I just finished reading The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. The main character is an orphan in North Korea, a group of people who are looked down on, not cherished, unlovable. It has been very hard moving my mind to other subjects – especially this Lenten post on love. After reading about living under the totalitarian regime of North Korea, the post I started on love seems shallow and trite.
Adam Johnson did a masterful job of showing me how living within a system of lies and extreme brutality, where the individual is secondary to the state, can destroy so much that makes us human, including the ability to love. People make themselves forget how to love when children, siblings, friends, grandparents, parents disappear without cause or warning. People forget how to love when the state makes it a self-preserving tactic to turn against family. Johnson pulled me into his story and taught me about the extreme capacity for humans to feel so little compassion and love for others that they are able to systematically inflict unthinkable pain and suffering. I didn’t want to learn this, but I am glad that I did.
Maybe it isn’t coincidence that it was suggested I read this novel as I was thinking about love for this post. We usually think the evil opposite of love is hate – but Johnson’s story suggests that the real danger is indifference and blind obedience to authority. The type of blind obedience that comes from teaching rote learning of doctrine instead of critical thinking, with a filter of fear. What else must be present to make people so indifferent to the human spirit that they are able to inflict unthinkable suffering without guilt – even with a sense of pride?
The novel shows us this darkness, but is really about the courage and resiliency needed to remember how to love, and most of all the desire deep within our psyche for all that is good. We meet the main character as a boy, an orphan, with no given name, no family identity to guide him into adulthood. His coming of age takes place while struggling against the mind destroying punishments he has to endure, and is informed by what he learns from isolated experiences. We see rays of humanity periodically shine through as he searches for truth and has the courage to speak it. Whatever he has, older and stronger individuals see it and respond with nurturing to keep his body and spirit alive. We see his curiosity about freedom and his desire to share hope. He relates to others with integrity and we witness how they respond. He searches for love.
The God I worship tells me that the greatest commandment is to love God and then to love others (including oneself). I feel like I would need to write a book to define and explain love, but today I am convinced, at its core, is integrity and intimacy. The outward manifestation of integrity seems to be truth and of (emotional, not sexual) intimacy trust. When the main character of Johnson’s novel is asked what love is, he replies that it is sharing one’s secrets with another. Is his answer from within the context of a totalitarian state any different than from within a free state.
The God I put my faith in calls me to love those who are difficult to love; those who are irritating, different, those with power, and the powerless, those who are dirty and smell bad, those who don’t play nice, those who are arrogant. She calls me to love those who have sinned – even those who have acted against me. It is so easy for me to love those I like and trust, so very hard when I don’t.
The purpose of these Lenten reflections is to help me think about how my faith can make me a better person – a more loving person when I am filled with anger, disgust, frustration, distrust. I have seldom had a desire to strike out and hurt these people who are different, but I know how to not see them, shut them out. Do I need to see people who are different, and maybe even distasteful, through a different lens? Do I need to see their face and hear their name? How do I move from an indifference towards those who are different, to the actions of caring?
There is an even deeper challenge. What does it look like to love when I have been hurt; when I have felt an injustice against my being or character. How do I love when I have been humiliated, abused, scorned, or ignored? How do I love those who have taken something from me that is important to my well-being and sense of self? It would be foolish of me to trust them, especially if they haven’t said they were sorry and proven (over time) that I could trust them again.
To see love is to see me giving people another chance, if circumstances call for it; even if it means making myself vulnerable to further hurt. To see love would be to see me being honest, without judgement or revenge but with gentleness. To see love would be to see me being more concerned about the humiliation, fear, pain, and anger of the other than my own. You won’t always see this kind of love when you look at me, but I have experienced it and this gives me hope and courage and strength. I have experienced the darkness and joy of Lent.
To read where I began this journey click here. I invite you to join me in my reflection on Peace as I prepare for my post in this series. If you feel the desire to write your own reflections on one of these topics, I would enjoy having you post a link in the comments below.