I read, recently, that Donald Trump shares Richard Nixon’s belief that “People react to fear, not love.” I was not surprised to learn this. I had suspected as much when he ran for office, and it was one of the (admittedly many) reasons I couldn’t vote for him.
It’s certainly true that people react to fear. I know I have. For years I believed I was obsessed with success when, really, I was living in constant fear of failure. Failure seemed like death, a final and irreversible verdict upon not just what I was capable of but on my very value. I quietly believed that success–any success–was better than failure. So, I worked hard, wrote every day, and attended writers’ conferences, all the while feeling a clock of doom counting down in my heart. If success didn’t happen, soon, the cell door of failure would close and lock on me, forever.
What’s strangest about this time is that from the outside I looked like a person, “pursuing his dream.” In reality, movement can be deceiving. From a certain distance, a man running from a killer looks a lot like a man running toward the woman he loves. The difference is that a man running from a killer seeks safety anywhere, whereas one running toward the woman he loves seeks it from somewhere very specific. Fear is always a movement away from, and love is always a movement toward. The frightened man, because he is essentially directionless, eventually looks up and, as I frequently did, asks, “How did I get here?”
Things began to immediately change for me when I asked myself, “What story would I love to tell?” This was different than asking, “What’s the story I could tell that would be successful, that would save me from the cliff of failure?” The truth is, any story can succeed. Just walk into a bookstore and take a look around. Self-help books succeed, as do romance novels and literary novels.
On the other hand, there’s usually just one story I’d love to tell at any one time. Whether others will consider a story of mine–one I love–successful or not has no bearing on whether I’d love to tell it. I love it because I love it. Because I’m interested in it and it’s fun to think about. My love for it is unconditional. When I write a story to succeed, there’s no love for that story, whatsoever. I write it, expressly, for what I believe it will bring me. It’s a slave-master relationship, not one based on love.
It’s no surprise that Trump seems, by all accounts, to have a very one-way view of loyalty. When you’re afraid, all you want is to not be. Fear may lead you to accumulate enough wealth, attention, or power so that you can finally know you’re okay. It’s a survivalist, every-man-for-himself mentality. There’s no room for love here. Love is a luxury for the naïve or the retired.
It’s easy to judge Trump, but it’s also easy to see myself in him. Sometimes, he seems like the distillation of a single idea of manhood, where our external success defines our value. That I sought that value in publishing contracts and winning awards rather than skyscrapers or border walls does not make my search more meaningful. Like him, I was headed nowhere.
Fortunately, what we love never leaves us. It can’t. It’s what we are. It’s as true for me as it is for Trump. All the while I ran from failure, love kept pulling on me, kept shining its light in my eyes. It was disorienting. I believed I was trying to get somewhere, while this formless impulse kept getting in my way, distracting me, slowing me down.
When you finally succumb to it, love feels a bit like giving up. It’s not long, however, before you learn the truth: You only have to give up resisting it. In fact, Nixon was right in a way. I don’t react to love, I am love, as was he. All I can do is accept that, or spend the rest of my life struggling, striving, and fighting against it.
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