September 8, 2010

I Love You, Whether You Like It or Not.

Photo credit: Camila Moreiras, http://alum.hampshire.edu/~cam05/

The Bhaktishop in Portland, Oregon sells bumper stickers that boldly proclaim, I love you.

Before I moved back to New York, I bought one of these bumper stickers and stuck it in a prominent place on the back of my little Subaru. Typical?

I say that this is a bold proclamation—it takes an awful lot for most of us modern folk to say those words on an everyday basis. I grew up in a family that says the word love constantly—but I have also spent time with families who rarely express their affection and appreciation for one another verbally. There are a thousand different ways of conveying love, but there is something exceptionally powerful about saying it aloud and without timidity.

The simple application of this bumper sticker felt courageous. I hoped that it would send a message: That’s right. I love you, whether you like it or not. In traffic, on the highway, in parking lots, in neighborhoods, in cities, and in towns – there would go my car like a growling green beacon of hope and friendship. My friend joked that of course I would put the sticker on the back of my car – the real challenge would be in loving the people in front of me while stuck in traffic.
It did cross my mind that people might have a good laugh over it. When I told my father about my car’s new decorative flair, he cracked up and recommended I remove the sticker before entering New York State – in fact, before leaving Portland and re-entering the real world. I did not heed his advice.

While traveling across the United States for sixteen days, it was brought to my attention that this I love you might imply naivete to some, and render my passengers and I particularly vulnerable to the ill-intentioned. It’s an unfortunate thought, but relevant. The bumper sticker became the center of a conversation about health, welfare and safety. If I was harassed, does it mean I was asking for it? Could my attempt at being open and positive lead to negative, uncomfortable, even dangerous encounters?

When this possibility was brought to my attention I immediately felt like I had violated a boundary, an unspoken social code. This is a feeling I have experienced many, many times, and it typically stems from actions and behaviors that I tend to think are appropriate, but that others disapprove of.

For example, several years ago I was on a toilet paper run at around nine o’clock on a Sunday night. I passed by a bus stop where a group of people were patiently waiting for the next bus that ran on a notoriously confusing and inconsistent schedule. After purchasing the toilet paper, I hopped back in the car, swung around to the bus stop, and asked three women and a man if they needed a ride somewhere. They gratefully accepted. It turns out they were international Rhodes scholars studying at a nearby university. More recently, a group of train-hopping hippies asked me for a ride across town while I was stopped at a red light. Once again, I told them to climb on in. They narrated their cross-country adventures from Tennessee to Oregon before piling out in front of the local co-op, and encouraged me to get in touch with them if I was ever interested in traveling by boxcar with them.
In both cases, I felt entirely safe and confident about my actions. It was only later, when I relayed these stories to friends and family with excitement at having met fascinating strangers, that I began to feel uncertain. Perhaps I had made a poor decision? Perhaps I had compromised my security? What had these people done to earn my trust? Why would I take the risk?

One of the basic rules my generation grew up with was, don’t talk to strangers. Don’t look them in the eye. Don’t stop to talk with them on the street. Don’t smile or laugh or give them any reason to think you are willing to let down your guard. And most of all, do not invite them into your car or home. This attitude stems from fear, and much of that fear comes from very real threats – abduction, theft, deception, rape, murder, etc. We were taught to believe that a warm and friendly person (usually a woman) is more likely to get hurt than someone who is straight-faced and unyielding.

I agree that one must learn how to balance general faith in human beings with a degree of caution and self-preservation. Granted, picking up strangers and putting a happy-go-lucky bumper sticker on my car are two different things, but they both received a similar kind of admonishment from parental figures. It seems that most people balk a little bit at expressions of joy and trust. I balk now and then, as well. But the very public declaration of I love you speaks to my determination to not let cynicism effect my approach to the world. It isn’t meant to communicate romantic love, but rather the aspiration towards a feeling of oneness and all-encompassing love. I want to embrace and take risks and be willing to go out on a limb for people, and if that makes me strange in most circumstances, so be it. And as the yogic story goes, one must contribute to the world what one thinks the world is most lacking. But, there is a possibility of disparity between what I believe I am putting in and what is being received.

I suppose this is where pragmatic parental concern comes in: ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think I’m saying, it matters what others think I am saying, and it is their interpretation, however unintended, that will dictate how they treat me. Taking this into consideration, what’s the solution? Do we hold back, stifle, and repress in order to avoid misinterpretation and conflict? Do we reserve expressions of love and acceptance for situations and people that feel absolutely safe? What is it about kindness that makes us vulnerable? Is it worth it to take that risk? I find this to be an especially pertinent question for young women in the world. My desire is to interact with people, all people, with kindness and compassion. I would rather not assume that the people I do not know intend to harm me. I would like my vehicular I love you to calm people down and urge them out of road rage, and perhaps make them reconsider the true nature of fraternity.  The only thing that makes me feel better about traffic is thinking, We’re all in this together, and it is this same thought that convinced me to slap that sticker on, and it is also what opens me up to the daily flow of human interaction and encourages me to be less shy, less anxious, and more accepting. I truly feel happier when I weave through the world with this sense of solidarity and connectedness. Sure, I might cast my love net a little wide, but it’s drawn in some truly amazing fellow travelers.

These quandaries of trust versus safety and openness versus reservation are always changing, making answers hard to come by. But I’d like to hear what you think. When do you choose to keep your cards close to the chest and when do you let loose your goodwill? Is there a time and a place – and therefore, a not-the-time and not-the-place – for letting your affection and acceptance be known? In any case, whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever you think, I send you love and I wish you peace.

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