Real Love is Not Nice

By Annie Gonzalez Milliken

There is a poster you can buy in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) bookstore that says in big font “Love is Hard. Do it anyway.” This poster, designed by Carey McDonald, UUA Outreach Director, talks about an interdependent inclusive love. This is the love we’re called to as Unitarian Universalists (UU).

I believe that love is hard, and I try and try to do it anyway. I fail a lot, because I’m human. I try again. This real hard love is at the center of my faith, and because it is so sacred to me, I feel frustrated when I see people confusing what love calls us to with being nice.

These days many of us are keenly aware that we underestimated white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and other factors that went into this election. And I’ve seen folks come to a wide range of conclusions about what that means for how we interact with folks who are further to the right on the political spectrum. Do we need to listen more closely and empathize with their feelings or do we need to double down on calling out racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc.? Do we need to have more civil discourse or more disruptive protests? Try to bring people together across difference or get smarter about clear resistance?

As I observe these conversations happening, I see some of our people confusing love with niceness, just as I see people confusing the covenant to affirm the inherent worth of every person with a mandate to affirm the inherent worth of every viewpoint. I see people equating feelings of discomfort or shame that stem from recognizing one’s privilege or mistakes with actual violent and material oppression. I see people treating calm respectful conversations as a morally superior tactic for change, or an end in itself, rather than one strategy among many to achieve a greater end. These confusions are breaking my heart and frustrating me to no end.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a young white woman who grew up in the Midwest, among nice white liberals. I have a strong propensity toward being nice. When I was in high school I mistakenly thought open-mindedness was at the center of our UU faith and I spent hours listening patiently to fundamentalist Christians who believed I was going to Hell because I thought if I was truly open minded I’d be open to their truths too. When I was in college, in 2008, I sat quietly, nodded smilingly while the aunt of a friend spouted xenophobia anti-immigrant nonsense at the dinner table because I was a guest and I thought I should be nice. I was being so agreeable that by the end of dinner she asked if I had decided not to vote for Obama anymore. I’m not proud of those stories, but they are part of who I am. I’m a nice white lady by training and that’s a hard training to unlearn.

So, as a nice white lady, I wanted to get some clarity for myself on what real hard love DOES really ask of us in terms of how we engage with folks who do not share our values or whose behavior is running counter to our values. I was especially motivated to do this after some conversations initiated by UU World editor and racial justice organizer Kenny Wiley, who was asking on Facebook "Just how 'nice' or 'loving' should people calling for justice be?" If you are also trying to get clear on real hard love, read on, and let me know in the comments if you have items to add to the lists.

Real Love… ...has high expectations

Love expects a lot of us and of others. Sometimes I find myself lowering my expectations of others. Maybe I’m writing them off because they’re older, or because they come from a conservative part of the country, or because I’ve had a bad experience with them before. Or maybe I’m just feeling timid and “nice” and I don’t want to ask too much of someone. But real hard love asks me not to make excuses for folks and instead to hold them to high standards and accountability. What might have happened if I expected better of my friend’s aunt and believed that she was capable of being less racist and xenophobic? I’ll never know, but it might have been good for all of us.

Real love also means being humble and curious when folks hold me to high standards. Many of us can feel overwhelmed when we are in communities where much is expected of us. Maybe we are expected to change our language because it is ableist or take up less space because we’re white and we’ve been dominating, or get used to using unfamiliar gender pronouns. These high expectations can feel hard. Sometimes we get defensive and think, “Hey, I’m trying to do it right, cut me some slack!” At these times it is key to remember that folks have high expectations of us not because we are bad, but because we’re just that good that we can do better.

...has boundaries

Love also means having clear boundaries. When I was in that conversation with my friends who thought I was going to Hell, I didn’t need to take that spiritual bullying. I could have put up a boundary and said, “You know what, I’m not going to debate this with you.” Real hard love means we discern our own boundaries and decide how much we will tolerate. For those of us who face a lot of oppression or have faced abuse in our past, we might have to draw some pretty clear firm boundaries that folks don’t like. Others of us may be able to deal with greater levels of harmful rhetoric because of our privileges. The boundaries may be different, but they need to be there.

Real love also means accepting and supporting the boundaries of others, particularly those who are and will be most affected by these Trump times. It means being gracious when a person of color tells you they won’t educate you about racism, or a trans person says they won’t give you a gender 101 lesson. It means understanding when folks who are constantly asked to do unacknowledged and unpaid labor (particularly women of color) say they won’t do any more volunteer work. It means respecting when a space is not for you or when you are asked not to speak or not to take photos or not to frame things a certain way. It also means protecting those boundaries if folks around you aren’t respecting them. When we’re struggling with this it helps to remember that we are not being excluded or denied, we are being loved enough to be given clear instructions and clear limits, which is a form of respect.

...encourages transformation

Right after the election I got involved in a conversation thread on Facebook about the Women’s March being planned as a protest against Donald Trump and all the sexism and misogyny he brings to the presidency. I had some concerns that it was centering white women in the way it was originally being planned. Another minister and I commented back and forth about the tension between wanting everyone to get involved in resisting Trump wherever they’re at, and wanting to be very clear about dismantling white supremacy. Honestly I wanted to just compose a long Facebook comment that would say what I needed to say and then walk away unchanged, but real love calls us to transformation so I suggested we meet in person and when she followed up later, we made a coffee date.

I’m grateful that love encourages transformation because this coffee date turned into a two hour long conversation during which I came to have a deeper understanding of how my grief about the election was manifesting and about some of my fears around engaging with folks I don’t agree with. Through this conversation I realized that I’m afraid that if I engage too empathetically with folks who are more invested in white supremacy it might un-do some of the hard work I’ve done on my own mind and soul, and I might become even more entrenched in the white supremacy I’m working to dismantle. This Real Love we had for one another in this conversation helped me become more spiritually clear about my work as a white and relatively privileged woman. context dependent

Love does not manifest in only one way; it is always context dependent. Real love encourages us to be aware of power, of systemic oppression, of interpersonal dynamics. Real love means figuring out what high expectations are realistic, where the boundaries are, how honest to be and what will make transformation most possible.

Real love can sometimes even mean using strategic niceness. Sometimes I use my nice white lady persona to strategically get someone to take a helpful action or to make a change in their behavior. However, I always try to make sure I am clear with myself that while love is at the center, niceness is only ever a strategy.

Love may call us to other strategies as well: to non violent disruptive actions, taking steps toward protecting ourselves and our communities from Trump supporters and coming legislation, organizing for movements, donating our money, making phone calls to our legislators, attending community meetings, putting signs out on our lawns, training ourselves on de-escalation, building our spiritual practices and self care game. Real hard love is multi-faceted and each of us is called in different ways depending on the life we lead, the identities we carry, the gifts we have to offer, the limitations we face. Let us stay centered in love and let us never ever forget what love looks like. Love is not nice, it is often uncomfortable, it is not about our egos, it does not always make us feel good, it is inconvenient, it takes sides. Love is hard. Do it anyway.