It’s late spring.
I’m one of hundreds sitting in the middle of our high school football field. Graduation day.
Sweaty and uncomfortable, I squirm in the hard metal chair, then tug at the skirt my mother said was too short. Looking around I see other red faces, other clammy clothes. Yeah, everyone is nervous.
But my dad is giving the baccalaureate sermon.
The kid next to me nudges my arm as my father walks to the podium. He is tall and broad—he was a boxer in the Air Force during WWII. My mom said he was handsome like Gregory Peck. To me, he was so much more than all that. He was the person who loved me the most.
And I had let him down.
I could still feel the hand of that wiry lech of a teacher on my shoulder. I’d been sneaking back into school. It was a relief they only nailed me for skipping classes. No one knew it, but I’d been stoned and tipsy as well.
For a day or two, the school considered not letting me come to graduation. Or letting my father speak. Both were privileges they could have easily denied. But the programs were already printed. Too hard to stop the train.
I wait for Daddy to begin. A shy and quiet man. It was always a surprise how engaging he was. Preaching was not his first career. That had been refrigeration and air conditioning repair—skills learned fixing planes during the war.
He was repeatedly called to spiritual work. And when my mother almost died from pneumonia, he promised God that if she lived, he would answer his second call.
I open the program to see the title of the sermon. “Make Love Your Aim.” Ugh. How embarrassing.
It is the ’80s and the term “make love” is everywhere. I even got into trouble around Christmas for having a Queen album with a song titled, “Get Down, Make Love” on it. My father knows the relevance of the term—and is using it to engage the graduates.
His deep baritone voice shares that our highest good comes from loving one another. If we focus on that, we can overcome any strife, any difference, any disappointment. Even if we are hurt, or let down, we shouldn’t give up on love, or the loved. Loving others is what we are meant to do. It’s how we learn, how we evolve, how we exist. And it is eternal. It doesn’t die. It is everlasting.
It feels like he’s talking to me alone. I had sorely disappointed him. Yet I was forgiven—and loved. And he was taking this brief moment of my attention to cement something that would get me through multiple heartbreaks. Run-of-the-mill college affairs. And serious ones. Betrayals at work. Divorce. My fiance’s death.
A day after starting this piece, I cued up a podcast to listen to while walking the dog. Of the 20 or so options in my iPhone, I randomly picked the latest from Sharon Salzberg. She’s known for books on loving-kindness meditation, and my personal favorite Love Your Enemies.
This episode was a repeat of a 2017 interview with Bell Hooks, a well-known author and activist who wrote about gender, race, and love. I’d seen posts about her recent death but had yet to hear her speak.
Salzberg and Hooks talked about loving despite pain, despite abuse, despite backgrounds that would defy anyone to believe in love. Bell said, “Any time we do the work of love, we are doing the work of ending domination.” They said love is an ability. Not in the hands of someone else—not to be given or taken away. But a power—to be compassionate. To care.
And if we aren’t sure we are engaging in love, Hooks asserted, love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, and respect. If our actions or those of another do not include these values, then it is not love we are experiencing.
I stopped multiple times to write down their words on my phone. It was like the universe was holding a master class on love—and I wasn’t done with my lesson.
As we all look toward 2022, let us lean into these teachings. Learn to love ourselves. Discover how to love others. Rise above the pain of those who hurt us—and let in the precious who love in a healthy way.
We can do it all and more—we just need to make love our aim.
“I believe wholeheartedly that the only way out of domination is love, and the only way into really being able to connect with others, and to know how to be, is to be participating in every aspect of your life as a sacrament of love.” ~ Bell Hooks