What Is Love?
We asked our Bloggers to write about Love …
Over the last few weeks, and for as long as I’ve noticed heart-shaped chocolate boxes taking over grocery store shelves, I’ve been thinking about love.
Last month, I was among a group of approximately 20 counselors-in-training sitting in a circle trying to agree upon a satisfying definition for unconditional love. And we were stumped.
Definitions for unconditional love
The discussion was stirred as a result of our participation in a weekend workshop focused on the topics of love and shame. As we practiced counseling each other throughout the weekend, we were faced with the realization that none of us were sure if we were talking about the same thing when we found ourselves talking about love.
Plausible definitions bounced around the circle, as some dared to expose their meandering explanations of the word, mostly based on personal experience with love in the past. Others sat silently, presumably discouraged by the limitations that words place around a term best understood through action. I was among this latter group, searching my brain for a way to speak of Jesus’ agape love without going into a preachy monologue about God’s hope for humankind.
Finally, an intellectual young man in our group recalled a definition that had been offered up by our workshop’s leader earlier that day. He paraphrased it as: Seeing someone as they truly are, and then acting accordingly.
A few moments of introspective silence implied that most of the group agreed this could be a working definition for our purposes of loving in counseling relationships. And it sounded good to me, too, but begged a question: What does it mean to truly see someone?
Seeing someone as they truly are, and then acting accordingly.
A week or so after the workshop, I was back to a daily routine that doesn’t permit much space for philosophical musings over the meanings of words – in fact, I was checking my email – when I received a request from the editor of this very publication asking if I’d be interested in submitting a post on the topic of true love.
My Christian upbringing conveniently buffered me with the Biblical listicle of “love being patient, kind, not envying, not boasting, etc.,” but it dawned on me that these are just words trying to explain another word, which is a bit like trying to taste the fullness of a dish by sampling its individual ingredients.
Another week passed, and I searched for a satisfying definition, until, unexpectedly, I received a letter from a brotherhood of monks. In their letter was this quote:
“Fallen man has perverted authentic love into narcissistic love. True love, on the other hand, is seeing our own life interpenetrating with the other. Love is ecstatic — a “standing outside of oneself” (Gr. ekstasis) — a movement of self-emptying. This allows us to freely move towards God and towards other people.” – Deacon Marko Bojovic
That was serendipitous timing, I thought, and began to realize that truly seeing someone requires us to let go of our judgments, which we can’t do until we are willing to “empty ourselves”. I reflected on how an exercise from the same training weekend provided a chance to practice this emptying/seeing kind of love all at once.
Love is an action we choose
During the weekend workshop, I was encouraged to seek someone out who I felt an aversion toward and then confess what was getting in the way of my connecting with them. Once this person was located, we looked each other in the eye, a natural first step toward connection, and then, unflattering as it was, exposed my judgments to them – the good, the bad, everything.
As I voiced apathy to my partner, stating something along the lines of, “…no hard feelings, but I just don’t feel drawn to you…” I realized how often love is an action I choose not to take. But, as I stepped further outside of my comfort zone (which happens when you reveal inner judgments that are usually kept to oneself), I realized that my partner was a beautiful, layered, unique individual. And, not only were they loveable, but also incredibly likeable.
It was after this encounter that I had an epiphany about love – leading to a practical take-away on how to love more truly and unconditionally – shared by our workshop leader:
“One of the most loving things you can do toward someone is choose to like them.”
Liking someone requires proximity, closeness, intimacy, and the only way to get there is to put some real distance between the individual and our judgments.
As I’ve pondered the meaning of love these last few weeks, I’ve realized just how much I enjoy the idea of love rather than the interactions that occur when it is enacted in relationship; it’s so much easier to yell love from a distance. However, one the most dangerous things any religious person can do is become more accustomed to talking with words that are meant to be lived than living the words that their faith uses to talk.
If true love, unconditional love, becomes an ideal too lofty to achieve then it is not love at all, but fantasy, and the love that it imitates is nothing more than rom-com fairy tale.
Fortunately for us, we can access true love through something incredibly simple, so simple it’s nearly impossible, which is to start with stepping outside of our judgments and begin to see a person as they truly are. In this process, we might even find that we like them.
And, perhaps, liking someone is one of the most loving things we can choose to do.
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