Tuesday, May 17, 2016

What is Love?

I've been thinking about relationships a bit. How do we choose the people we love and why? There are obvious connections, like parents with children; there are not always perfect or always loving, but for the most part, they are. Spouses choose to love each other - a lot of the time, anyway. Being completely crass, though, we tend to love the people who can benefit us in some way. It's a sort of automatic co-dependency. We care about people who make our lives better in some way.

Yes, those people we love most often exasperate us and frustrate us and sometimes it seems like the investment in the relationship just isn't worth it - but at the end of the day, those relationships are usually important to us because we use them to help define us. It's still a reflection of us. A parent might be a bad parent, but the part of them that defines themselves as a parent is really strong. That's why its a serious thing to take someone's children from them and why it's the single most amazing thing for a parent to give their child up for adoption.

Co-dependency can become a real problem. We can so define ourselves by our relationships that we never find out who we are - then every relationship has disproportionate value and we can't afford to lose even one of them, even though we lack the ability to maintain any of them. That's real trouble. But we do have to define ourselves somewhat through our relationships. We're relational beings. A parent, a spouse, a child, a teacher, a doctor, a cashier - you can't really be any of those things without other people.*

I don't think any of this is wrong (unless, obviously, it becomes unhealthy) - I'm not sure we can transcend those natural inclinations and we certainly can't be detached, unconnected individuals and still be fully human. I do think, though, it's incomplete.

As I've been thinking about relationships, I've been especially pondering how some people can be so loving and selfless and compassionate towards some people and completely the opposite towards others. Those in a specific circle (let's say the circle of co-dependency, but in the nicest, most respectful way) are protected and served vehemently, while strangers or casual acquaintances are demeaned, devalued, or ignored (if not actively hated).

Because I'm a pastor, the first thing that came to mind was that this is the difference between love and Christian love. I probably should say "Christ-like" love, because Christian is a hairy word in this instance; Christians often love in very un-Christ-like ways, with some of the most restrictive circles imaginable. Some people love only those they know well and whose presence they value (usually for at least partly, and understandably, selfish reasons). Others have trained themselves to love unconditionally (or at least as close as we can get with our biology) - seeing the homeless man on the street with as much compassion as their own child.

Now we certainly don't always act the same towards these two groups - I imagine this comes partly from social conditioning and partly because relationships do matter and no matter how much love we may have for a person, we can only act within the context of the relationship we have - but there is clearly some division between those who seem to love regardless of context and those who have circled the wagons, so to speak, around a particular group.

Now I could be philosophical and say, those wise people with an unlimited love range have understood that everyone is part of our immediate circle - that the well being and health of every person directly affects me - and thus have just come to an enlightened understanding of co-dependency. I think there's some truth there, for sure, but it doesn't seem realistic. We might get to a place where we know that intellectually, but I don't think it can really penetrate our hearts enough to create emotional responses.

I think it's more likely in the compassion neighborhood. We can get to a place where we recognize the inherent value and dignity of every person and thus are able to love them the way we love our close friends and family. We see them as people - whether it's the guy at work who eats at his desk and never talks to anyone or the driver of a car stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire or maybe that neighbor lady who's only ever yelling at people.

Again, we act towards people based on the relationship we have with them (and this is smart), so there's only so much we can do in each scenario, but for me it's a good entry point for a discussion about what it means to be Christian. To paraphrase Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do you only love those who love you? Even the worst people in the world can do that. Are you proud of yourselves? There's more to love than that."

Maybe that is the call of Christianty (or should be). Do you want to love more and love better? Come and see.

I hope it's this journey towards loving more and loving better than I am dedicating my life to pursuing. I hope it's this journey to love more and love better that people see in me. I hope there are people out there longing to love more and love better that are willing to try and fail (and maybe succeed) along with me. I'm not sure there's anything more to life or faith than just that:

Love more, love better.

*Not that any of the people who are parents or children or doctors or cashiers necessarily define themselves that way, but some certainly do.

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