Love Defined

What is love?  Love is different things to different people.  Love has many different definitions.  Finding one that meets your needs and that you can live out every day is important.  A definition that I have found that meets my needs is this:  Love is choosing to humbly find ways to holistically nurture the true self of both ourself and others.  I have found that this definition brings balance to self-love and other-love.

I came to this definition by starting out with M. Scott Peck’s definition of love.  He states that love is, “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  This definition served me well for some time.  However, as I became increasingly influenced by Progressive Christianity’s call to liberate the oppressed, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, being all we can be, and loving others as well as ourselves, I needed a definition that encompassed the actions of all those things.  I needed a definition that dealt with the soul as well as the spirit and sees all the parts as a whole.  On top of all that I wanted make sure there was balance between self-love and other-love.  That is why I reworked Peck’s definition into my own.  Even though Peck’s definition and mine sound very similar, as you will see they are not the same.

Another thing I think needs to be addressed is where love comes from.  This really depends upon ones life outlook.  If ones life outlook is religious then love comes from God or gods.  If ones life outlook in nonreligious then love comes from the evolution of human kind.  Since neither the religious or nonreligious life outlook can be proven or disproven, it is not important to go into which one is right.  For all we know it could be both.  What is important to acknowledge is that either life outlook can apply my definition of love to their way of life.

As I said, this definition meets my needs.  If you find that it meets your needs as well, then use it to guide you every day.  If not then I urge you to find something that meets your needs and let it guide you every day.  But before you decide whether or not my definition works for you, let me explain it in summary form.

The band, The Choir, wrote a song in which the chorus states, “There is something wonderful about love.”  The writer was expressing his thoughts about his marriage relationship.  However he was not saying that love is wonderful because it makes his relationship with his spouse “problem free”.  No he says love is wonderful despite the fact that the relationship is full of problems.  Yet he is still able to say love is wonderful.

Love is work.  Whether it is the love you give to your spouse, children, enemy, neighbor, or yourself, love is work.  It is a choice to humbly find ways to holistically nurture the true self of everyone you meet.  It is a struggle.

First you have to choose to do it.  You have to choose to make the effort despite the opposition you may face from yourself or others.  Second, you have to be humble in knowing who you are and who you are not, unabashedly using your strengths and asking for help with your weaknesses.  Accept the fact that you may not have all the answers of how to love and stand in the helpless feeling it gives you.  That does not mean you give up.  Remember, love is work.

Thirdly, you have to observe what will enrich and what will not enrich every aspect (mind, body, spirit) of the person you are choosing to love.  Then humbly meet their mind, body, spiritual needs.  Fourth, you have to balance your love of others with self-love.  Never let one overtake the other.  Lastly, you have to accept, be it yourself or some one else, who that person truly is, their strengths and weaknesses, and not what you wish them to be.

Love is work and a struggle.  But in the end the work is well worth it.  Think of the strong bond you will have with the person you love, be it yourself or others.  This is why there is something wonderful about love.

This of course is a quick summarization of my definition.  I will spend the rest of this book dissecting each part  and in doing so I will give you the concrete actions that are the work of love.  So let us go deeper into my definition.

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Love Is Being Humble

The second thing we need to understand about love is that love is humble.  Being humble is often misrepresented with the image of a person going about their day, eyes looking down, not saying much, not trying to draw any attention to themselves, and not trying to be important.  In my opinion this is not humility.  That is my definition of a self-loathing martyr who lets fear run their life.  Another way of not being humble is to be a selfish, self-centered know-it-all.  These people are also driven by fear, the fear of not knowing.  So to contrast these two ways of being, my definition of humility has two sides.

Humility is the acceptance of ambiguity and unabashedly using your strengths while managing your weaknesses.  Let’s tackle that first part.

Ambiguity annoys the hell out of people.  People don’t like uncertainty.  The bottom line is that life is ambiguous.  I would like to see us not be so arrogant to say that we have all the answers, that we know everything there is to know, that we know what will happen next and that we know everything about each other.  What do we know for certain?  If we are really honest with ourselves what we know for certain is not much.  Let me further illustrate this point by summarizing a story from M. Scott Peck’s Further Along The Road Less Traveled.

