The Troublesome truth: Love

This month, we've been talking about troublesome truths. I spoke a few weeks ago about some of the realities of poverty and class that most of us tend to ignore. Denial can be so much more comfortable than facing up to some very challenging realities.


Last week, while I was away, Roberta Wedge gave what I understand was an excellent talk about the ways in which politics is not nearly as simple and as clear cut as we'd like it to be. Among other facts that don't fit into our simple depictions of leaders and parties, she mentioned that Margaret Thatcher - the conservative's conservative - was also one of the first world leaders to take climate change seriously. Whilst we might want to paint something or someone entirely in one colour, the reality tends to be anything but monochromatic. 


Today, I'm going to talk about love, but first - strangely enough - I'm going to talk about biochemistry.


When I first got involved in doing experimental science and from then on, I studied proteins.


If you don't have any scientific background, you know protein as one the three categories of things that provide us with nutrition, the other two being fats and carbohydrates.


Proteins are much more interesting than those other two. They are long chain-like molecules that fold into very specific configurations to do some amazing things. They can be structural and hold your body together. They can do large-scale work, like the proteins in your muscles. And most of them are specialised sub-microscopic machines that do essential jobs in your body. 


Proteins break down your food into simple chemicals that your cells can use. They make all the other chemicals your body needs. They act as senders and receivers of information. They regulate what your genes are doing, and on and on. 


DNA gets a lot of attention, but it's just is a blue-print. Proteins do almost all the work in a living organism.


So, when I started working in a laboratory and was ready to study just one of the millions of completely different proteins that makes an organism work, I asked - well - how do we get our hands on just one of these proteins so we can study it.


The answer was something like "It's simple. You just purify it."


Ah, OK. Simple. The protein I want makes up a fraction of a percent of all the proteins in the organism and the proteins make up only a fraction of all the material in that organism...  simple. Just purify it.


Well, it proved to be simple, but not at all easy. 


It turns out that every one of those millions of proteins is different and needs to be treated differently. Some can't stand any warmth at all - they need to be maintained in the cold all the time - which means the researcher has to spend endless hours in a big refrigerated room. Some proteins unfold and turn into irreversible tangles if you even look at them funny. This gets a lot more detailed too and - believe me - you don't want to know.


What makes this worse is that so many things can go wrong. I have probably had to start over in a big purification project more times than it's actually gone smoothly.


So, protein purification is - as I was initially told - simple. But it is not in any sense easy. I learned how to do it, but it was never predictable and it was never successful without a whole lot of work.


What does all this have to do with love? 


Did I learn to love protein purification? Not at all. I actually still have nightmares about it!


Bear with me...


We love love. 


I think most of us would probably say that if there is one answer to the troubles of our lives and the troubles of our world, that answer is love.


For fun, I took a look through our hymn books to see how many of the songs mention love. In the older book - the green one - just over one third of the songs mention love. Not bad. 

In the years between the green book and the newer purple book though, something shifted. Back when the green book was new, more Unitarians in this country would have said that if there was one answer, that answer is God. 


In the purple book, more than 60% of the songs talk about love. In the past, some said that god's nature is love. Now, we are much more likely to turn to love directly.


I believe in love. I believe strongly and with all my heart in the power of love to remake our lives and our world. I believe the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he said:

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."


Jesus of Nazareth said to love your enemies, and Christianity is not alone in promoting love. Confucianism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam all say something similar.


The answer is simple. It is love. The answer, while simple however, is not in any sense easy.


Of course, we are not talking here about erotic love - the love that we celebrate with flowers, chocolate, and sexuality.


We're referring to the kind of love - called Agape in Jesus' time - an unselfish concern for another's well-being - a kindness and compassion and understanding that changes everyone involved.


And that sounds really good. And it is not so tough to do - at least in the abstract.


Edna St. Vincent Millay said this: "I love humanity but I hate people."


Yesterday morning I woke up and the first thing I did was check the news. When I went to sleep, the second of two brothers suspected of perpetrating the Boston Marathon bombings was still on the loose.


By the time I woke up, he had been captured. 


Boston and much of the world has been on edge for days. Friday saw most of the city completely shut down as an enormous manhunt took place to catch the two men believed to have planted bombs that left three dead and dozens wounded and later shot a police officer to death.


The people of Boston have reason to feel enormous relief. Their fear is now abated and for most of them, life can return to normal. 


What disturbed me though is the sense of triumphalism and polarisation that has appeared among the masses and in the media. On Friday, John Kerry described Boston as being in 'A direct confrontation with evil.' These perpetrators did something evil, but are we really willing to suggest that they are evil as Kerry seemed to do?


I think it would be very hard to find a resident of Boston or the whole United States for that matter who was prepared to say anything about love for the two brothers who committed these terrible acts.


Love is simple, but it is not easy.


I think it's even more troublesome than that. In fact, I suspect that most of us could, with some effort, bring ourselves to feel deep compassion for that second terrorist, if not love. I think of that boy - he's only 19 - I think of him coming from a war-torn country, I try to imagine the pain and misplaced loyalty that could drive him to hurt so many people, I imagine him - his brother shot dead in front of him, the guilt of what he did tormenting him, and thousands of armed police hunting him - in pain and in terror - bleeding slowly to death in the confined space of a boat in someone's back garden.


But that's at a distance. Suspect number 2 is part of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "humanity." It can be even harder to love people - the ones you have to see regularly who just annoy you, offend you, and are there in your face making your life difficult.


They push your buttons. They confound your plans. They interrupt your conversations. They complain, they insult, they leave a mess, they simply insist on having a completely different perspective from you!


I thought love was supposed to be easy. No, it's supposed to be simple. It's not at all easy.


Dare I say that we are each like individual proteins. We have our own likes and dislikes. You can't predict from the behaviour of one of us what another one will do. Ultimately, in order to love us, you have to understand us - understand what makes us do what we do, what makes us sad, what gives us joy, what makes us unfold and get all tangled up.


Love - and protein purification - require time and they require patience. They call on us to pay close attention and to remember what we learn. They call on us to stop rushing and attend to the needs of another.


Fortunately, love does not require spending long hours in a refrigerated room. In fact, it can be the opposite. The love we work for creates a warmth that allows everyone to become more ourselves and to grow toward our best selves.


Love is simple. It's not easy. Let's get started.