“Love just doesn’t happen. It’s not like a weed. It doesn’t grow by itself with no tending…” – Bill Murphy
It took a lot of cajoling. But the spotlight was finally turned on The Only Love Project’s founder as he was asked the same set of questions he routinely puts to others. What follows is the phone conversation Bill Murphy had with Saij MW (Ambassador of Unconditional Love, Tennessee) on September 3, 2014. Thank you, Saij, for your time and fleet-fingered transcribing talent!
SMW: Briefly tell us your background. What would you like others to know about you?
BM: Oh, I like how you put so much inflection into that question. It makes it sound like it’s a really good question [laughs].
Factually speaking, you can say I am a husband, a brother, a friend, a cat owner (or maybe the cat owns me…I don’t know). But, really, the most important thing I would like others to know about me is that I am somebody who cares and that I’d be by their side if they needed me. The factual things I began with (husband, brother, friend, etc.) are really pretty much in common with a lot of people. Such descriptors don’t set me apart from anybody. And, in fact, I am not really anybody special. But what I do strive to do is to be available to people who need help. So that’s what I’d like others to know about me: that I am there and that I care.
SMW: Well, that always comes across from my experience.
BM: Thank you.
SMW: Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
BM: Absolutely, for a number of reasons. Some of it would be related to how I was brought up. Back when I was maybe 10 – 9, 10, 11, something like that – my mother thought it would be good for us to have some sort of religion in the house, and she wanted to pick a really old one to make sure it was authentic. [laughs]
So it was a toss-up between Judaism and Catholicism. She figured those were the two oldest Biblical sort-of religions. And for whatever reason she picked Catholicism. I don’t know what would have happened if she would have picked Judaism. I don’t even know if you can swing that. Well, Sammy Davis, Jr. did, I guess.
So for awhile I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic Sunday school. I may have even done the Confirmation thing. I don’t remember. It was a long time ago. After that I was done. (And I don’t even know if my brothers went through that.) I was nothing for quite awhile, sort of agnostic or atheist. Probably in my mid- to late-twenties I discovered Protestant Christianity (especially the writings of the late Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer, Josh McDowell, John W. Whitehead, and Cal Thomas) and studied that for a few years. It answered a lot of questions, especially regarding truth – or what I considered truth to be at the time. Many years after that, of course, I began to study Zen and that helped define my worldview even more.
So am I a spiritual person? Yes, because I know enough to know that I don’t have all the answers. I do not know what’s out there. I know enough to know that I can’t say definitively there is nothing out there. I don’t think this world got to be what it is by itself. No matter how many billions of years some people say it took to develop what we see around us, I don’t think it’s possible that it all got here by chance. If you consider the wide diversity of everything that we see, hear, smell, taste…well, pick an organ in the human body. How would a liver develop by itself? Or an eyeball, for Pete’s sake? A tree? A starfish? An orange? I believe something out there created all of this. I’m pretty sure about that – well, I can’t say it like that. Let’s just say I have strong suspicions. [laughs]
So I regard spirituality as part and parcel of my life. I take each day as a gift. Spirituality unites everybody. For whatever reason, it is inherent in people. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be six billion people on the planet who claim some sort of spiritual tradition. Something inside people either wants that or needs that, and I can’t explain why that is. I just know that it is, and that’s kind of how I am as well. I’m a spiritual person. Seems like a long answer for a short question.
SMW: That was a great answer. Most religious traditions speak of the power and value of love. For example:
• The Dhammapada tells us, “Only love dispels hate.”
• The Bible tells us, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another…” (John 13:34)
What, if anything, do those words mean to you?
BM: Those words mean a great deal to me. The first one (“Only love dispels hate” from the Dhammapada) started me on some very intense thinking about what would eventually become The Only Love Project. The “only love” part of The Only Love Project comes from “Only love dispels hate.”
The Bible contains some of the most beautiful passages about love ever written. 1 Corinthians 13, for example, is absolutely mind-blowing. And humbling. It makes me cry to read those words.