Peck shares how a fictional rabbi from Russia has been a mentor to him.  This mentor has taught him the valuable lesson of acknowledging that we just don’t know everything.  The rabbi took twenty years to think about the intricacies of life, the questions we all ask, and our purpose here.  He eventually came to the conclusion that he just did not know.  He was empty of answers and his mind was free to roam the wilderness.  This would scare most people but I think the rabbi was mature enough to accept it and to go about his business with a new enlightened understanding.

The rabbi continued his daily routine by going across the village to pray.  One day he was met by a cop that was in a vengeful mood.  The rabbi was an easy target for the cop.  When the cop ask the rabbi where he was going, the rabbi replied that he did not know.  This made the cop furious.  You see the cop knew the rabbi’s daily routine.  He knew that every day the rabbi walked across the village to the synagogue to pray.  Thinking he knew exactly what was going on it rattled the cop’s reality when the rabbi answered that he did not know.

Not able to handle this ambiguity and perceived disrespect, the cop decides to teach the rabbi a lesson.  However, it is the rabbi that ends up teaching the cop a lesson.  The cop throws the rabbi in jail.  Think about it.  The cop was so sure that the rabbi was on his way to the synagogue to pray.  The rabbi told the cop he did not know where he was going.  He planned on going to pray, but he ended up in jail.  As the cop threw the rabbi in jail, the rabbi turned to him and said, “You see, you just don’t know.”

Again, I ask what do we really know for certain?  I would like to suggest that all we really have is our experiences and what we are currently observing.  Everything else is faith.  Such a statement will be hard for people to understand when all they see is the world in black or white.  However, this is important to acknowledge because out of fear many people try to squelch any ambiguity in their lives.  They have to know it all, they have to have an answer to everything, they have to analyze, judge, and label so everything makes sense.  They want no mystery.  If they can’t, then they try to control everything in order to squelch out all ambiguity.  They create a delusional world in a violent way.  Not just physical violence, but spiritual and mental violence as well.

If we look at our past and present we see examples of people being killed out of fear and attempts to control that ambiguity.  Countless others have suffered physical, mental and spiritual abuse from religious leaders, governments, bosses, parents, teachers, and spouses.  These violent acts are also done in an effort to control any ambiguity.  If we are honest with ourselves, then we will see that we really don’t have control.  It is all an illusion.

In the movie, Instinct, Dr. Theo Caulder thought he had control over his patient, Dr. Ethan Powell.  In the scene I am about to share, Ethan doesn’t want to continue his session with Theo.  Theo refuses to let Ethan go.  So Ethan grabs Theo, wrestles him into a strangle hold in front of a table with paper and crayons on it.  He asks who has the control?  Ethan really wants him to ponder this question.  Does Theo have the control because he is the therapist?  Do the guards have control because of the perceived authority they have?  Does Ethan have control because he has Theo into a strangle hold and could easily break his neck?  Ethan wants Theo to realize that the answer is none of the above.  The answer lies in asking a different question.  Ethan tells Theo that he is going to take a test.  If Theo answers correctly then he lives and if answers incorrectly then he dies.

Ethan asks what he has taken from Theo.  Still feeling the tight hold around his neck, Theo answers “control.”  Ethan explains to him that Theo never had control and no one has control for sure.  Wanting Theo to learn, Ethan gives him a second chance.  Again, Ethan asks what he has taken from Theo.  “My freedom,” is Theo’s second answer.  However, Ethan is quick to point out that those who are playing the ambition game are never free.  They are slaves to their ambitions.  Ethan knows this from his own ambitious pursuits which alienated him from all his loved ones.

Still wanting Theo to learn an important lesson, Ethan gives him one last chance.  This time he will kill Theo.  Theo finally realizes that it is his illusions of control and freedom that Ethan has taken from him.  After answering “my illusions,” Ethan kisses Theo and lets him go.  We all need to learn that trying to control ambiguity is an illusion.

I also find it disconcerting how many people, who have to have answers to everything, analyze and give explanations to anything you say.  Many times they aren’t even right, but to them it is better to have an answer than to say, “I don’t know”.  The reason this is important when humbly loving someone is this.  We can’t assume we know everything there is to know about the people we love.

