The Shape of Love
The most defining moments of our existence are those of profound pain or unadulterated love. We are creatures made with incredible potential to feel joy and sorrow. Though we wish we could have the former without the latter, it simply isn’t an option. Death is a horrible reality that we face in many ways. Broken relationships, infidelity, fear, poverty, racism, depression, isolation and the actual death of those who have been etched into the fabric of our hearts. And then there’s love in its many forms. Yes, of course the flutter of falling in love, but also the love that has been stretched and tried through 15 years of commitment. There’s the ecstasy of a man becoming a father for the first time as he loses himself in those innocent eyes, and there’s the love of a mother disciplining her rebellious teenager. And then there’s the deep love of a friendship that remains though life’s changes. But there’s another kind of love that I don’t think we give enough attention to.
This type of love isn’t necessarily embodied in arms of embrace or late night conversations. It is a love that extends beyond our living rooms into courtrooms and classrooms. This love dictates the boxes we check on ballots and the way we spend our spare time and spare cash. This is love as a way of life. Love as an orientation towards the world and its many facets. Our consumer society has trained us to think about love as an experience, something for us to feel and be fulfilled by. We often talk about relationships not meeting our needs, but rarely found on our lips is a lament over our lapse in loving our neighbor well.
What if the truest form of love was actually about laying down our life for the sake of another and in doing so finding the fullest life? What if our consumer culture has so deeply twisted what it means to be fully human that we have settled for a far lesser existence? Entertain this thought with me. We tend to accept certain things as our ultimate good, we orient our days, weeks and years according to patterns that bring us happiness, but what if our fundamental assumptions about who we are, are flawed and misleading us? What if love- in the self-sacrificial sort of way was actually the fullest expression of our humanity.
The good American individualism in me scoffs at that idea. I could guess that it does the same for you. If being human is ultimately about protecting our personal rights and freedoms and living for ourselves, then the thought of self-sacrifice is completely foolish, utterly backwards.
What I’ve noticed in public discourse, especially over the past few years, is this ideal to have the proper perspectives on people and issues. When “correct” beliefs are over-emphasized they can either lead us to dehumanize people and see them as political agendas or promote tolerance. To the extent that tolerance leads us towards a greater understanding of people unlike us, I’m all for it. But at the end of the day, tolerance doesn’t require anything from us but perhaps slight adjustments in our perspectives. We would never say on our wedding day, “I vow to tolerate you for the rest of my life” or to a good friend: “I really tolerate the person that you are.” Tolerance can definitely be a starting point, but if we settle for it we will always fall short of Love. It doesn’t do anyone any good if we change our opinions without changing anything else. We can change our mind without changing how we spend our money, time or energies, without changing our heart.
Love, however, transforms us from the inside out. It re-forms our affections, what we treasure, what we ultimately desire. Therefore, it necessarily changes our behaviors. It has true power in us and through us into the world. It leads us to do crazy things like care for the needs of our neighbor (those like us and not like us, those we like and don’t like) in the same way we care for our own needs. This is the way of love that has historically led to the creation of hospitals and countless programs to care for the vulnerable. This is the love that Jesus commanded his followers to embody when he said to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This completes the greatest command to “love God with all of your heart, mind and strength” and is the central hinge to everything Jesus taught. This love that he talked about is at the center of everything. He said that everything else hung on these two paradoxically simple statements.
I think ultimately we all know that love is central to reality. We know it deep down, when we taste it and when we catch glimpses of it in its purest form. But to understand it and embody it is much less simple. Jesus not only talked about love but he demonstrated it with his life. He found the sick and the hurting, the outcasts and the foreigner, and he provided for their needs. In his last intimate moments with his best friends, he did the basest job there was and washed their nasty feet. He was teaching them how to love. And ultimately, he laid down his life for the sake of the world that he loved so desperately and was raised to bring new life to all who would trust in his love. This humble, sacrificial shape of love can inform something deeper than an individualistic consumerism that has dehumanized us so.
Love as a life marked by self-sacrifice means that we aren’t only suppose to meet our needs and maybe throw a bone or two to a friend but that the world is set up with a deep mutuality. We come fully alive as we love with our talents, resources and personalities. Through our work and rest, our art and culture- our eyes should be on the other as they gaze back at us.
And it’s important to realize that Love doesn’t require us to neglect ourselves or submit ourselves to abuse. The exact opposite actually. If we are called to “love our neighbor as ourselves” we can only love those around us to the extent that we love and care for ourselves.
As my friend Jim Mullins says: “we are experts at loving someone..” We see them at their worst but we don’t give up on them. Even when their motives are totally selfish, we rarely deny their needs or desires. Even when they don’t make the best decisions, we over and over again provide the means for them to keep making the same mistakes. “…That person is ourselves.” Tonight most of us will drive home in our car, cook food for ourselves, spend time with our friends or family, and maybe enjoy entertainment of some sort. We know that we’re at our lowest when we stop caring for ourselves. We neglect to care about what we put in our bodies, we withdraw from relationships, consume entertainment as a means of escape.
The more that we understand and seek the holistic flourishing we were created for, the more our eyes will be opened to love others in the same way. If to be human means to ultimately be relational, then we need each other to be who we were created to be. We need to love others and allow others to love us, in our weakest times and when we feel strong. We need love.
Next month's post will continue to explore our work and our loves and how they are illuminated by the pain we face in this life.