Back in 2011 when I was trying to find my way and find more meaning and purpose in my life, I contacted Alastair McIntosh, the great Scottish human ecologist and theologian. I told him what I wanted to do and asked for his advice. His reply was simple and to the point: “Matthew,’ he said, “it doesn't really matter what path you walk, what matters is the heart you walk it in.” His response liberated me, because I understood that my activism could find its expression in the process and not just the end result.
So I set off on a series of journeys through the United Kingdom and beyond to listen to and share as many love stories as I could, seeing love as the root of human connection and authentic social action. The results have been captured in an interactive website called A Human Love Story, and now in a new book. During the last seven years I have told and retold my own love stories to strangers, on the path, in the streets, towns and villages I’ve passed through. And in those exchanges I’ve sought to create safe spaces where people can be heard, where they can speak their stories and have an opportunity to open up and to be vulnerable.
I’ve come to think of this as ‘heart-led activism’ or compassionate practice in the world, rooted in the conviction that deep listening is one of the most profoundly loving gifts we can offer someone. When carried out authentically it represents love made and love given. When I talk about deep listening I mean a practice in which the listener is fully present in that moment with another human being without any judgement—an open and compassionate space where connection and understanding can take root.
For me this is a form of activism on an individual level that can cultivate change on a wider societal and cultural scale. To undertake the simplest of tasks with the right intention can contribute to an emerging web of similar actions with and by others. In isolation these actions may seem fruitless, but in a wider context they have the power to embed more compassionate discourses and actions deep into our behaviour. A psycho-analyst friend of mine based in Paris talks of “chipping away in your corner.” Like the ripples that emanate from a pebble dropped in water, compassionate understanding and loving interaction can spread across society and its institutions—which leads me to my most recent journey with A Human Love Story.
In the spring of 2017 I walked some 500 miles through Scotland, from Lindisfarne in the North Eastern corner of England to the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis, far out in the Atlantic Ocean. During this journey I met with hundreds of people and we shared our stories. In Edinburgh I met with a group of volunteers at the Welcoming Association, which provides education, support and nurturing to refugees, migrants and other newcomers to Scotland. They offer understanding, hospitality and community to many young people and adults trying to create a new life for themselves in Edinburgh.
The care and love I observed in these interactions was both inspiring and humbling. On countless occasions during my walk I was offered a bed for the night, food for my journey and connections further along the path; small acts of kindness that required courage, heart, and openness towards a stranger. I met with a group called the Afterwards Community in Bathgate (a town in West Lothian), who support each other emotionally as they go through profound changes in their lives. Recognition, storytelling, food and hugs all help to create a supportive framework of love and kindness.
I talked with people who helped to build allotments, digging the soil and nurturing others in that process. I received smiles on the road and nods of acknowledgement; powerful gestures of welcome. On another occasion I found myself talking to a young lady from Spain who was living in Scotland. Her love story began on a beach in Greece, where as a volunteer she spent the night waiting for refugees to arrive from their crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. During those hours of darkness she fell into conversation with a fellow volunteer, and a passionate romance was ignited. Hers was a fiery and visceral love story, but what struck me more was the situation in which it was initiated—waiting on a beach to help strangers find a welcome; a powerful act of compassionate activism and a love story in itself.
For me, all these acts of compassion require an outward-looking perspective. Our gaze is directed beyond ourselves and into our living and waking communal experiences. Like listening and sharing, they build a framework of existence that is inter-dependent. In this approach, the ego is perhaps tucked away a little. My partner often quotes these words from a Nat King Cole song: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” For me, this is such a poignant statement because it reaches out beyond the individual, beyond our own desire and longing for love. It expresses the essential character of loving interaction, which is the dynamic response from all those involved.
The simple things each person does in relationship to themselves, to others, and to the wider world are opportunities to walk a more compassionate path. For me, being fully conscious in my interactions with other people is the most profound way to walk this path. Small acts of love have the potential to join together and create a more compassionate society.
We all journey in our different ways. And though we have destinations and goals, and markers along the way, it is the journey itself that is important. How we move through our lives, the connections we make, the intentions we set, and the love we offer ourselves, others and this beautiful world is our greatest potential gift. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter what path you walk, what matters is the heart you walk it in.