It can sound strange to hear the way religious leaders and politicians, at certain moments, speak so much about love: about the love of the stranger, the love of the weak, the love of the failed.
Someone overhearing this from another planet might think it was a sign that we were an especially tender and compassionate species.
We’re not, of course; the scoresheet of history is unambiguous on that matter.
Rather than a cute diversion, these loving messages are a clear-eyed survival strategy, because we are at base an exceptionally aggressive mammal, easily the most canny and destructive element in the biosphere and never far from being ready to take an axe or a warhead to our enemies.
Parents know the routine: we need well-targeted flattery. We tell the child it is so sweet not because it always is but because we have to reinforce the fragile moments when it manages to be so.
A public message of love is like a magnet that pulls the filaments of goodness to the front of our always ambivalent and never-quite moral personalities.
We respond with uncanny directness to the cues around us. Buddhism invites us to lay our eyes on the smiling, serene face of the Buddha at regular intervals throughout the day, in the hope that we may end up mimicking his message of love and harmony.
The wrong sort of politicians have picked up on our malleability just as well, they can tell that after a public discourse of hate, with spectres of violence, envy and cruelty all around us, the emboldened darker sides of us may end up thinking it would be an idea to set up a gulag or throw the others off a cliff.
That we’re largely made of water isn’t just an anatomical observation, it captures a truth about our psychological fluidity. For good and ill, our personalities are open to being channelled in an unnerving range of directions.
Public messages are like sluices, directing the emotional current. If wise leaders are careful to speak regularly about love and hope, it is because we are never far from being tempted by hate and despair. We need a civic language that keeps rehearsing the sweet, the tender and the dignified things to give our better natures something of a chance.
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