Numerous difficult situations and relational tribulations have taught me a little bit more about that four letter word, most significantly that we shouldn’t use it as freely and as we tend to.
The only definition of love that has ever given me any insight is the one in Corinthians, where love is defined in clear terms of the characteristics one has when loving truly. However, it is still really difficult to put into practice, much because it is a list and I can never remember more than half of the characteristics to put them into play, and it is supremely difficult to control your own actions on so many levels all at once.
So I’ve decided to define love in reference to particular, common situations, all of which I have been in just this summer:
1. Love gives time and things in order to make another person joyful, without any expectation for reciprocation, repayment, gifts, thanks or even smiles.
This summer my younger brother was visiting London and because of his spectacular achievements in sport, academics and music, I really wanted to show him a good time, allow him to relax into the fun of being 14. I waited for him at the airport and he took two hours to get out of customs, I took him to a contemporary musical and he fell asleep, and I took him to Thorpe Park thinking it would be the wildest time ever, but he was quiet and sleepy and I had run out of jokes so we stood in the lines to the rides without saying a word. What started off as a desire to give my time and money to him ended up in a two hour lecture about how upset I was that he wasn’t making ME laugh. Only months later do I realise how very selfish this was and how, because I expressed my disappointment and made him feel bad for it, my ‘love’ was disqualified. It makes me really question my heart — do I really love my brother purely? Is my love truly selfless? Did I really put him first or did I disguise the fact that I ultimately always put myself first? The most amazing part of this ordeal, after my two hours of rant to my little brother, he still said ‘thank you for all you have done, I really enjoyed it’. He didn’t respond to the sophistication of the entertainment I gave him, but the fact that I cared enough to make the effort. I’m lucky that my little brother is sweet and forgiving but not everyone will react that way. Love gives freely without any terms, conditions or expectations.
2. Love is a fine balance between joy and happiness. When I say joy I basically mean long-term, sustainable happiness. Because most happiness is temporary.
I was looking after some difficult teenagers this summer whose words and actions positively worried me for their future. The time I spent with them was short but long enough for me to care for them deeply, to the point where I developed a fear for the predicted result of their current choices — perhaps crime, teenage pregnancy, poverty, drug addiction, my imagination went wild. In order to ensure their long-term happiness, I chose to love them in a tough way, telling them about the perils of bad choices, offering my opinion on the things they were doing that were harmful to them, giving them examples about the consequences I faced for my bad choices and looking at ways in which they could move towards better patterns and behaviours. It all seemed to be working well, I saw growth in all of them, until one dreadful day when they all decided, individually, to walk away from me while I was giving them some harsh advice. I felt as though my ‘love’ had failed once again and I noticed so blatantly that I was dishing out my own prescription and expecting very particular results. I cried — again (lots of crying happened this summer) — and prayed. I had no idea how to recover from such a failure. I learnt from the other members of the team I was working with what I was doing wrong. Though it is essential that when we love others we think primarily about their long-term happiness, it is important to balance this with simply doing things to make them smile, playing games with them, doing what they love with them, laughing about nothing and showing them that though there are many things they could do to brighten their future, there are already many things in their life currently that are a source of light and brightness.
3. When you love someone you love them in the situation they are in and who they are at that point.
We are all so accustomed to choosing our friends that we don’t often need to practice understanding or face difficult love. On a few occasions this summer I had to love friends that were going through very difficult times — illnesses, depression, anxiety, the sort of stuff that changes a person’s personality in a way that blurs the things that you usually love about them. I was so tempted to just give up on them so many times because they were rude to me or utterly selfish or demanding. Mostly because, I realised after some toil, I had an idea about how our relationship should go and it just wasn’t going the way I wanted it to. They must be selfish and I must be the selfless one, I thought. But truly if I loved them selflessly I would love them no matter what they did or what situation they were in. In moments when I did do that it was magical, it transformed our relationship 10 fold. Often a moment of profound humility and understanding, where you bite your tongue and just love anyway, is the very thing you need to strengthen a relationship.
4. The greatest act of love is putting another person’s needs before yours.
This is no doubt a cliche — but noone ever said cliche’s weren’t absolutely true. Whether it is giving up your desire to be with someone because you know it is best for them to be with someone else, or to move on. Or thinking before you say anything to someone else because you care more to preserve their joy than to create sordid laughter out of teasing them. Or devoting time and energy to being at someone’s beckon call or spending endless time with someone who is visiting because you know how much it helps them and means to them, despite your tight schedule or tiredness. Or sitting on the bench at a football game, happy for your teammates who do get to play, egging them on in all of their efforts. Or biting your tongue when someone accuses you of something that you didn’t do, knowing that he/she is suffering and that you want in no way to add to their stress by starting an argument. Or simply giving into a hug from your friend when she needs it even though you are not so comfortable with such hugs in such moments. The small, the big, the medium sized sacrifices — love is suffocated without them.
I believe after this summer that life is a long journey into the depths and breath and height of God’s love. When we look to God He shows us love, He teaches us through the trials and the tribulations and even the triumphs. We cannot live without love, thus we might as well give our all to being the best at it.
I am one step further on my journey to being a revolutionary lover of people. May God be my strength always.