I don’t really know how to love human beings.

Not really. I can love those who are a lot like me and those who treat me well. That’s easy. I don’t know how to love those who seem unlovable to me.

It’s easy for me to condemn people with hateful attitudes, especially those among them who call themselves Christians. It’s easy for me to look down on them and say, “You have no idea how to love other people. What’s wrong with you?”

But when I’m honest with myself, I realize it’s easy to love people in theory. It’s easy to read the words of Jesus and realize very clearly that it’s my responsibility to love everyone — those who aren’t like me, those who treat me poorly, those who are my enemies, even those who cut me off in traffic and leave me seething like an idiot with bad priorities.

What’s not so easy is putting love for others into practice. I realized recently that I’m still not certain what it would look like for me to genuinely love those I’d rather not love. I’m not even certain I always want to love the all-too-real people around me.

But I had an epiphany recently about loving the unlovable — and it’s left me wondering whether we’ve missed the entire point of loving others. What if the people who are changed for the better by our loving other people isn’t those others?

What if we’re the real beneficiaries of learning to love? What if real transformation of the heart and mind isn’t even possible without learning that kind of love?

What if learning to love others is what saves us from ourselves?

• • •

Ever since I was a child, people have told me that I need to love others.

I heard it at church, both in sermons and Sunday school lessons. I heard it at home. I heard it at school. I was told Jesus wanted me to love people. And I’ve heard it more recently from people who seem to have vaguely mystical reasons — as they talk about all humans being connected.

But I have to confess that I’m pretty terrible at it. Much of the time, I get too angry and I can hold grudges against those who hurt me. I’m disdainful of many types of people — those who aren’t like me, in many cases — in ways that make it clear that I don’t have love for them.

As I look back on the people, the institutions and the culture that told me I ought to love others, I find that most are just as lousy at it as I am.

Many of the people I went to church with and knew well were mean, nasty and unloving, even if they followed moral rules and thought they were good people. They might have taught Sunday school classes or been deacons, but most weren’t that much different from anybody else. They knew the words to say — about loving others and what Jesus told us to do — but I didn’t see it make any fundamental difference in who they were. And in too many cases, there was a fundamental disconnect between the Christian rhetoric about love and the angry words about hating and killing enemies on the other side of the world.

I eventually came to be much like they were. I compartmentalized that kind of love. I finally got it. We could talk about that at church. We could listen to the parables and sermons of Jesus and piously talk about what they meant. We could even set aside certain times to do things for others — community service of one sort or another — and then pat ourselves on the back for being so righteous.

But none of that was supposed to make any difference in how we lived the rest of our lives. None of that was supposed to affect how we felt about those we hated for various reasons. (And everyone has “good reasons” for hating those he hates.) None of that mattered because we put it into a “church box” to wait until we got back into “religious mode.”

These weren’t bad people. I wasn’t a bad person. We were trying to do what we thought was right. We just let too much of our culture blind us to the meaning of what we said was important to us. And I’m still struggling to figure out how to change that for myself.

• • •

Love has already changed who I am in the last few years.

It’s still a metamorphosis for me and I’m not certain whether it will ever be complete. I simply know that when I accepted the need to change my own heart and my own attitudes — and committed myself to getting away from situations that cause me the sort of anger that make love difficult for me — I am a more peaceful person.

MankindI was once prone to quickly judging others, but I realized that my judgment of others somehow condemned myself. I realized I couldn’t love someone and also judge the person at the same time. Our culture teaches us by example to judge and ridicule people. I was very good at that, especially the internal dialogue that allowed me to feel better than others who didn’t make choices I approved of. My lack of humility puffed up my pride and made it harder to love. Working to understand others — even when I believe they’re wrong — has softened my heart and made me a better person.

Trying to understand the reasons people do the things they do isn’t the same as justifying wrong behavior. You can be empathetic and you can extend loving grace to someone even though you believe his actions are wrong. People aren’t required to confess their sins to you and repent in order to be treated with love and kindness. Their sins are between them and God. It’s not your business or mine. I learned to try to understand and not to judge.