For example, say a friend is tired after a long day at work and just wants a little quiet time.  I can’t assume that I know best how to take care of them.  I would like to see us not assume we know how best to love the person we are loving.  They know best, not us.  They know their needs, not us.  We need to humbly say we don’t know and that we don’t have all the answers.  It may give us feelings of helplessness and pain; however the little discomfort we feel will be rewarded with a stronger love for others and ourselves.

The second side of being humble is something that is not usually associated with humility.  Being humble also means using our strengths unabashedly and relying on the strengths of others for our weaknesses.  When someone says, “Hey, you did a great job”, we look them straight in the eye and say, “Thanks, I did do a great job.”  Do not hesitate to compliment yourself.  You did the work, you need the recognition too.  I am not advocating gloating.  Just know that being humble is knowing and using your strengths.

Belittling ourselves when we are using our strengths is also very un-humble.  I know that for most of my life when I was given a compliment on a strength of mine I would play it down or say, “Aw, it was nothing.”  I remember one time after giving a great sermon I was shaking hands, receiving compliments, and playing them down as usual.  Then one lady said to me, “Matt, just say thank you.”  It was her way of saying, “Just acknowledge that you give a great sermon.”  Using our strengths is a part of being humble.

When we need to do something that is not one of our strengths and we know someone who is strong in that area, we need to ask for their help.  It is the know-it-alls that arrogantly do what they cannot.

I also have a hard time accepting or admitting when I need help.  I have a weakness in organizing.  This was something others that are organizational geniuses, have offered to help me with on countless occasions.  Each time I refused.  I have often been frustrated by my results because I plow ahead on my own.  This is a perfect example of arrogantly doing what I cannot.  Organizing is their strength and my weakness.  If I want to be humble, then I need to be willing to ask for their help.

So how do we find out what our strengths and weaknesses are?  The answer is self-discovery.  Know thyself.  We observe what comes naturally to us.  What gives us the most joy to do?  Even if it is hard labor is not a struggle to us.  These are our strengths.  The tasks we struggle with are our weakness.  There is one resource I would highly recommend for the journey of self-discovery and that is the book Now Discover Your Strengths.  It does a great job explaining strengths and weaknesses.  It also has a strengths finder assessment that can be taken on-line.

Our strengths are a valuable part of who we are.  They are a gift and like most gifts, they are best enjoyed when they are shared.  Our strengths are the best possible thing we can share with the people we are loving.  When we need a strength that we don’t have, we can seek out a person who has it.  Shy away from sharing weaknesses.  It usually ends up in frustration and is a very arrogant thing to do.  Focus on sharing your strengths and only give enough attention to your weaknesses to realize what they are and that you need help with them.

Accepting ambiguity, that we don’t know everything, unabashedly using our strengths, and relying on others for our weaknesses are the ways to humbly love others and ourselves.  It reminds me of a quote by Parker Palmer from his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.  He says, “The great community asks us to do only what we are able and trusts the rest to other hands.”

Love Is Being and Seeing Our True Selves

The fourth part of love is seeing and being our true self.  I say true self because we seem to be in love with comparing.  We are either comparing ourselves to others wishing we were not ourselves or we are comparing others to others, wishing they were not themselves.  The thing about comparing is that we are always comparing what we don’t know about others with what we do know about ourselves.  The same could be said about comparing others to others.  It is unfair to the self.  I believe that each one of us has been given a unique true self that is beautiful in its own way.  Much harm is done to this true self when we try to suppress, change, or stay unaware of it in others and ourselves.  The essence of sin, to paraphrase Paul Tillich, is the alienation of the self from the self.

Fred Rogers said, “What matters most is what children feel about their uniqueness once they do begin to realize they are different from everyone else. How each one of us comes to feel about our individual uniqueness has a strong influence on how we feel about everyone’s uniqueness–whether we grow into adults who rejoice in the diversity of the world’s people or into adults who fear and resent that diversity.”

When we try to change from who we really are we become divided, and often end up very frustrated when things do not turn out as we planned.  The same is true when we impose a different self on others.  We often view them as defiant when they do not act the way we want them to.  We are either not accepting who we or others really are.  We do it because we think it’s the only way to be loved and accepted by others.  People stuck on the self-love side are the ones that want others to change.  People stuck on the other-love side of the spectrum want to change themselves.  This is done to make sure that no one will inconvenience them or make them accept differences.  To see people for whom they really are means that we have to work through any incompatibilities or choose to ditch them altogether.  This reminds me of a story that M. Scott Peck shared in his first book, The Road Less Traveled.  This story also works as an example of love being humble.

