Love is probably one of the most overused and abused terms in the English language today. Consider some of the ways “love” is used: Love is used to describe emotions towards all sorts of things — a favorite food, a tv show, a person, a political movement, a philosophy of life.
This past Valentine’s Day, for example, reminded all of us that love is used to express romantic feelings, but with the tragic massacre at Stoneman Douglass High school we were also reminded of the pain we feel when we lose those we love.
During the last election cycle, there were also strong emotions expressed by those echoing the mantra “love trumps hate.” And for the Christian, love is also used to describe the person of God, and the things of God, for “God is love,” and we are exhorted to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and to “love your enemies.”
With such varied usage of the term “love” in society today, I find myself reflecting on what exactly does it mean to “love” on a daily basis. A right understanding of this notion could be beneficial to us as citizens. I have come to recognize three essential things in this regard.
First, there is more to love than passing emotions, or physical feelings. Love is less about emotion and more about my commitment to others in my actions and disposition.
In our increasingly narcissistic world, I see love being positioned as how a person or thing makes me feel, rather than my heart towards that person or thing. In popular culture, romantic love seems to be about how I can attract that “special someone,” or how an object satisfies my desires.
Experiencing the emotional side of love, or having that drive me, is, at its root, selfish and temporary, because once that feeling is gone, that “love” is gone too. I’ve observed this in dating relationships among my children’s peers. I’ve seen this in marriages among my friends.
After nearly 20 years of marriage I can affirm that there are days when the emotional side of love is not there, but there is something deeper that compels me to remain committed to my husband (and, no, it’s not the kids). This devotion speaks to the second aspect of love.
Love has a selfless, enduring quality that continues even after one dies. And this is so counter to today’s culture. This aspect of love is not about looking out for one’s self. It is not about taking advantage of another. Most of us can probably identify with being hurt at one point (or many points) in our lives by someone who claimed to love us. Because of such experiences, some might think love is a conditional thing.
However, deep down, we instinctively long for and sense that there is a love that is both unconditional and enduring. A great example of the unconditional nature of love plays out daily at the birth of child who has done nothing but exist. Still, that child commands our existential devotion — our love.
Another example were the stories we read last week of at least two Stoneman Douglass High school teachers who gave their lives trying to protect students from the gunman. And of course, the epitome of unconditional love is the life of Jesus, who lived for others and ultimately sacrificed his life for the very people who tortured and spat in his face.
These examples inspire us to live and express love ultimately, which gets to the final aspect of love that I think is most difficult for us to comprehend today.
Love, in its purest form, expresses itself in seeking the ultimate good and need of the person being loved. It is one thing to choose to die for someone in a moment; it’s quite another to express love daily by endeavoring to meet the needs of those we love and responding with grace regardless of our differences.
Unfortunately, past negative experiences of “love” often informs how we are presently relate to others. We express our understanding of love from a temporal vantage point based on our subjective experiences. Thus, we often tend to put our needs first and fail to consider the ultimate good and the needs of the persons we claim to love.
However, if love was just about self and not truly about the needs of others, giving one’s life for someone makes no sense. But love, rightly expressed, is about meeting the sincere needs of others and living each day accordingly.
Recognizing this, for example, I often pray to love my husband as he needs to be loved, and to love my children as they need to be loved even when we disagree on things. I cannot express my love for my children in the same way I would my husband — the relationship is different, and the needs are different. Even for each child, I ask for wisdom in how to love them specifically.
Ultimately, we are called to love all people. How we express that love is specific and different — and it matters. To express love for others goes way beyond our physical and emotional desires. To love someone as they need to be loved is truly something sacred.
Today, it seems rare to see that “greater expression of love” — one that is selfless, unconditional, enduring, and sacred. However, if we make love anything less, it becomes just a physical act, a political commodity, a slogan, and a tool for manipulation that demeans the connection we have with one another.
How different would our culture, society, and politics be if we all sought to truly love one another every day in this way!
[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville with her husband and their five children.]