That change started with love in my heart.

I was once prone to arguments because I had to prove I was right. Even if I knew that no good could come from the argument — especially online — my pride wouldn’t allow me to back away and simply say I wouldn’t argue. I had to change that, though, because I became a vicious and angry person when I argued. I was good at it. I won a lot of arguments, but I hurt other people and I hardened my heart. I had to change.

That change started with love in my heart.

I once found it hard to say, “I don’t know,” or, “Maybe I’m wrong,” because my ego was afraid of what people would think. I was supposed to be a smart guy, so if people thought I was wrong or if I didn’t know things they did, maybe I would lose my identity. Maybe they would make fun of me. I learned that if I loved others and didn’t judge them, I didn’t fear their judgment so much. It became easier to said I didn’t know things or that I was wrong.

That change started with love in my heart.

There are so many small ways in which I’ve changed that it’s hard to keep up with them. But there’s a surprising thing about it. Learning to love — and making these gradual changes — hasn’t made me a weaker person. They’ve made me stronger.

• • •

It disappoints me that so many people believe love and kindness are for weak people — and that hate and bullying are signs of a person’s strength.

The truth is that hate, meanness, bullying and all such things are for people who are too weak to rise above base fear and the pressure to conform. To love others and to be kind, vulnerable and giving with others requires radical strength. It requires rising above what is easy and doing things that are very difficult.

Anybody can engage in hate and anybody with a bit of power can push people around. Truly strong people see the need to love and see something in humans that transcends the ugliness that’s all around us.

It takes courage and strength to stand against the masses and love others, because loving the people we don’t want to love is the most difficult thing in the world.

• • •

I see people making two mistakes when they try to love others.

One group is consumed with their feelings and they never make any actual changes in their attitudes or actions. They get emotional and feel good about thinking of themselves as loving people, but they silently keep judging and keep putting themselves above others — because they’re right and others are wrong.

Another group sees loving others as an obligation — either for religious or humanitarian reasons — and they train themselves to do good works for other, but they never change who they are inside. Their hearts never change, even if they write checks or even do work on humanitarian projects.

My suspicion is that it’s because most people try to skip the first and most vital step. They try to make changes on the outside — but they never allow their hearts and minds to be transformed by the power of love.

I can’t even say exactly how that’s done. I just know from my own experience — painful, slow, full of failure — that it starts at the core of the heart, not with actions or emotions.

For me, it starts with the spirit who I have come to know as God. You can start wherever you’d like, I suppose. You might find another path there. All I know is that the God I have experienced is love. By experiencing that love — in a quiet and humble way — growth and change started inside and worked their way outward.

Love of any kind always changes you at your core first. Emotions and actions flow from the change, but if those emotions or actions come without core change in you, they’re counterfeit and won’t last. At its center, love is about transformation in you. The parts that we see and call love are all just the secondary results of changes that have taken place inside you.

“Love” without personal growth and change inside the one who loves isn’t possible.

So my epiphany was that loving other people is not only for their benefit. When you love other people, the person whose life changes the most is your own. The person who learns to experience love and channel love is changed and saved, even though it’s a struggle to stay focused on positive things in a world that constantly pulls you toward anger, hate and ego satisfaction.

In the wake of a lot of ugly things in the world today, many of us have urged people to love as a response. I’ve seen people angrily respond that this won’t solve the world’s problems. I’ve seen people say in response that loving others is naive because it won’t change “those others” — the ones who are to blame for everything. But all of this misses the point

Preaching love and understanding isn’t a grand strategy to fix the world and change others. It’s a “strategy” for changing yourself — saving yourself from the inside out through the power of Infinite Love –and it’s the only thing you can do to fix what’s wrong with the world. It’s what I’m doing inside myself.

That doesn’t mean I’m good at loving others yet. I’m still pretty terrible at it sometimes. The ugly old parts rear their head at times because of bad old “programming.”

But I’m growing. Love is slowly changing me and saving me from myself.