What is it to love?
The dictionary defines it in the following ways:
a (1) : strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties <maternal love for a child> (2) : attraction based on sexual desire : affection and tenderness felt by lovers (3) : affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests <love for his old schoolmates>
b : an assurance of affection <give her my love>
2: warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion <love of the sea>
3a : the object of attachment, devotion, or admiration <baseball was his first love>
b (1) : a beloved person : darling —often used as a term of endearment (2) British —used as an informal term of address
4 a : unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another: as (1) : the fatherly concern of God for humankind (2) : brotherly concern for others
b : a person's adoration of God
Why is it that we don’t get to “unselfish concern for another” until the fourth definition? And are we really capable of that unselfish concern for another? For anyone? The closest we come is perhaps our love of our children. But I think that most of us expect something in return for the love we give. Why else would we become heartbroken when someone we love (in whatever way – and that includes any of our children) doesn’t return that love?
Is it just that we miss them? No, because in some cases we still see and interact with the other even if they don’t love us: we are around them, even if they don’t love us. Also, with people we love with whom we do feel secure, we don’t necessarily spend the time away from them hurting or missing them. We may think about them, but it doesn’t usually hurt to do so.
Is it about our egos? Yes. When someone loves us we feel good about ourselves and who we are. This is especially true if it is someone we admire, respect, love. Their love affirms us as worthy, as valued. When they don’t love us, it hurts because it feels like they are making us somehow less. I am a big Columbo fan and in one of the murder mysteries that I watched last week, a jilted lover killed her former partner. I get it. But I don’t think that’s really love.
I mean, what kind of love is it that is about getting something in return? It is a natural human love, but it isn’t the kind of love that God calls us to. People of faith are called to love unselfishly and unconditionally. We are called to love in a way that is truly about seeing the other, affirming the other and giving care. Love in this way is not even about liking the other person – it is about wanting the highest good for the other. That is what love, at its best, is really about. That is the kind of love that God calls us to have for everyone we encounter – friend and foe alike. And I actually think that this kind of love is somehow easier to give to people we don’t LIKE as much. We can care about them without expecting something in return because we don’t have our egos invested in the same way. We can provide care for them without putting our self-esteems on the line if they reject our efforts. We can truly love them in an unselfish way because we don’t care as much how they respond, react, or return that love to us.
All of these thoughts have led me into a practice of praying differently for people than I did before. I think in the past many times my prayers for others have had too much of my ego in them. I have prayed with all of my feelings very present about each individual – whether those feelings be positive or negative, they have been there. And I find myself now doing the practice that 12-step groups encourage of really praying for what is best for each person, regardless of how that will affect me. It feels very different because it requires putting myself into their shoes – really putting myself into their situations and thinking about what is best for them from that place (not what is best for me with them, or what is best for the two of us together, or what is generically best). Knowing that we are called even to pray for our enemies, I used to pray pretty generally for those with whom I was upset or hurt – things like “I pray for the best wholeness and goodness for __________. I pray for reconciliation between us. I pray for healing.” That’s fine. But I’m trying to go deeper and more real in my love for these individuals, in my genuine love for them, despite my feelings of like or hurt - putting aside my own ego. So instead I find myself really putting myself into their place and thinking about what I would need and want in those places. Now the prayers are more “I pray for ____________ that they feel the love and care that they need each and every day. I pray that _______________ can make their primary relationship into one that is affirming, life-giving, uplifting. I pray that _______________ may be healed from a sense of pain and disappointment. I pray that depression is lifted. I pray that __________ may no longer feel alone or lonely, but feel surrounded by your love and care. I pray that _____________’s children may also be whole and healthy and strong.” I put myself in their shoes and think about what they are going through. I think about what they are experiencing. And from that place I pray for them.
As I have mentioned before, I have a prayer bowl in which I have the names of people for whom I am praying. And when I was praying the way I was before, afterwards, I often felt God calling me to take out of the prayer bowl any with whom I was personally upset or hurt because I needed to really turn them over to God. But when I pray in this way, I find instead that I am called to keep praying for them daily: to keep sending that positive energy and hope for their wholeness, happiness, well-being, and connection with God. Because before, focusing on people whom I had hurt or who had hurt me was putting me into my own hurts and ego challenges, keeping me stuck and focused on problems and pain. But now, it isn’t about me. It is truly about the other person – seeing them, loving them with all the care I can, and praying for the best for each of them. As a result, I found myself putting back into my prayer bowl a couple people whom I hadn’t prayed for in awhile, but who really need prayers (as we all do).
I am reminded of the following scene from Bruce Almighty (get through the first 15 seconds or so to the real prayer part).
Bruce finally is able to leave his ego behind for awhile, to see the other person and to pray the best for her, regardless of the hurt he was feeling. That is love. That is real love. It is not about what I want, but what is best for the other.
I'll admit, sometimes this is hard to do. Sometimes the pain and hurt come up for me. And I don't think God wants us to just shove those feelings away, either. So I separate them out. When I pray for the other, it is about them. I put myself in their shoes and pray genuinely for happiness, wholeness and well-being. Then the prayer is about their faith, their connection with God, their peace and growth. But then I also pray for me - and that allows me to also express my feelings and hurts and to turn them over to God for healing as well.
This is learning to love in the way God calls us to love - without ego, without selfish regard, without it being about ME. That is a journey worth taking. And I thank God for putting all of us on the path.