I spent time studying love from the New Testament, and I looked at the lives of people from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, Mother Teresa to famous authors like C.S. Lewis and even pop culture personalities like Muhammad Ali, Thomas Merton, and Rob Bell (who wrote Love Wins). Then I took a long, hard look at the world and all of its violence and misery and sadness. I concluded that love is the most important factor in our lives. I can’t see anything else that could solve the world’s challenges because you have to overcome the darkness that’s there with something. It’s like the saying don’t curse the darkness. You light a candle. A light into a dark situation illuminates it. Darkness into a dark situation just creates more dark. Love is the light of the world. It can illuminate, give hope.
I think we can see what happens without it: anger, rage, rioting, death. I don’t know how many more beheading videos I can take to see what evil looks like. The people doing things like that are absolutely devoid of any sort of love or compassion. That’s what darkness looks like. If you want to see the face of lovelessness, look at that. There it is. But there are varying degrees of that as well in people’s lives – in married couples, boyfriend/girlfriend, significant-other relationships. You can have lovelessness in different ways, too. For example, not paying attention to somebody, following your own life without regard for somebody else, failing to listen intently. There are varying degrees of lovelessness. It’s just taken to the extreme in the case of these terrorists
The Only Love Project came about when I spent time pondering, “Only love dispels hate.” I asked myself, “What does that mean? What can that possibly mean? How could that work? Does it work? If so, how?”
Around that same time I was really embroiled in a lot of social media, Facebook sort-of debates. You know, I had my answers down to where I would cut-and-paste them to destroy with my answers. I had a list handy of about 40 different books of a certain kind. Whenever I would get into a Facebook argument with somebody, I would copy that list, paste it into a thread and say, “Take that, sucker. Let’s see if you can contradict this.” And I’d toss it out there. I was an absolute pro. I was feared far and wide for my sharp comebacks – not wit, necessarily. But fact, logic, reason. I could just lay waste. [laughs]
Then one day I asked myself, “The hell am I doing? This isn’t helping anybody.” For any one or two people I may convert to how I am thinking, I’m probably pissing off dozens upon dozens of others, and only further entrenching people in their position.
Suddenly, it hit me: “Only love dispels hate.”
That was the answer to my questioning! My mind was blown. Seriously. For me, this is what that phrase meant. It was the answer I had been seeking. It was a powerful epiphany because I was doing that which my incessant questioning and pondering revealed to me was the problem.
I was not dispelling hate. I was adding to it.
From there, I began to ask myself, “What would happen if I didn’t take a position on Facebook? What would happen if I didn’t debate? What would happen if I just listened to the other side and said, Uh-huh, I see what you are saying” or actually expressed love towards those who held an opposing viewpoint? What would happen?”
Well, I found out what happens: the walls come down. Hate doesn’t begin. The us-and-them estrangements evaporates. Suddenly, instead of me taking a hard-and-fast position on something, digging in, becoming the feared debater on Facebook, I was the guy who was saying, “Wait a second. Maybe it’s not good to dig in, hold these opinions tightly, create these walls, fan the flames of anger.” People forget that violence is an offshoot of anger. Death is just the offshoot of violence. It’s all a continuum. It’s not like these are different things. Death doesn’t spring from nowhere. It doesn’t go zero to death. It’s all a continuum. And it starts with interactions with people on Facebook or in your neighborhood…or in your home. That’s where the continuum starts.
So I vowed to end that continuum. Stop it before it starts. So those two quotes were part of the reasons why I started The Only Love Project. And I called it a “project” because it’s not a one-and-done kind of thing. It takes practice. And I’ll be the first to admit I fall off the wagon from time to time. I’ll still dash off an opinion about something that I’m passionate about. Or – and this is the really ironic part – I’ll try to insert my non-opinion into a hard-left liberal or hard-right conservative post to suggest there’s another side to what they’re saying – and I’ll get my ass kicked! I’ll be told I’m argumentative. Just for suggesting there’s another way to look at something!
I can spot the signs of a closed mind a mile away because mine used to be the same way. The Only Love Project exists – to the best of my ability – to see what happens when I try to keep an open mind. It’s an experiment in my life and in the lives of others. So those two phrases mean a great deal to me.
SMW: Wow! What an awesome answer. What role can love play in the world today?
