I remember so vividly the day my naïve, fifteen-year-old mind woke up to the awful truth that I was merely a product of socialization. My style was that of the photoshopped model, whose insincere smile plastered on the cover of the catalogue fooled me into claiming it as my own. At school I chose to show the world a person who was exactly like my classmates, and the opinions I claimed as my own were an act of rebellion against my parents. I kept finding ways of denying my true identity. It was not only the corrupt bureaucracy I was rejecting; it was my culture as well. Smothered by the values I forced myself to adopt, I felt cornered in what Lawrence Kohlberg calls Stage Three, the Good Girl level of moral development: “People make decisions based on what actions will please others, especially authority figures and other individuals with high status (e.g., teachers, popular peers). They are concerned about maintaining relationships through sharing, trust, and loyalty, and they take other people’s perspectives and intentions into account when making decisions” (Kohlberg, par. 3.) At fifteen the light went off, and a seed was planted in the back of my mind I could not shake for the years that followed. I asked myself, “How can I grow my own value rather than have it be determined by those who do not know me?” Weeds of self-doubt prevented that seed of self-determination from sprouting. For three years, I continued to live without sunlight.
As I entered adulthood, the darkness was encompassing my heart, slowly leaving me a shell of who I once was. It was not until that hole in my chest I fought to fill with relative things grew larger than my entire being, and I was sinking weighless in my own misery, I realized I was being fooled. My unexplainable, unbearable, unholy sadness clouded me from my values, sense of self, and motivation. Instead I was being carnally guided, ignoring what I needed, and chasing what gained me the approval of those who had little concern for my well being. When my suffering proved to be greater than me, I humbled myself before the one I spent my adolescent years ignoring. I asked God for understanding regarding my life purpose as well as who I am. The response came quicker than I ever dreamed imaginable. He broke the shackles keeping me prisoner to western civilization as I began my journey to reach LK-6. He helped me begin my “walkabout” to reach what Lawrence Kohlberg calls a post-conventional morality (Stage 6) in which our behavior is based on universal principles of love and compassion that transcend mutual benefit (Kohlberg, par. 6). Like the 1971 Nicholas Roeg film of the same name, a walkabout in Australian Aboriginal society is a rite of passage in which an adolescent male undergoes a journey into the Outback. He lives in the wilderness for a period as long as six months to make the spiritual and traditional transition into manhood (Wikipedia, par. 1). I set off on my own walkabout, but unlike The Girl, the female protagonist in the film, I refused to accept a life of discontent. I was someone’s daughter and someone’s sister, and I was in preparation to be some man’s wife. There had to be more, and there was. Love. Unconditional love.
The question “who is God” is one I will never understand. His ranking as the most high keeps a distance between He and I must respect. The question “what is God” however is simple. My God is love; that is, a loved not based on conditions or mutual benefit. Little did I know that this realization was to lead me to interpret Lena Wertmuller’s highly controversial Swept Away in a new light. Viewing the toxic exchanges between Rafaella and Gennarino, the film’s male and female protagonists, it is easy to find justification for our own pitfalls or to think we could never compare to the despicable way they treat one another. But are any of us any different? When contemplating the various social issues raised in this film, one might be quick to blame gender roles or social status. However, it would be unfair to impose blame on Raffaella, a wealthy, beautiful socialite or to judge the oppressed communist Gennarino for the evil they unleash. Men and women who are quick to point a finger at the other party are all too often afraid to look within.
Suppose there was a man, forty years old, living in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Suppose this man works in a factory that makes airplane parts, making just above minimum wage, working over fifty hours a week. Suppose this man has been receiving public assistance, struggling to make ends meet, unable to get a white color job due to his criminal record caused by an unfair system desperate to contain the “rabble.” Suppose this African-American was given the opportunity to switch lives with another man, one who comes from old money, lives in a mansion, and was born with a silver spoon. Could one confidently argue the black man would not switch lives? We like to hate the white man for his privilege. We burn with fury when we think of his sports car and designer suits. We are filled with rage cashing our four-figure paychecks whilst he cashes his five-figure amount. We tremble with resentment at the notion he will always have the upper hand. Until the day that marginalized communities, colonized nations, and natives forced to bow to their conquerer can assert, given the opportunity, that they would not switch positions with their social superior, the problem will never be solved. The problem is the values so many of us hold: power over loyalty, hidden agendas over sincerity, money and everything else over love. What this world is missing is a love so high it reaches the heavens. A love so wide we can never get around it. A love that will never run out. A love that does not distinguish between the wealthy and the poor. A love that does not see the difference between political parties or skin color. A love offered to Christians, atheists, Buddhists and Muslims all the same. A love that replaces “because” with “in spite.” An unconditional love.
