The other day I was having a conversation with my good friend Kurt over some all you can eat sushi.
SIDE NOTE: We were really hungry that day; I’m pretty sure the restaurant lost money on us…
I was gushing about a recent experience I had where I met this wonderful group of people in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who I thought exemplified what it meant to be a Christian through their selfless giving and love. Kurt then paused for a moment and made, what was to me, an enlightening observation about ‘love’. The conversation went a little something like this:
Kurt: Love is not mentally tethered…
Me: What does that mean?
Kurt: Think of it this way. When you first pick up a pair of chopsticks and try to use it, it’s not natural. The mind hasn’t ‘recorded’ the muscle memory to use chopsticks. But as we use chopsticks more and more, it becomes like second nature to us and we don’t have to consciously think about how to use chopsticks.
Me:…So how does that apply to love?…
Kurt: Well, ‘love’ is never mentally tethered. You can practice it all you want but it doesn’t ever fully stick.
Me: (mind explosion). Oh! It’s almost like you have to re-learn it every time.
Kurt: Exactly. I think ‘faith’, ‘hope’ and ‘love’ are all things that the human mind can never fully mentally tether so that it becomes second nature. (continues eating sushi…)
That. Is. Mind-Blowing.
We as humans can never fully perfect showing ‘love’ to others. Before we go on, let me define ‘love’ the way St. Thomas Aquinas did: ‘Love is willing the good of the other’. Love isn’t like chopsticks where, after enough hours of practice, it will finally stick. Love isn’t like a tool that can be used. But why is that? Why doesn’t someone make a ‘Love for Dummies’ book? I thought of two reasons (though I’m sure there are more):
- Showing love is contrary to human nature.
- No two people experience love the same way.
Love ain’t easy
Love doesn’t come naturally to us. I’m not talking about the romantic, hollywood, hot-pink love that people feel when they have a crush. This is the love that goes mostly unseen. To be kind and generous to your spouse, sibling, parent or child especially when they haven’t shown that love to you. Humans lean toward self-preservation and that thought process, in our modern world, has warped into an attitude that looks out for ‘me’ rather than for ‘you’.
The key can be found in Aquinas’ definition where he uses the word ‘willing’. This verb is so powerful because it implies that love is not a feeling but a deliberate action in spite of how you feel. It means that you consciously set aside ‘ me’ and prioritize the needs of the ‘other person’. Sometimes it can be tormenting.
Take the life of Blessed Mother Teresa. In his biographical book, The Love That Made Mother Teresa, based on Mother Teresa’s personal letters, David Scott gives us a look at the despair Mother Teresa experienced as she struggled to show love:
Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
Chapter 17, The Love That Made Mother Teresa
The world remembers Mother Teresa for the extreme love she showed the poor and suffering of Calcutta. Yet, even the soon-to-be Saint struggled for years on end to continue loving even as she felt that God had abandoned her. Isn’t it amazing that through her despair she woke up every single day and continued to love? Praise God for her willingness to choose love.
We ain’t the same
As if love wasn’t hard enough through the sacrifice of ‘self’, the ‘others’ that we choose to love experience love in different ways. Some people feel loved when you tell them that you love them, while others feel loved when you don’t say a word and wash the dishes for them. The way you show love to the people in your life always changes from person to person. Is it any wonder that our minds can’t fix a pattern!
While you may be able to deduce the best way to love the people you usually interact with, they experience changes in their lives that will, in turn, force you to adjust to love them in the way that they need based on the situation. To take it one step further, the whole world is supposed to be ‘our neighbour’ waiting to be loved! One-hundred different people need 100 different ways to be loved.
Love is an ever-evolving way of life that never lets you get too comfortable. Some people think they need an ‘algorithm of love’ that can be applied to everyone in their lives. What is the most ‘efficient’ way to show the most people that I love them? Unfortunately, that only ends in shallow love. True love is always deep and it is always personal. True love is unique.
Love is a process
Every single day, I have to wake up and admit that I don’t have it all figured out. Even if you’ve known your spouse, sibling, child or friend all your life, you can never perfectly love them. It’s an ongoing process to love better every day. But those people in your life might say that you love them enough; they may have arrived at an expectation of love that they associate with you. Love is not about setting a standard and then slightly deviating or exceeding that expectation. Love is ‘willing the good of the other’ – and you can never do enough good.
If you’re reading this and you just thought, “That’s so much work!”, then you are right on the money. Love is a labour. You will feel exhausted and drained as your pour yourself out for others. And so, you will need to take breaks as well. Taking some downtime alone, going to Mass or Adoration, whatever you need to recharge your heart to go at it again.
Finally, It’s especially important to note that love does not expect reciprocation. Love is not an exchange of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’. It’s work that you may never get paid for. But love is a reward in itself and that’s because we were made in the image of the one who is Love incarnate. If you’re sad that you haven’t loved enough or afraid of the daunting challenge to love, start today in some small way. It’s going to take you your whole life after all.