Returning to Love

In our early years, love is like a shroud that wraps us up. It is our primal experience. As we age, especially during puberty, we shrink from love a little. We become easily embarrassed, over-interested in fitting in and we can be cruel. If we're fortunate, we rediscover this love again as we pair off and have children. Or we can become passionately engaged in what Martin Luther King Jr. called the beloved community, working with each other and sharing each other's dreams.

We get such a good sense of our first connection with love in the book Born to Be Good by Dacher Keltner. Keltner writes: "The first great love of life begins upon leaving the womb. It lasts, in the words of John Bowlby, 'from cradle to grave.' It is laid down in a rich vocabulary of touch, voice, gaze, and facial display, it is evident in the merging of minds, heartbeats, and nervous systems of caretaker and young child. These processes establish deep patterns of neural response in the pro-social nervous system--growth in tactile receptors in the skin, strengthening of the oxytocin system (which is damaged in orphans), the setting of the HPA axis to less stressful levels, lighting up of reward centers in the brain. These early attachment experiences are laid down so early we can't consciously remember them, for the regions of the brain involved in memory--the hippocampus in particular--aren't fully functioning until age two or so. But they are felt every moment of life, in the trust of a stranger, in the willingness to speak out and fail, in the devotion to a romantic partner in times of difficulty, in the sense of hope, and in the devotion one feels for one's own children. If it goes well, that early love is felt as the encouraging, not so-invisible warm hand on your back as you move through life."

Harold Feinstein echoes this theme, writing, "In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition meditating on the practice of mothering is used as a way to cultivate compassion for all beings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to the image of a mother breast feeding her baby as the most potent symbol of human love and refers to the importance of the constant protecting and nurturing, physical touch, warmth and care necessary to insure the growth of the human brain and healthy development:

The Dalai Lama said: 'The key to genuine peace lies in each of us reconnecting with the power of our mother's love, the affection that nurtured us when we were children. I always tell people that a mother is a true teacher of compassion and human affection...Therefore, I do not consider compassion as unique to religion. It's the basic human nature that we all share. Mother's milk is, I think, a symbol of compassion.'"

In our everyday struggles, it can become far too easy to lose sense of our values, love being one of the most important. We can become blinded to the struggles, sometimes larger in scope and chronicity, of others when we focus too much on strife in our own lives. It is an open question how we can return to love despite our struggles, despite the judgment we place upon ourselves and others, despite everything that blocks our paths. But it happens.

It seems there are always centering others, those who have not forgotten the principle of love, who can remind us of its radical power. These people can encourage us to engage in the world in a way that would make our beloved communities proud. For love is a quiet virtue. As it is in the Bible, love is patient, love is kind. But in its sharing, it lights the path of the world and its inhabitants. It's an important part of our biological make up and can lead us to move toward each other for the betterment of all.