The issues that Rafaella and Gennarino act out depict the warped definition of love they practice. Almost all of my relationships in the past followed a similar tragic pattern. I would drag the pain I could no longer keep buried and project it on every new connection I made. I would habitually suppress who I really am and continuously question if the love the other person had for me was real. This maddening doubt would continue until the day my pride took over, and I would exit the life of that person to avoid them inevitably hurting me. Like shipwrecked Rafaella and Gennarino, we all too often refuse to turn the other cheek in any given situation and allow our hidden narcissism to take over by blaming the world for our loneliness instead of looking within. We watch films like Swept Away not as a wake-up call but as a way to justify our unhealthy and painful behavior. The fear the two lovers feel causes them to continuously hurt one another. If Genarinno had been able to forget about how his masculinity had been tested by the wealthy, he could have loved another. If Rafaella had been able to ask for forgiveness and humble herself, she could have loved another. If one of them had put their own agenda and past betrayals away for just a second and believed they were worthy of true affection, they could have loved each other. It is the downfall of so many couples. We engage in relationships out of our own selfish desire not to be alone. We are so focused on being accepted that we never show who we truly are. How can you expect someone to truly love you when they don’t truly know you? Then, out of fear that the love isn't real, we sabotage it in search of something more. We search for it in a tub of ice cream and develop an unhealthy relationship with food. We search for it in drugs for just a moment of solace from the emptiness we endure: Until we find the next man or women who says all the right things, and suddenly we don’t feel so alone and we have a source for validation. Until we find ourselves in a loveless marriage built around an image we fight to uphold, in a household we hate, staring at a reflection we don’t recognize. Until, like The Girl in Walkabout, we feel remorse for letting go of the life we could have had, that moment of freedom swimming in a lake with the people who actually love us. Or until, like the lovers in Swept Away, our pride and self-hatred take over as we curse the ones who we secretly yearn for and submit ourselves to the only sign we can believe in---the dollar sign. Until we learn what love actually means.
Where many see love as a noun, something they feel, I’ve been taught to view love as an action verb. We must love people when they wrong us. We must love them when they betray us. We must love them when they lie to us. We must love them when they beat us. We must love them through their sins and soften their hearts and compel it to open so that one day, the truth is what rolls off their tongues; so that one day, they dedicate their souls to protecting us where they once hurt us. We must love them even when they don’t deserve it because nobody can ever earn the love they deserve. Love can never be given because of what someone has to offer you. Love is a choice one makes for the benefit of another, never for oneself. That’s how it becomes unconditional. St. Paul, author of a majority of the New Testament, wrote: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV). There was a reason all the things I fought to fill my heart with never satisfied me. This love was what I was looking for, but it's true what they say: you cannot love anyone until you love yourself.
When I began learning of a virtuous love, I also learned I must direct that love inward. I moved from Ethiopia to America when I was four years old. Ethiopia, one of the earliest civilizations, is more known in the west for poverty than its overwhelming communal society. I moved to a melting pot of different cultures with little preparation for the culture shock I faced. Here was a society that stresses individualism in a country that defines one's value by one’s ability to contribute to the federal reserve rather than who they are as person. During my early years, I was not striving to find myself, but rather to paint over all that made me me. I wanted to paint my caramel-colored skin, distinct features, and curls to match the white girl who sat next to me in elementary school. The white girl who snickered on the first day when the teacher called out my full name. The white girl who insisted on touching my hair at lunch, only to further emphasize my difference. The white girl who was never ridiculed for who she is because at the end of the day, America was hers and I was the alien who chose to invade. To make matters worse, we added social media to the mix. Soon I was not only striving for the approval of my peers but hundreds of false social media personalities. They worked tirelessly to paint their lives as perfect and to ridicule others, which only revealed their own insecurities. I was sucked into a web of lies, literally, without knowledge of the self-loathing that went into a smiling selfie which insisted that life was perfect, and left me wondering why mine was not. It left me asking daily, “Why am I not perfect?” Then I realized I am. Every girl dreams of being a princess, and the only qualification is having a father who is a king. Well, my Father is a king. He is the King of kings, and the Lord of lords. He is God. I realized it is okay if this world does not love me because God does. Uncovering the lie of “being less than” opened a world of opportunities. The opportunity to eat that extra slice of cake because I am not defined by my figure. The opportunity to pass on going out Friday night because I am not defined by my social life. It gave me the freedom to stop pretending to be someone I am not and to accept myself for who I am. In Wim Wenders’ classic 1987 film, Wings of Desire, the children see and feel the comforting presence of the angels. Through inner inquiry I discovered what sparked my deep lack of self-acceptance. It was the little girl in me who was told she was wrong by other little girls who did not know any better. So I forgive them, too, because they could not feel the presence of the benevolent force of love either.