BM: None at all – unless we choose to make it so. Remember Star Trek: The Next Generation? Captain Picard would sometimes say, “Make it so.” Love just doesn’t happen. It’s not like a weed. It doesn’t grow by itself with no tending or without provocation of any kind. It doesn’t just appear. This whole thing only works if we actively choose to implement it, to express it, to feel it, to share it. What role can it play? If we do those things, it can play the most important role of all. But that’s only if we do those things. We have to make it so.
SMW: What stops people from being more loving and compassionate?
BM: I’ve read answers that say fear stops people. I’m not so sure about that. I don’t think fear stops people. I think it’s self that stops people. I think there is something inherent in people that’s prideful, that’s selfish, that wants to be correct as much as possible. See, love requires the ultimate humility. If you think of Jesus on the cross, you get, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It doesn’t get any more humble or lacking in vengeance than that. So I think it takes a conscious decision to lay that aside, to put it down. Zen practitioners would say “Keep the stopper in the bottle,” which means keep our mouths shut, our opinions to ourselves. Make a conscious choice not to engage in debate, activism, things that create an us and a them, that create walls and barriers. If we don’t do that, I believe love has a chance to grow.
If we don’t lay it down, if we continue the pridefulness, if we have to prove ourselves right…well, think of this in political terms. For whatever reason we have a two-party system in this country even though there are other parties such as Libertarian. People only seem to think in terms of Democratic or Republican. Those are such entrenched ideologies that it’s virtually impossible to think of any other. If you are not one, people automatically assume you are the other, and that’s because of years and years of contentious debates, arguments, fighting. People simply can’t imagine one without the other. They’re the Yin and the Yang, even though both parties are exactly the same. They are exactly alike in that there are certain people in control, and they don’t really care about what people like us who vote for them think about anything. There is an agenda they have, and it works the same with both parties. It’s like the old good-cop, bad-cop routine. They’re both cops! We just don’t realize it. Or maybe it’s because we won’t admit we’ve been duped, that we’re wrong.
So I think what stops people from becoming more loving is the fact that they refuse to allow themselves to become vulnerable, to be open, to be wrong. That’s probably the key: to be wrong. To be able to say, “You know what? I don’t know what I’m talking about. And the things I just told you a minute ago, forget about them. I was wrong. Forgive me. Forgive me for saying something in anger or for assuming I was right when I had no idea.” It’s people’s need to be defensive and right, that I think stops love from being more prevalent in the world. It’s not fear. It’s pure selfish pride.
SMW: Do you have recommendations regarding how someone might cultivate a spirit of love over the long term…but also put love into action right now so that he or she can make a positive difference right away?
BM: Yeah. In the short term, I would say immediately put it all down. That’s a Zen phrase. Put it down. Drop the opinions. Drop the contentiousness. Be vulnerable. Don’t debate. Pay attention to each moment.
And by the way, it’s okay to have opinions. Everything I’m expressing right now is an opinion, and I’d be happy to change it if something else comes along that makes more sense to me. So the problem is not opinions, per se. The problem is holding tightly to them, not relinquishing them, especially as a situation ramps up. So in the immediate, right now, I would say practice laying aside opinions – either not expressing them or dropping them as quickly as possible when an opposing side appears. As soon as you see an opposite arise, drop the opinion. That will keep the walls [between us] from even being built to begin with.
Over the long term, I would say maybe developing spiritual habits that will serve you in good stead. Meditation is a terrific way to realize that we are not all that and a bag of chips. I don’t even know how this works, but when you sit on the cushion or if you are standing somewhere and in your mind you are meditating, there is something about that action that brings humility and compassion to one’s heart. I don’t know why that is. I don’t think there is any way to explain it. But I would say try meditating. Try sitting alone by yourself for five or ten minutes. Just sit there. See where your thoughts are going. Take a look at them, and that will help you realize what you are dwelling on, what you are afraid of, what you are running from, what you are running toward, what you value, what you don’t value. Sitting alone in a room for ten minutes will tell you more about yourself than any psychologist could in days or weeks. Practice meditation. Or deep, fervent prayer and devotion the way the contemplatives like Thomas Merton or Saint Francis of Assisi did.
Read. Read spiritual books. Read books that feed your soul. If you are a Catholic, read Catholic stuff. Read the Bible. Christians read the Bible. Buddhists read the Dhammapada. And vice versa. Christians would be skillful to read the Dhammapada. Buddhists would be skillful to read the Bible. Protestants could spend time boning up on Catholic spirituality. Catholics might benefit from reading Protestant theology. Get to know what other people think and believe.
