What if we could decide that betting on love is a good bet, a wager worth making?

The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously made a similar bet, only it was wagered on God. Pascal said the effort to bet for or against the existence of God was the same. But if God does exist, and you refuse to believe it, then everlasting hell is almost certainly your reward. If God doesn’t exist, despite your fervent prayers and devotion, why, no harm done. Ipso facto, it is better to believe in God than to be an atheist.

“Belief is a wise wager,” Pascal wrote. “Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

This may seem more cold-blooded than devout. “Any God worth believing in would prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite,” objected attorney Alan Dershowitz.

But still, what is the downside of faith?

There is a similar case to be made for wagering on love and affection, particularly when the effort is extended to “difficult” people – exasperating friends, family, colleagues, even partners, spouses and children. We often respond with anger, judgment, egotism and condescension.

But that’s a mistake. For one thing, everyone – including you and me – can be maddening. It is part of the human condition.

All faith traditions understand and accept human frailty and the need to err on the side of love, from “turn the other cheek” to “the golden rule.” As the Buddha said, “Hatred never ends by hatred but by love alone.”

So does that mean I have to “make nice” with my crackpot brother-in-law at family occasions?

Yes. Because to paraphrase Pascal, what is the downside?

Wagering on love means giving other people, even the ones we do not like, the benefit of the doubt. It means making the effort to walk a mile in their shoes. It means accepting with empathy, grace and, most of all, humor, that we are all profoundly limited. It means, in short, working to be your most understanding, loving and best self.

Easy words, hard actions. But the result is worth the trying. For one thing, it’s good for you. WebMD reports “10 Surprising Health Benefits of Love,” including lower blood pressure, fewer colds, less depression, better stress management and a longer life.

More spiritually, manifesting goodness is a powerful corrective to the corrosive and toxic effects of hatred. Lincoln had good reason to despise the Confederacy. Instead, he said, “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

So take a chance on love. There is no downside.

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...