We are reminded of the power of love often today in our culture. We see it smeared across sun-faded bumper stickers, visually enchanting Pinterest boards, chic posters from trendy boutique shops. It drips from practically every Top 100 pop song and even advertisers “love” to wield it with unconvincing confidence (McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” is a fantastically awful example…). It’s only logical to expect that our familiarity with the word—this unrelenting inculcation into our minds—would yield love in overflowing abundance.
Despite how in love with love we are these days, we are becoming less loving, or to clarify, less compassionate. A recent article in The Atlantic titled “The Kindness Cure” references a study’s findings that point to this unfortunate state:
“…research by Sarah Konrath at the University of Michigan suggests we’re actually getting worse on this score. In reviewing the results of a standard assessment of empathy and compassion taken by 13,000 college students between 1979 and 2009, Konrath discovered that self-reported concern for the welfare of others has been steadily dropping since the early 1990s. According to this analysis, levels of compassion and empathy are lower now than at any time in the past 30 years, and perhaps most alarming, they are declining at an increasing rate.”
Taking into account these findings in the context of a culture that speaks excessively of “love,” it’s seems we’ve gotten our terms mixed up. In English, we expect this four-letter word to carry quite a heavy and multi-functional load. What do we mean by love? Does McDonald’s warm sentiment for a Double Big Mac mean the same thing as the passion shared between a married couple? Or what about a mother’s tenderness for her children? Or, of course, the kind of love God speaks of when he asks—rather commands—us to love our enemies?
The love we’re hearing about so often may not be the right kind of love. It might be, instead, a type of self-love: the love of a person or thing insomuch as it delights and gives one pleasure. It’s a wonderful thing to delight in something or someone else, but is this at the expense of the type of love that matters most?
God’s command to love solidifies it as an obligation—a plain, undeniable “ought to”—that sheds the presence of any and all sentimentality: the undulating highs, lows and in-betweens of our feelings and emotions. This type of love—also known as “agape” or “charity”—is sustained by an anchored dependence on the word of God, which, necessarily, will never change. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian Existentialist, spoke of the liberating truth of God’s immutable command to love in his Works of Love:
“…this obligation to love is an alteration by the eternal—and all things are made new. What a difference there is between the interplay of the powers of feelings of urges, of inclinations, and of passions, in short, the interplay of the powers of the spontaneous life, the artistically celebrated glory of the immediate life in smiles or in tears, in desires or in wants, what a difference there is between this and the earnestness of the eternal, the earnestness of the command in spirit and in truth, in uprightness and self-renunciation!”
To be candid, this type of language can sound a bit sterile and harsh, diluted of all those qualities that make love so lovable: passion, excitement, ecstasy, adventure. This type of love doesn’t speak of pleasure and enjoyment—in fact it’s quite fond of speaking of just the opposite. However, it underscores an unwavering firmness that can’t be enfeebled. Further, it doesn’t mutually exclude these other types of love. I think certain well-intentioned language in the past influenced by attitudes with puritanical leanings has been disposed to denote all sparks of pleasurable or sentimental love as wicked, or in the very least, a grave temptation. Obviously, feelings of tenderness, romantic love, pleasure and enjoyment are great gifts and only serve to enrich and nourish our lives as long as they’re property ordered behind God’s definition of authentic love: the willing the good of the other as other. It only means when our feelings of love fluctuate or dry up for a time—or, I’m afraid to say, permanently—we are still grounded in a love that will never sway.
But how do we love like this? Especially when doing so doesn’t offer us anything in return, or even causes us otherwise avoidable suffering?
Before we can love our neighbor, and love in the way we’re called to by God, we have to see our neighbor. Jesus saw the sick and suffering as individuals, addressing them as “child” and “daughter” at times as to affirm their individuality—their unrepeatable and inestimable existence as members of his creation. It was by seeing and touching them that he healed them. He loved all of humanity, one person at a time. In order to see as Christ did, we have to allow ourselves to peer out from our own siloed consciousness and see the plight and suffering of others as individuals. And the first person we must see in need of such love is ourselves. We have to acknowledge that in our fallenness we are in need of love. Prayer, the turning to face and accept God’s loving embrace, is what allows us to see ourselves as we are—horribly broken but loved all the same. In prayer we’re supplied with the grace to go out and act in love. The cliché, “we can’t give what we don’t have”, remains a cliché if we understand it only in word and not in deed.
It’s through prayer that we are given an awareness of others’ suffering and a deep kernel of resolve that grows within us to do something about it. This “feeling” of compassion, though, is only the beginning. We still ultimately have to choose to do something. We have to choose to enter into that person’s life, into their world of suffering, and be with them. In this way we love them because we know them, because we’re with them. We do not love all humanity by loving an abstract idea; we love all of humanity by loving an actual person.
“To be sure, neighbor in itself is manifold, for neighbor means all men; and yet in another sense one person is enough in order that you may practice the law.”
Kierkegaard’s words are illuminating: we can fulfill the law of God to love our neighbor by loving just one other person. When we see another through the eyes God gives us in prayer, we are capable of loving that person as an individual—one who reveals to us an aspect of the Divine that no other creature ever can or will. We have to eschew a life that fears messy relationships. Instead, we have to “touch the suffering flesh of others,” to use a phrase from Pope Francis. When we are in front of someone who is dirty, sick, obnoxious, ungrateful, sinful, lonely or broken—as we all are—we have the power to love that seemingly unlovable person because it’s a choice we have been given through grace, not because we feel like it. Instead of abiding by whatever our emotions demand of us—by being swept by a surging tide that never lets up—we abide by the quiet law of love made indissoluble by God.
The simplicity of such a law doesn’t undermine the difficulty of fulfilling it. I struggle to love often, and in prayer I can only continue to hope and trust that God will help me love myself just a little less and others just a little more. May God grant us the grace to love all of humanity by simply loving just one other person today.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
– St. Francis of Assisi