoke the power of love to soothe a partner’s fear. I call forth love as the antidote to poisonous isolation and loneliness. I introduce love as the necessary balm to heal old, sometimes hidden wounds. Love comforts us and helps us create a secure base from which to act.
But is love the necessary ingredient for systemic change? Reflecting on tragedies brought forth by systemic injustice, systemic inequality, systemic oppression, systemic immorality, I am coming to believe that love is not enough.
Love is necessary, but love is not sufficient.
Love is relational. It is, at minimum, dyadic. It can extend beyond the I-Thou relationship, but it cannot exist without it. Without another, even a conceptual, imagined, dreamed of, or grieved for other, love is conceptual, an abstraction.
Love can inspire individuals to stay connected, to seek security, to seek justice, but as an abstraction, an aphorism, love provides no solace. Love is not what moves history. Love can soothe and hold us as we make or bring forth history, but it does not, in my understanding, change systems.
For individuals today experiencing the sting of loss, love is necessary for healing. But to effect change in our world, love is not enough.
Responding to Tragedy
I have tried to limit my consumption of news generated to exploit the tragedy in Orlando. Of the handful of media responses I have seen, the most powerful has been Samantha Bee’s monologue on Full Frontal. The crux of her speech is the insufficiency of the “standard operating procedure [that] love wins, love conquers hate.” Her position obviously aligns with my own.
I think what struck me the most was Samantha Bee's use of anger, her righteous indignation. In fact, after watching her monologue I decided to reread Malcolm X’s 1964 speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
Both highlight the systemic hypocrisy that undergirds so much of our nation’s history, then and now. There is a recognition that the deliberate speed of our democratic republic, while rational and perhaps even largely beneficial, also at times is a hindrance to necessary change.
Malcolm X pronounces at one point, “I'm not anti-Democrat, I'm not anti-Republican, I'm not anti-anything. I'm just questioning their sincerity, and some of the strategy that they've been using on our people by promising them promises that they don't intend to keep.”
The same, I think, could be said about politicians urging their constituents to pray or even to love in response to naked hatred such as took place in Orlando.
If change is what we want, we need more than love. It is time for action.
We need, for example, to hamstring the power of groups such as the NRA, which successfully has stymied even the funding of national research on the societal impact of gun violence, an honest to goodness epidemiological area of inquiry if I’ve ever seen one.
We need to close loopholes that allow individuals to purchase weapons at gunshows without background checks. We need to reexamine the importance of high capacity magazines for civilian use. We need all gun owners to be licensed and registered. These are just the examples that come to mind at this moment in time.
Love may inspire action, but love is not the action necessary to engage in the arcana of updating and refining federal and state law to reflect current and shifting realities.
I recognize that this topic is not inherently therapeutic or healing. I recognize that I could lose clients over my belief that our country needs to amend its positions on firearm availability and safety. I also recognize that there are limitations to my field, and rightly so.
I help individuals heal. A part of healing is the resumption of living a full life. In my estimation, this includes being an informed and engaged citizen.
When our friends and family are being killed on a regular basis by individuals who have legal access to so-called “modern sporting rifles” inspired by military weaponry and which, by the way, also deliver hefty revenues to gun manufacturers, it is time to acknowledge love’s limitations.
Love can heal, but love cannot reanimate. At this moment in history, love simply is not enough.