Growing up she experienced racism daily. As an adult, she has a powerful message about the power of love to heal.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine unarmed African Americans, as they worshiped in a church in South Carolina. Prior to the shooting, the gunman stated, “I have to do it. You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
As I read this story, my heart wept.
I attended grade school in South Carolina. The daughter of immigrants, my father is from India and Hindu. My mother is from Spain and Catholic. Married in 1968, their unorthodox union came during a time when people rarely crossed the lines of race, nationality and religion.
I learned early about hate. Children threw stones at my brother and me on our walk home from the bus stop. My classmates’ parents lamented that my father would be “going to hell” for his failure to convert to Christianity—a sad fate, they said, for someone so nice. An older student said that I should “return to Africa,” despite the fact that I was born and raised on American soil.
In the ultimate irony, I was sometimes perceived as Caucasian and became privy to the hateful and racist invectives people utter when they think they’re in like-minded company.
A few weeks ago, I was on the train from New York City headed towards Washington. I began a conversation with Nadia Iftekhar–the beautiful young woman sitting next to me. She told me of her year working in Saudi Arabia, her decision to wear a hijab (a veil often worn by Muslim women that covers their head and chest), and her upcoming graduation from Columbia University. I told her that I am a lawyer, dating coach and writer. She shared that she would soon be getting married. Her fiancé shared her faith, but not her race. She is Pakistani; he is Sudanese.
I asked if things were easier now, nearly 50 years after my parents dared to challenge convention?
Unfortunately, many of the same hurdles still exist. Nadia feared her family and friends would not accept her marriage to an African-American man. Her husband worried that his parents could not accept a woman who did not speak Arabic. While they successfully navigated these challenges, the unspoken (and often unacknowledged) divisions of “us” versus “them” remain.
As a dating coach, I am often approached by men and women who ache with deep loneliness. They want love desperately but have strong prerequisites.
“I only date black men.”
“I must marry Jewish.”
“She must be blonde.”
It is not my place to judge anyone else’s preferences. However, real Love (the kind with a capital L) recognizes that we are souls, yearning to love, laugh, grow and connect. If we’re lucky enough to find someone who makes us feel safe, accepted, cherished and valued (and who encourages us to be our best), we must be open in heart and mind to whatever form in which it appears. We are called to reject arbitrary labels and preconceived notions that keep love at bay.
I asked Nadia to write this piece with me, as we both have borne witness to transcendent love that bridges differences. Together, we formed five essential truths to love with an open heart and mind:
1. Transcendent love forces you to live authentically.
From an early age, we are conditioned by family, friends and society about the “correct” way to love. Even in the most liberal families, there may be an unspoken understanding that while all people are created equal, certain types of people are not “acceptable” as a partner or spouse. Love is not formulaic. Many seemingly “right” people are actually “wrong” for us. When we shed expectations, we are free to live authentically and in line with our own values—both hallmarks of emotional health.
“We are so much more than the skin that contains us. Although society kept reminding us that it is taboo for an African-American man and South Asian-American woman to fall in love, we were awed by our shared interests, values and opinions. Once we shed the opinions that the outside world had for us, we were able to see that we are just two souls with a deep understanding of one another,” said Nadia.
2. Transcendent love is rarely how you imagined. (It’s often better).
Talk to happy couples and they often concede that their “perfect” partner is nothing like they imagined. The Universe has a way of not only laughing at our best-laid plans, but also delivering what we need in a manner even better than we imagine.
Before Nadia met her husband, she had a short-list of “must-haves” in her mate. While some qualities rang true—including the importance of family—she expanded from thinking that her soul mate needed to be Pakistani-American. “I am so grateful that I opened my mind, as it allowed me to find someone I love so much and learn from every day,” she said.
3. Transcendent love expands your world.
While it is only human to want to stick with what is comfortable, growth happens through new experiences. When you choose a partner who is different, you get an insider’s perspective into how your partner views the world and the way the world views him or her. Though your partner’s reality will always be his or her own, much can be learned from sharing different perspectives. From this place, deep empathy and tolerance grows.
4. Transcendent love helps you to see the similarities between people. (We cry over the same hurt and rejoice over the same joy.)
“The biggest realization my husband and I had was that, at the end of the day, we’re just human beings,” said Nadia. “Sometimes we get so caught up in differences, we forget that the human experience is universal regardless of where you come from, what languages you speak and how you look on the outside.”
5. Love makes you want to be better in the world.
One of the best ways to confront biases or stereotypes is to get to know people from different groups on a human level. It’s hard to be hateful when you sit down, share a meal and discuss your everyday life. If you want to combat prejudice, there is no better way than by falling in love.
As I wrote this piece, the Supreme Court declared that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. I could think of no better counterpoint to the prejudice and hate displayed in Charleston than this beautiful declaration that all love is equal. Times are changing, after all.
Monica Parikh is a lawyer, writer, and dating coach. Deeply interested in love and relationships, she recently started School of Love NYC to help men and women develop happier and healthier relationships. Check out her website. Nadia Iftekhar lives in Chicago with her husband. She teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Photo: Flickr/ Damon