Realizing the detrimental impact of a lack of self-love allowed me to have compassion for those who previously rejected me. Receiving the unconditional love of Christ inspired me to work to recognize hate is often a reflection of pain. They reject me because they too have been rejected, or they reject themselves. Human beings are like trees. To see what grounds the tree, look at the roots. Morals come from how deeply the roots of our being are placed in the ground we come from. A lack of morals is not caused by the individual, but a lack of sturdy roots. As a tree grows, the rings around the trunk tell its story. The first ring might look normal. Most humans start out life that way. Many forget to acknowledge what abnormality can do to a person’s identity or their roots. Who would have been there to plant them? The rings on a tree expose where lightning may have struck at the same same spot over and over again, revealing why the tree’s trunk and roots may have been permanently hurt. A lack of family can leave one without knowledge of a home, and an unstable household can leave a child with a misconception of family. A disability can cause one to see oneself at a disadvantage. Abuse can cause one to mistrust those who attempt to care. Bullying can generate a feeling of hate in a child, a hate not only directed at the bully but also themselves. All trees have rings, and all people have a story. Loving myself and understanding where my weaknesses come from helps me to understand why others have those weaknesses as well. I learned to love others despite the scars this world has caused and that has manifested into a character flaw. Instead of cutting down every tree with a damaged trunk, let us save as many as we can. Let us shower each other with love and remember our perennial opportunity to heal and grow.
In Jamie Uys’ mockumentary 1980 film allegory, The Gods Must Be Crazy, the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert graciously accept the life they have been given and live in harmony with one another. They have no purpose for laws because there is no crime (Uys, 0.02:47). Unfortunately, six hundred miles south lives the western civilization mindset of the colonized, industrialized, and dehumanized. When a Coca Cola bottle is thrown from an airplane, the bushmen find it and interpret it as a gift from the Gods. This unnatural object soon brought devastation to the bushman, as industrialization has brought to western civilization. They immediately became obsessed with a material not necessary to their life or inner growth: an object we know to be man made. When they began to have conflict, one brave man set off on a mission to throw the “evil thing” off the edge of the world. What the bushmen see as “evil” is not one another, but anything that causes them to lose peace among themselves. When the opportunity for divide stirred among them, they went, quite literally in their eyes, to the ends of the world to eliminate it. There is no “us” or “them,” only a we. This mindset is our way out.
By contrast to the bushmen, The Girl in Walkabout and the couple in Swept Away were so caught up in having the upper hand that they did not realize they were giving up the one thing they craved. They wanted so desperately to find a peace that could satisfy them. Gennarino tried to claim it with power, Rafaella with wealth, and The Girl in Walkabout with status. I learned to find it in unconditional love. I let go of what was owed to me, realizing nothing was owed to me. I stopped trying to right every wrong, once accepting when acting in love, one has no need to keep a record of wrongs. Christ was crucified for the sake of my salvation. This ultimate act of love relieves myself of the burden of being victim and judge.
It would be difficult to convince seven billion people of the truth that has brought peace and happiness into my life—God is real. What I strive to do is much more difficult. I plan on tearing down the shrine western civilization has built to the dollar sign, which may as well be the most widely practiced religion in America. I plan on restoring hope in the hearts of those who have lost faith in their neighbors and to love them as they love themselves. I plan on saving as many people from jumping off the edge of a building as angel Damiel did in the opening scenes of Wings of Desire because it was done for me. Christ saved me from the false faith I was onced convinced was waiting at the bottom, as so many are. He provided a comforting hand on my shoulder, and a weapon only to be described as blind faith, to remind me of my goodness. “Tell me who your God is, and I’ll tell you who you will become.” Christ was my savior. Love can be everyone's savior. First we love ourselves. Then we love the world.
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