The opposite of love is not hate — it’s apathy

Brian Rea at the New York Times
Brian Rea at the New York Times

This New York Times article brings up a wonderful phrase sent in from a reader: “Hate is not the opposite of love, apathy is.”

It reminds me of a quotation in Richard Bach’s book “The Bridge Across Forever,” which goes, “The opposite of loneliness, it’s not togetherness. It is intimacy.” (By the way, I found that book intolerable, but that’s not pertinent to this post.)

I got intrigued by the love/apathy line, so I did some digging. One of my bugbears is when people are fast and loose with borrowing written language. You know what I mean: quotations that are used without attribution, when they are paraphrased or bastardized, or if they are simply apocryphal or inaccurate. My view is that written or spoken words are never meant to be extracted from their context and inserted onto a T-shirt or calendar without reference to their prior environment; quotations are not fungible commodities.

For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. is often cited — even in academic works — as saying, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” However, for a long time there was no written or audio evidence that he’d ever said that. When I last looked up this quotation around 2010, it seemed that the whole thing might have been made up. However, in 2014, PNHP pointed to two separate news articles showing that this phrase — if not verbatim — was at least in spirit uttered by King.

Another example is the line “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” which often gets attributed to Marilyn Monroe. In reality, it was first used by Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in the first paragraph of a paper she published in 1976. The actual line is “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Reading Ulrich’s biography — she is a highly respected historian who writes about the history of “ordinary people” — makes me wonder: Why does our culture feel the need to pass off this quotation as Marilyn Monroe’s? Is it any less profound when written by a groundbreaking feminist historian at Harvard? If I had a daughter, I’d be more excited if she were into Laurel Thatcher Ulrich than into Marilyn Monroe.

But going back to the love/apathy thing, the first source I turned to was The Yale Book of Quotations, which is pretty much the bible of quotation attribution. I bought the book in 2008, and perusing it over the years has given me much pleasure. Unfortunately, the book had only two quotations about apathy, and neither was the one I was looking for. I did like this one though from Robert M. Hutchins though:

The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment. 

So I turned to the Google. Elie Wiesel apparently referenced the line in a piece he wrote in U.S. News and World Report in 1986. But digging further, I did seem to find that it had been previously used by the author and academic Leo Buscaglia in his 1972 book “Love: What Life is All About.” I haven’t read the book myself, but I found the quotation in Amazon’s scanned copy on page 25:

I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate — it’s apathy. It’s not giving a damn. If somebody hates me, they must “feel” something about me or they couldn’t possibly hate. Therefore, there’s some way in which I can get to them. If you don’t like the scene you’re in, if you’re unhappy, if you’re lonely, if you don’t feel that things are happening, change your scene. Paint a new backdrop. Surround yourself with new actors. Write a new play. And if it’s not a good play, get the hell off the stage and write another one. There are millions of plays — as many as there are people. Nikus Kazantzakis says, “You have your brush and colors, paint paradise, and in you go. [Emphasis mine.]

A moment of reflection in the elevator

A sign in the elevator at Hennepin County Medical Center
A sign at Hennepin County Medical Center

I snapped this photo yesterday in an elevator at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), the county hospital in Minneapolis. During busy days, I savor my minute of solitude in the elevator, which gives me a moment of protected time to ponder non-medical things like the different languages used in hospital signs.

I especially enjoy trying to read and scrutinize Hmong. Its simple Latin alphabet yet unexpected sequence of letters (how do you put “txh” together?) make it a tantalizing combination of the familiar and the exotic. It makes me think a bit of the first time I tried to read Kaqchikel.

I wish hospitals and health centers in Guatemala placed as much importance on language as HCMC.

Nora grows ichaj

Mestanzia at our home in Comalapa
Mestanzia at our home in Comalapa

This is mestanzia (also known by other names such as floramarillo), which is a popular vegetable green in Comalapa. It is one of Nora’s favorite foods.

In highland Guatemala, mestanzia is planted in the fields between the corn stalks, and then harvested periodically throughout the rainy season. Men who work in fields will take it home with them in the afternoon after working the earth. Most mestanzia is consumed within the family, but if there is extra you can sell it in the market for 1 quetzal (~ $0.17) per fistful.

The entire mestanzia plant–steam, leaf, and flower–is eaten. Mestanzia is prepared by boiling it in water with a pinch of salt, and using tortillas to scoop it up out of a bowl, while making sure to dip the greens in a bit of fresh chili sauce.

In Mayan Kaqchikel, the word ichaj is used to denote a broad class of leafy greens including mestanzia and many other related plants. In combination with corn, beans, squashes, and chilis, ichaj makes up a pillar of the Mesoamerican indigenous diet that has existed since the antiquity.

In present day Guatemala, the consumption of ichaj is still very closely associated with Mayan culture and identity. It’s also considered a very humble food, maybe because it literally grows from the cornfield like a weed. The common perception is that ladinos (non-indigenous people) and Westerns are rich and don’t want to eat ichaj. So people are sometimes surprised that Nora likes it so much. I like it too, especially when it’s served with a pile of fresh tortillas, and the kitchen is filled with a family’s laughter.

We were given our mestanzia seeds by a very close family friend in Comalapa. Now in Minnesota, we planted them and hoped for the best. They sprouted and took off.

Mestanzia in our garden in Minnesota

We love seeing the greens grow in our backyard, reminding us of life in Guatemala and of all the wonderful meals we’ve shared in Guatemalan homes.

Each evening after long day at work, we eagerly run to our backyard garden to see how the mestanzia is doing. It’s doing amazing.

Try Googling “mestanzia” or “floramarilla.” You’ll find nothing. Perhaps this plant has another, more popular name. I don’t really know or want to know. The point is that in an era where everything is shared and retrievable online–and nothing is secret– what I describe to you in this post can only be discovered by traveling to the wonderful little town of San Juan Comalapa and sharing a meal with a Mayan family.

Mestanzia grown in Minnesota