Both personally and artistically, Scott Stabile is a charmer, a vulnerable, funny, intelligent writer who takes himself not too seriously — but seriously enough to ask important questions. In his newest book, Big Love, a courageously honest collection of personal essays, he takes the reader on a wild ride through the landscape of love’s possibilities. Stabile writes about his parents‘ murder when he was fourteen, his struggles with coming out into gay life, his brother’s heroin overdose, his thirteen-year membership in an unnamed cult, and the everyday struggles and triumphs that have given him quite remarkable insight.
His previous books include Just Love, Iris, and the L’il Pet Hospital Series; he also wrote the feature film The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure. In addition to his work as a speaker, teacher, and activist, Stabile’s inspirational posts and videos have attracted a huge and devoted social media following. We spoke recently about grief, forgiveness, the power of choice, and how to become a “love warrior.”
Mark Matousek: Thomas Merton says, “Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone.” In your book, you make a point about love being a practice that gets stronger through tests and time. Can you talk about the relationship between adversity and love?
Scott Stabile: I lost my parents at a very young age, so that was my greatest adversity. I was fourteen when they were shot to death. At the time, I was too young to have any sort of conscious response to what I was experiencing, so I buried the pain and grief of losing them. I moved on with my life and did my best to avoid any conversation about my family and parents.
In my 20s, I started to realize that by blocking myself off from feeling the grief and rage around losing my parents, I was shutting myself down to the full experience of life. You can’t put a wall up to the darkness without also putting a wall up to the light. At the same time, I started to recognize that love felt like the most powerful guiding force I could use to move forward in my life.
In the book, I speak about those experiences that pulled me from my center, and when I speak about love, I speak about those things that love informs in our life. Kindness is a reflection of love. Compassion is a reflection. Forgiveness is a reflection. Authenticity is a reflection. During the hardest moments in my life, it was the commitment of love that got me to the other side. That includes loving myself. When we’re going through adversity, we can be paralyzed by our self-abuse in terms of how we’re reacting and responding to whatever we’re going through, instead of being gentle with ourselves and finding deeper love and compassion for ourselves.
MM: And this adversity can affect our ability to love in intimate and romantic relationships?
SS: Relationships, whether romantic, family relationships or those with close friendships, are where we tend to be the most provoked by other people. In my relationship with my partner, he gets the least patient version of me and he gets to see the ugliest of all the versions of me. But we’re still together ten years later, because I know that anytime we can bring love to the present moment, we are going to serve all involved.
Besides that love, communication is one of the big things that can make or break relationships. We can show up in our communication with our partners from a blameful, closed-down, inflexible place, or we can show up with openness, without the need to be right in everything we’re saying, and with empathy in terms of the experience they might be going through in that moment. Those choices are informed by choosing love.
MM: You write, “Pain buried itself to protect me, to keep me from burying myself beneath it.” Can you talk about how the suppressed grief seeped into different areas of your life?
SS: Whatever we are not dealing with, is dealing with us in some way. I survived the experience of my parents’ death without really dealing with it. I didn’t repress it consciously, but something in me knew that the fourteen-year-old version of me could not deal with that trauma. So, I moved on with my life. I was a good student, a popular kid, and went to a good college. But any emotion—grief, blame, or anything we’re not dealing with—continues to fester within us. I developed this hacking cough that I relate to the grief I was suppressing about my parents. And I was having nightmares all the time.
We cannot avoid feeling what we’re feeling and expect that everything is going to be okay. When I made myself available to feeling the full spectrum of my emotion, I also made myself available to experience the beauty this world has to offer in a much more profound way.
MM: What about commitment in relationships before you dealt with your own grief?
SS: My first long-term relationship of four-and-a-half years, didn’t come until I was thirty. Before then, I broke up with everyone after a handful of months. I was not in a place to commit and connect to people. In retrospect, it’s easy to connect that to fear of abandonment, but in the moment, I always told myself I just wasn’t that interested. Which kept me from having to deal with the deeper truth of what was going on.