Read poetry. For Pete’s sake, poetry of all kinds is just wonderful. Try Rumi. He could capture the language of the soul like few others. Some of his poetry chokes me up it’s so profound.
Plus, I can’t tell you the number of times I have quoted Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That really moves me for some reason. I can’t tell you what knowing that phrase has done for my life. I have shared that with so many other people. When I was teaching at a university, I would write that on the board at the start of class. I would say, “Here is your chance. There are two roads. You can choose to take the road less traveled by, and you can see if it can make all the difference or not.” There is something about poetry that keeps one’s heart soft.
Music, too. There is something about beautiful music. Listen to Beethoven. Listen to Mozart. Listen to Bach. It doesn’t matter who you choose. Pick one. Pick them all. I’m partial to Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. Or, look at art, famous paintings. Really take a good look at Rembrandt. Go to a museum and gaze at a Van Gogh. Read about their lives.
Why? Because when you absorb the heights of what the human race is capable of – its greatest music, art, literature, spirituality – it will feed your soul. It will help you see that there is good in the world to pursue, to embrace. I think that plus a spiritual tradition, either meditation or contemplative prayer, will help you be a softer-hearted person able to see the good in others and able to quickly see the bad in yourself so that you can be humble and able to say, “Please forgive me.” Study the heights of humanity and you will become more compassionate. You will become softer with yourself and others. You will look around and see human need. You will be quick to ask people, “How may I help you?” – and actually, really mean it. So I hope that answers both short term and long term.
SMW: Wonderful. Who do you look up to the most when you think of the power of love?
BM: That’s an excellent question. I can give you a number of answers that all have the same ending. Who do I look up to most? I would say Jesus. Remember: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That’s a life-changing statement. The selfless, compassionate love Jesus exemplified ended up with him on the cross. Ironic, right? He died for that. Look at Martin Luther King, Jr., – and in no way do I mean to diminish the Christian tradition when I say they are similar stories – but MLK was moved by the power of love and compassion and it cost him his life as well. Look at Gandhi. Same thing. Only from the Hindu tradition. Gandhi realized nonviolence and peace and compassion were the answers he believed were good for his people at the time. It cost him his life. In every case of love fully embraced, fully lived, absolutely flat out, no-holds-barred-lived, it ended in death – either literally, the end of one’s physical life…or figuratively, the end of one’s self. The kind of love I’m talking about almost always ends in death. We die to ourselves. Or people’s hatred opposes us and we lay down our lives (or our lives are taken from us). Love carried to that extreme could cost me my life. So the people I look up to most are those who loved that much.
This is easily the most difficult path to walk because one is constantly bombarded by the felt need to participate in arguments or debates or activist causes or defensiveness or revenge or whatever. We want to lash out – physically, emotionally, with word and deed. We want to mold others into our image. Walking the path of love takes everything you have to refrain from that. It’s a difficult path because it hurts. You know, you can become so compassionate, so broken-hearted for humanity, that you just cry. It just hurts. But if we don’t do that, then who will be the people who love? If I cannot cry for others, for the separation and sadness, for the loneliness and hunger and pain, then I cannot help them. And I certainly can’t help myself. But it costs. The price is often death. I have to “kill” my opinions and view others as my equal, at least, or even my superior. And that includes their opinions. Even if I vehemently disagree with them. I must love that person and seek his or her well being.
SMW: Do you have anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?
BM: I don’t think so, really. Well, maybe this: I think we keep ourselves apart in whatever faith tradition we embrace – and that includes atheism, which is also a faith-based ideology – by holding to the idea that our way alone is the only way. Even if it is, even if it is, if we live our lives as if it isn’t, we will be able to get along with everybody on the planet. This also works for any “activist” belief we have – no matter what it is. Try to live your life as if whatever it is you believe, however fervently you believe it, could be wrong. You’d be surprised how that will change how you treat others.
SMW: Truly amazing. Thank you so much.
BM: Thank you, Saij. I appreciate your time.
NOTE: It was Saij’s idea to post this interview onto a permanent page so that others could find it, months or years after it was posted to the home page, and discover what the impetus was for The Only Love Project.