On Becoming A God-Loving Liberal

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.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

25 thoughts to “On Becoming A God-Loving Liberal”

  1. This is a really great post. So honest and brave and wise. I’m in a constant struggle with my beliefs and emotions and desires. You describe that all very well.

  2. Wow. I feel much of the same and feel like I am on a similar journey. I started out a liberal and became a Republican and now feel that I am swinging back to a bleeding heart liberal. I just can’t understand the current Republican desire to hurt people and take away much needed programs to save a few dollars. I feel like we need to help each other more now than ever. I have not yet found religion, but I have found yoga which I feel centers me and makes me more aware of everything around me.

  3. My husband and I were having a very similar conversation this morning; regarding empathy, love, emotional response, and levels of commitment to those outside of our circle. It’s nice to find your article this morning, and see we’re not the only ones!

  4. A few weeks ago I had an interaction at work that left me feeling so down on humanity that I was depressed for several days. The story is not that interesting. It was more the straw that broke the camels back than anything else. I was left with the feeling that if given the choice people will almost always do the selfish thing, even if it clearly causes a negative effect on someone else. This post really touched me. I think most people walk around the planet only seeing others in “two-dimensions”. Maybe it is just too hard to try to understand people. It is easier to put them in a box where you don’t have to feel anything for or about them. It is easier to focus internally. I love how you became brave through love. I love how were brave enough to change. Thanks for writing this.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this. My husband and I are always feeling like complete freaks here in Texas for believing in God and the Bible but having politically liberal beliefs. Most of the time we simply avoid talking about politics, even to our closest friends. It is just in the last year or so that I’ve inadvertently found that there might be more of us God-loving liberals out there in the blogosphere. Yet another reason I totally wish you were going to BlogHer this year 🙂 Ah well, thanks again for writing this, I feel less alone!

  6. Wow. This was amazing. And that quote really is incredible. I find myself reminding myself that other people are real people too, and they hurt and God loves them and it’s really crappy of me to not show God’s love to them.

    This mainly happens when I have to take care of really crappy patients…and I’m grossed out and I have to remind myself that they are a PERSON and are deserving of Love too.

  7. I love it…you are a walking contradiction…Republican atheist…liberal Christian…Your candor is refreshing. And my journey to becoming an atheist starting in college and much like you, “Paper after paper and event after event proved that I could not trust individuals to be full of kindness and justice” and more importantly I could not trust religion to be full of compassion or acceptance because for me, I kept seeing that at the root of religion and each belief was not accepting anyone else except those of like mind and belief. I am glad you have been able to find some kind of peace through your belief in God. I once read an article and I wish I kept it (cause now I can’t remember the author or the title or where I read it), but the author wrote of how he wished he could believe in God like his wife. Wished he could find that peace that she does. There are many days that I wish I could have that comfort of ‘belief’ but I just can’t. My parents taught me to be good, to live uprightly, to be fair. I trust in those morals….for me I have not needed a God to help me, to lead me on that path…I had wonderful honest parents, who taught me the ol’ motto, “do unto others” So I try.

  8. I really enjoyed your post. You are so right–when we see life through God’s eyes, we instantly notice those who we didn’t see before and can’t help but want to act. And your post is a great reminder that God didn’t make us the same–some of us are liberals, some conservatives–there is no black and white. But His love binds us all together.

  9. This is a terrific piece Alex. Truly.

    First, I think the great work of our lives is to see others as real and valuable, existing independent of our needs or wants. It’s a forever work in progress for me.

    Second, I’ve read two books by Frazen and would never have suspected he thought this wisely about love. It’s his characters’ two-dimentional view of others that make me furious as I read. But I never put my finger quite so well on why I get crazy reading his work. But maybe that’s just my reading. In any case, I no longer see him as a misanthrope. Thank you for that.

  10. I’m impressed with the capacity for love and change you have – many people refuse to see beyond what they’re told even in the face of life-changing events.

  11. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I believe- about life, the world, spirituality. (I’m kinda lost.) This was a beautiful account of your journey. Thank you for sharing. You are one of my favorite writers!

  12. I love these posts.

    I can’t stand Franzen’s books, but I agree with this quote too.

    Until college, I had a hard time understanding empathy. I thought I was a replublican. what my “lilly white” community taught me was that you just have to work hard. If you don’t have a job, just get one.

    I learned about gray areas and complexities when I was in college. I met non-white people and non-straight people and non-upper/middle class people.

    And I now live by the creed that “it’s better to have a bleeding heart than no heart at all.”

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