“I have decided to stick with love… hate is too great a burden to bear.” -Martin Luther King
Last week I had the opportunity to visit National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and it got me thinking about freedom. We often think about freedom as an idea or a feeling, but after touring the museum, it is clear that freedom is not what we think or feel - but a reality that we live within or don’t. Black Americans have for hundreds of years lived without freedom. And not just in the centuries of slavery either; to this day black young men do not enjoy the same safety and freedom in walking down many streets of this country. But beyond the imperatives of Black Lives Matter, what struck me as I witnessed the obscene loss of freedom over centuries was how no matter how horrid the enslavement, African Americans through history have always been defined and strengthened by a quality that can never be stolen - love.
The power of love was the continuous thread through each exhibit in this museum - every uprising and every protest was rooted in the courage of love. And despite the cruelty and destruction that oppressors wreaked on these communities, they never stopped loving each other and their belief in their essential worthiness. For me, what is so special about this persistent kind of love is that it does not depend on its reciprocity. They loved without being loved in return and it only became stronger through adversity.
We all have a lot to learn about this kind of pure and inspiring form of loving. To love selflessly without needing anything in return. I explored this idea and the freedom it harbors in Sex that Works:
“And, finally, know this: you are what you love, not what loves you back. This is a profoundly freeing recognition that allows us to experience the depth and breadth of our capacity for love. It is a revolution for the heart to open up to love, the most instructive emotional experience we are capable of having, without hesitation and without worrying about whether our love will be reciprocated. Love teaches without the need for reciprocity, and an understanding of our true selves and our innate freedom develops in us alongside our capacity to give and receive love. No one can take this capacity from us.”
There is no better time than Valentine's Day to shine a light on one of the biggest misconceptions ever perpetrated about love: that love is only real when it is returned to us. We so often characterize our capacity for love as a coupled experience, its legitimacy resting in its reciprocity. We see it in all the stories of unrequited love and heartbreak that we have been telling for centuries. Love gone wrong. Love never given a chance. Love interrupted too soon. The pain we suffer is as deep and real as any cut with a knife. The sadness and loneliness of loving and losing the object of our love is searing like a burn and shadows us for months - sometimes years. These heartbreaking love stories that many of us never get over, and keep us from the truth of the love that we felt.
You don’t have to be loved back to call what you feel love.
Martin Luther King led African Americans while echoing the love his ancestors demonstrated for centuries before him when he said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality… Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” True freedom is born from this kind of love - a selfless love that fills us up. But also often a love that is not reciprocal. When we can recognize our own love towards another person, returned or not, we enter into the freedom to love uninhibited.