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Columns

Leading With Love

Responding to chaos and hatred with agape and universal love

By Salma Abdelrahman, Contributing Opinion Writer
Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

These past few days, my thoughts have been drowned by the violence of the news — bullets, bomb threats, bodies. Erasure, marginalization, cruelty. While the world falls apart around us, the sadistic laughter coming from the Oval Office seems only to get louder, deafening, almost like shrieks that our ears were not made to process.

As I bear witness, as the videos and headlines and articles and raw pain make their way into my bloodstream, I feel my cells transforming into sparks which fuel the fire that burns inside me. Each tear I see on the news becomes a flare, each story of fear and trauma and pain intensifies the rage. I find some comfort in its warmth; anger is nothing new for me, and the familiar sensations activate the muscle memory from my Semester of Rage, the four months I spent living — breathing, eating, sleeping, advocating, dancing, writing — incensed, embracing the flames fully and allowing them to engulf me. Now, I fall into old patterns, etching dark words into my journal, waking up drenched in sweat, snapping at people I love, melting into hopelessness.

I know this anger is hardly sustainable. My Semester of Rage was quickly followed by my Semester of Struggle where I became forced to care gently for my singed insides. My therapist’s office on the fourth floor of Harvard University Health Services became a space for healing, where together we applied salve and gauze to my rougher wounded parts. The intense emotional whiplash of it all required critical self-reflection. I had no choice; parts of me were burned beyond repair and parts of me were dying, festering in hatred.

In the midst of this healing process, I rediscovered Martin Luther King, Jr. as an overwhelmingly complex and intensely human figure, one who had reckoned also with his role in the face of catastrophe, one who had come out of these struggles more unwavering and more radical. This King looked vastly different from the sanitized version my education had previously acquainted me with. I began reading his work voraciously and found, very quickly, a spiritual guide and mentor. Central to King’s moral philosophy is the idea that by embodying love in ourselves as individuals, we can begin to address treat the injustices and traumas that have global impact.

This past week, I’ve felt myself sinking back into a destructive, loathful anger in response to the hatred shown to my siblings in solidarity. So many parts of me want to flip desks and cuss and scream in the faces of those who do harm unto the people I care about, harm unto me. But, I know that if I stay in this place for too long, the gentler and joyous parts of myself — the parts I must tend to — may not make it out alive. King recognized this also: “Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life.”

Moments of crisis call into question our most deeply held values. I’m asking myself what to do about recent catastrophes, how this collective society will respond. I see a response formulating already, a troubling one: The prosecutors against the man who shot 11 innocent people in their synagogue in Pittsburgh plan to pursue the death penalty. Death provokes violence, anger provokes anguish, hatred provokes more of it. The fires of rage scorch our espoused principles of the disavowal of violence, commitment to redemption, and respect for humanity. We fall deeper and deeper into a moral illness that blinds us.

Our fundamental challenge in these moments of crisis is to process the death, anger, and hatred this world hands to us and find a way, still, to respond with deep love. This is the answer King gives us: To save our souls, we must push back against our deepest instincts to pursue revenge and retribution and instead find a path to individual and collective redemption. We must respond with agape — a universal and all encompassing love, a love for all, a love for our enemies.

And it is a challenge. Loving those who hurt us can be immensely painful. And the ironic unfairness of it all never fails to sink under my skin, to ignite further fires inside of me. In the fights for justice I have been a part of, it is always those who are most marginalized — queer women of color — that are asked to do the grunt work, the personal transformation required to bend the moral arc of the universe.

Why does the burden of progress fall on me and those I stand in solidarity with? Why is no one else implicated in our struggle? What do the traumas and catastrophes we internalize do to our insides before we transform them into more beautiful things to give to the world? And how are we expected to maintain our humanity, to honor our raw emotions, if we are so often simply vessels for change? In the moments I confront these questions, I resent King. I know logically that he is right, that love is necessary in our fights for liberation, but still I am exhausted.

As I survey the destruction that has been taking place around me, though, I recognize that this is a burden that we must step up to bear, for no one else will. The survival of our moral spirit and the moral spirit of this society depends on it. And this way, leading with love, we can begin to fix our world.

Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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