“It’s Papa Fred!” my niece exclaimed, pointing to a man at a table some distance from where my family sat.
Confused, we stood and noticed the shining forehead of an older balding man who did, in fact, bear an uncanny resemblance to my father. We reassured her that it wasn’t actually him and sat back down.
Then my husband gasped. “Oh my God. It’s Rush Limbaugh.”
The man my niece mistook for her beloved grandfather was the controversial and conservative Big Fat Idiot himself, Rush Limbaugh. We laughed at this unexpected “celebrity” sighting, wondering if my niece had a future as a talent scout for celebrity impersonators. Yet as the laughter faded, a chill ran down my spine. I realized what a truly vile – albeit dapperly dressed – human being was sitting just feet from us.
I hated Rush Limbaugh so much that throughout the evening, I entertained complex fantasies of public humiliation and shame. Marching up to him, I would scream powerful words of truth to counteract years of his flagrant lies. I’d laugh, pointing at his cochlear implants and call him cruel, taunting names, asking him how he liked it. I’d make him hurt the way he had hurt so many people himself. In fact, when I heard he had an “episode” with his heart the following day, I felt intense pleasure at his misfortune.
How could I – a paragon of progressive virtue – loathe someone so much that I actually wished him harm? I help homeless people! I recycle! I think about volunteering! I wear my bleeding, liberal heart on my sleeve, but in that moment, I had become Rush Limbaugh.
I always believed my true politics were the politics of kindness and compassion. Yet I resented another human being to the point where I felt his life had no value, simply because I didn’t like the way he behaved. In that moment, I began seeing in myself the very same qualities I so reviled in Mr. Limbaugh, and frankly, I didn’t like it. Could I really consider myself to be of superior character when it turns out we have so much in common?
Hate is not the exclusive domain of politics – conservative or otherwise. The characteristics of hate – anger, judgment, and resentment – play out in front of us every day. The 24-hour media news cycle is filled with mean-spirited musings, whether for what the President should be doing in the Oval Office or what Angelina Jolie shouldn’t have worn at the Oscars. Nor are we immune to these qualities in our private lives. We flip off a “bad” driver on our commute home, screaming hateful epithets as we swerve into the other lane to get around him. We donate to our local shelter, yet mutter, “Get a job,” to the homeless person begging on the street.
We love to rationalize our hate and judgment. I certainly did mine that day with Rush Limbaugh. His hate is wrong therefore my hate is right, right? Wrong. Rationalization can’t change the fact that the language and toxic effect of hate are the same no matter who we are or for whom we vote. If I had screamed at Rush Limbaugh and he screamed back at me, a non-English speaking observer wouldn’t know who was “right” or “wrong;” he’d just see two people spewing venom at each other. And we’d all be the poorer for having let that hate wash over us.
Why? Because hate is expensive. We invest a lot of time and energy into harboring resentments towards one another. We fight unending, ruinous wars that cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. We lose bright futures to dark violence, using our hate as a powerful distraction to mask the real issue at hand – fear. We hate because we are afraid our collective differences means one of us must concede to change, and we don’t want it to be us.
I know I cannot change Rush Limbaugh or people like him; nor can I best them at their own game. Yet everyday I unconsciously choose to play it. Living a life of integrity in order to help heal the world means I must start by recognizing I am part of the problem. In this instance, I began looking at my painful beliefs around conservative politicians and pundits, starting with Mr. Limbaugh himself.
First I got very clear on my feelings for him. What exactly did I hate so much? What did I want to change about him? Author Byron Katie offers an excellent tool to help unleash your inner beast, with the “Judge Your Neighbor” worksheet. Using her process, I realized that while I definitely consider Rush Limbaugh a liar, what I hated most is how downright mean, hypocritical, and vitriolic he can be. I then had to be brutally honest with myself: I, too, can be mean, hypocritical, and equally venomous when it comes to people I don’t respect.
Once I recognized in myself those traits I hated in my enemies, I had to do something even harder: I had to acknowledge and learn to love the part of me that is like them. To do this, I became a compassionate observer of my actions and beliefs in order to understand the origin of my own hatred.
By simply asking myself in a kind and loving way “What am I so afraid of?”, I discovered my resentment came from a deep fear of what “these people” were doing to our world with their vicious half-truths and deceitful rhetoric and that if I didn’t hate them, they would “win” and ruin our society, a sentiment likely shared by my conservative counterparts.
If I truly want to practice the politics of love and kindness, then I must find a way let go of the fear that the “dark side” may win by learning to change my beliefs from hate to understanding. Playing “Hate the Hater” is a fruitless and unproductive game where nobody wins. Instead I’m learning to love the hater. By understanding what compels me to hate, it allows me valuable insight into what motivates people like Rush Limbaugh – their own painful beliefs fueled by their own well of fear. And I know that is their business and not mine.
The path to thoughtful benevolence won’t be paved with rainbows and unicorns. It will require lots of work: recognize in yourself those traits you dislike in others and then learn to own them. For me the lesson is “If you don’t like big, fat idiots, then don’t act like one.” Instead, choose to change your language, change the channel, and change the conversation from hate to something more productive. As Gandhi says, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” You might just be surprised who you run into along the way.