MM: Talk about the power of choice in becoming a force of love in the world or what you call a “love warrior.” What can we do on a daily basis, to make that possible in our own lives?
SS: A lot of it comes through awareness, but kindness is the easiest mandate of love. We all know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of kindness, as well as the giving end. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by the reality of this world right now. Like we can’t do anything to make a difference, because there is so much violence and ugliness. But we hold so much power in our kindness, so much power in just stepping outside with an open heart and a willingness to be kind to your neighbors and to the community around you. When you do that, you start to see how you are making a difference just in the way that you interact with people. And that’s power.
We can integrate more empathy in our lives. People aren’t taking the time to imagine what it’s like to walk in others’ shoes before they condemn them. If we can simply acknowledge the humanity in another person and take a minute to imagine what their experience might be like, it might curb some of the rage on social media. So, showing kindness, empathy and compassion—these are tangible things we can be doing every single day, and not just with others, but with ourselves as well. That’s being a love spreader. A love warrior. That’s taking love to heart and going out into the world with it as a mission and a goal. It makes a profound difference.
MM: And that’s different from being sentimental, isn’t it? I’ve often been struck by how edgy I’ve spent time with can be. There’s a ferocity (to alleviate suffering) and outrage over injustice that can co-exist with love, don’t you think?
SS: People sometimes think of love as weak or soft. But in my experience, love is often the harder choice. So yes, that’s a very important point. It takes no effort for human beings to go to blame, anger, and self-abuse. What takes effort is moving beyond, and finding the compassion, empathy, and kindness. Love takes constant work, but we’re alive, so why not put energy into that one thing that stands to create a better world for all involved?
The wisest people are often the realest. There’s authentic in their humanity and the willingness to be present in the anger that comes with that—and with whatever else is going on for them. Love makes noise in the face of injustice. I am not one who believes that love is silent. Love is loud, and sometimes love rages.
MM: What did your thirteen years with a guru teach you about spiritual love?
SS: I don’t believe love should be conditional, but it often is. Spiritual love or otherwise. My guru talked about unconditional love as the foundation for his teachings, but ultimately it was incredibly conditional, because when I moved away from that community, he instructed everyone to delete me from their lives. And surprisingly, they did what he asked without reaching out to me in any way. The main condition in that cult was that we had to accept everything the guru said as some directive from God. If we didn’t, it was our unwillingness to face the truth. He could never be wrong in what he said. I don’t believe, if we’re operating from the energy of love, that it should be conditional, but that is not what I experienced.
MM: My last question has to do with forgiveness. Like many others, you say there is no love without forgiveness. Do you view forgiveness as a permanent state, or is it something that needs upkeep?
SS: I think it can be both. When I look at the man who killed my parents, for instance, I feel forgiveness for him through empathy. The only way I found forgiveness was when I was able to connect to his humanity and recognize that nobody operating from any sense of self-worth, or self-love could ever kill innocent people. It feels permanent, because I don’t find myself revisiting that forgiveness and changing my mind. But there are instances that have been more personal. For instance, I have forgiven my former guru, but there are moments where I find myself raging about what happened. But I still believe in forgiveness, Mark. I believe that If I am not willing to forgive something, that it is darker and more powerful than the love I have in my heart. And that is just not my experience of the world. At least so far. I see forgiveness as a mandate of love. To love is to forgive.
MM: But it’s not monolithic. Forgiveness can waver just as love can. That doesn’t make it less valuable.
SS: I think it’s human to experience it all. I still get angry, and dark, and ugly, and blameful, but those moments don’t last as long as they used to. Whether in relationship, or in the world. When it comes to forgiveness, I’m not always able to go there instantly. If I’m wronged, I’m not necessarily going to forgive you right away. But I am committed to forgiving you. And that’s how I know I’m going to find my way there. And I’m certainly not always loving, but I have seen great value in continuously asking myself the question, “What does love invite in this moment?”