Many people have asked how I went from a Republican atheist to a God-loving, Christian-leaning liberal. I’ve not been inclined to write about it until this week when I read an essay from the New York Times — a commencement speech by Jonathon Franzen. I clicked on it not because I’ve read any of Franzen’s books (although a few are on my Goodreads list) but because it was supposed to be an article on technology replacing love with something easier.
It wasn’t quite what I expected, and I took three days to read the entire article. But the essay had a line in it that brought me to tears. A line like a shock. Like the moment I knew Scott was my one. Or that I could love my son through all his struggles and triumphs. Or when I found out how much room my heart had for another child.
Franzen wrote: Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.
I don’t expect the line to evoke the same reaction in anyone else, but I often walk this Internet world feeling different. I am a bleeding-heart liberal whose relationship with God comes before all other relationships while knowing the world is a complicated and gray place which I love very much but would be okay if I died tomorrow because it’s also very tiring to be nice to people.
I’m just not used to someone understanding me without knowing me. Even Scott thinks I’m weird.
As far as I know, Jonathan Franzen and I do not have stories in common. We might not even like each other in person. But if the topic of love was to ever come up in the last decade over unfamous-to-famous-author-coffee, we would instantaneously agree.
I spent much of my life before my conversions seeing everyone in two-dimensions. These sides tended to revolve around whether you liked me or did not like me and whether you gave me what I wanted. I often confused love and agreement, and I assumed everyone’s life was close enough to mine for them to have the same success, yet easier than mine which always made my feelings the most important in the room.
When I went off to college and was introduced to the complexities of the world. To racism. To poverty. To the power of words. I no longer believed in a world of boot-straps and color-blindness. Paper after paper and event after event proved that I could not trust individuals to be full of kindness and justice. Life unfolded, and all I was sure of was that I was very, very lucky to be an upper middle class white girl from New England. So when it came time to vote, I found myself with bleeding-heart and a new party affiliation.
Even though, or perhaps because I felt more attune to this plight of man, as I went off to medical school, I found myself facing an internal brokenness that I could not shake no matter how many people and things I used to fill the gap. The great big world had popped open during college, but I still could not bring myself to love the person in front of me — whether a friend or a mirror. I only knew despair and a desire to run away.
I had dipped into this well that Franzen described, but it was still full of sympathy. The people that I wanted to love stayed flat because I could not imagine anyone who hurt as much as I did. I could not relate to them except where it mattered to me. As I sought help, I found people who had felt much the same as me but no longer struggled. They smiled. They had relationships with others. They cared in ways that I would’ve never dared. And the one common thread was a relationship with God. I saw and began to believe that without a sense of something beyond my humanness, I could not be loving, kind or fair to the people around me. Sure, I could donate or rally for the faceless, but I couldn’t show up for my family.
So I prayed, meditated and helped others. And without realizing it, the people around me sprang to life. I was surrounded by the hurt, the sad, the searching, the happy. My feelings, whether they be about the injustice of the world or the injustice of not getting enough sleep the night before, could no longer be excuses for anger or bad driving or demands that the world pay more attention to me than anyone else.
These two seemly opposite conversions over moments and years — from a Republican to a Liberal and from an atheist to finding God — are bound up by love. An immense love. The same love.
A love that’s given me a life today that I never thought possible for me.
Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.
The willingness to truly love, when it is painful, uncomfortable, joyful and perfect, happened when I found both a heart for the world and a heart within me.