Peck shares how he was leading a couple’s group therapy session.  He was shocked to hear one of the husbands proclaim that the “purpose and function” of his wife was to be, in essence, the 1950’s housewife.  This struck Peck as very sexist and he wanted to know what the other members thought.  Maybe their answers would show the husband how unreasonable he was being.  One by one they each described their spouses as the holders of their happiness and well being.  None of them saw their spouse as an individual with a purpose of their own.  They were basically expecting their spouse to  be an extension of their ego or purpose.

Peck told them he knew why they were all having marital problems.  He warned them that as long as they all viewed their spouses in this way they would continue to have marital problems.  Being quite confused and needing a little guidance, the group asked Peck to define the function and purpose of his wife.  He stated, “The purpose and function of Lily is to grow to be the most of which she is capable, not for my benefit but for her own and to the glory of God.”

You see, we need to let people be who they truly are.  We need to humbly encourage them to be who they need to be.  At the same time we need to become who we truly are or the same unhappiness will follow us.  A good example of this is my own story, during high school and the first two years of college.  I was always being someone else in hopes of being liked.  I was a wrestler, a country farm boy, conservative Christian, arrogantly virtuous, extroverted, and I tried to emulate the other aspects of my friends’ personalities that I thought was cool.  None of it worked for me.  I either failed or ended up very frustrated.  Most of the time I was an emotional roller coaster.  It was not until I started to discover who I really was and began to be content with myself that I became truly free.  Free from expectations, frustrations, and depression.  It was all self-imposed because I was trying too hard not to be myself.  As the chorus goes to a song by the band Audioslave, “To be yourself is all that you can do.”  How do we know if a trait or action is from our true self?  If the fruits of its labor is love then it is our true self.  If our actions are done out of fear then that is not our true self.  This includes actions afflicted on others or ourselves.  Actions done out of love come from the true self.  The true self will not be fulfilled with anything but the truth.  It’s the truth that will set you free.

As I have said before I had to discover my true self.  Being our true self starts with knowing ourselves.  I already mentioned a helpful tool to discover our talents with the book Now Discover Your Strengths.  Here are a few more things to consider in our journey to help you discover your true self.  I am going to state these as opposites, not that one is better than the other, but because a person is not usually both.  However, there are always exceptions.

Male or female? (It is not always as obvious as one might think.)

Heterosexual or homosexual?

Introvert or extrovert?

Laid back or constantly on the go?

Organized or unorganized?

Literal thinker or abstract thinker?

Auditory learner or visual learner?

Type A personality or type B personality?

I could go on with more examples but you get the picture.  Many people have made it their life work to delve into what makes us unique.  Dr. Mel Levine has dedicated his work to showing us how we all learn differently.  Dr. Howard Gardner has written about the multiple intelligences found in all individuals.  Psychotherapist, Dr. Marti Laney, has taught about the differences between introverts and extroverts and how one is not better than the other.  These are just a few examples of the large number of professors, doctors, psychologist, and researchers that are trying to understand why we act the way we do.

Another thing to consider in your journey is ethnicity and where you were born.  Both play a huge role in how one interprets and interacts with the world.  Just look at the history textbooks of the many different countries and you will see that major events in history are portrayed with different interpretations.

There is so much that can be discovered about our true self.  We are unique and only we can be ourselves.  All it takes is the courage to be our true self and not whom we wish we were or who others think we should be.  This journey of self-discovery, once started is a life long process.

The other thing about all this self-discovery is that it can help us humbly observe others.  As long as we never assume we know for sure the aspects of that person’s true self, then we can use our knowledge to humbly find ways to nurture their true selves.  We can ask the same questions about others and humbly proceed from there.  After a while we get a pretty good grasp on their true selves and what they need to be nurtured.  Do not forget that the reason you are doing all this self-discovery is to also know how to humbly nurture your own true self.  However, we need to have a balance between nurturing our own true selves and nurturing the true selves of others.  That brings us to our fifth and last part of love.