As a follow-up to last week’s post on experiencing the love others have for me, I want to take a look at the reverse side of the coin: loving others.
I admit, this is much harder for me to write. First of all, because loving others is something I’m still learning, and still not very good at.* And secondly, I’m incredibly uncomfortable with emotions and anything that smacks of the sentimental, the sappy, or the “squishy”–all of which are at some point inevitable in loving, at least if you want to be any good at it.
Still, there are three related things I have discovered about love in my life, all of them closely related to last week’s post: 1) I never love other people quite right when I’m not loving God as I should. 2) I find that love just pours from me when I remember to stop and recall how much I am loved by both God and other people. The more I remember to be thankful, the easier it becomes for me to give love. And 3) I am constantly discovering that I love others more and more easily and fully as I grow (through the grace of God) in love of myself.
I guess that first point should be pretty self-evident. God is the source of love, so if we’re not drinking from that source, how on earth can we expect to have any love to give out? It’s an old and obvious point: you can’t give what you don’t have. I am often surprised at how easy it is to love God, and yet what a big deal we make of it. All he wants is for us to love him: to spend time with him, to give him our hearts. That’s it. I picture one of my piano students, who every weekend has some gift for me, or a hug, or a kind word–sweet tokens of love that require little effort, but that she gives with such generosity and joy. They honestly make my day every Saturday. And that’s all God wants from us: a quick hug, a visit, a flower plucked from the garden. Why is that so difficult?
I still struggle to carve out twenty, thirty, forty minutes for him in a day. I groan when I realize at 10 p.m. that I haven’t prayed the rosary yet (you mean I have to pray right now? I wanna watch tv…or read a book…or just sleep…). Horrors. I have to stay up an extra thirty minutes spending time with the One who created me, sustains me in existence, and loves me beyond anything I can comprehend. So…I have a lifetime of work cut out for me when it comes to loving God. Thank goodness each day is a new start on that journey.
The second point (gratitude) is very much tied up in the first. I’m finding that gratitude acts as a sort of lever in the soul, opening it wider and wider to love and to joy. I look back with shame on so much of my life, when my thoughts were always turned in on myself, my relationships were all about me (how I felt, how much I got paid attention to, how loved I felt on a given day), and there was always some dark cloud overhead to complain about. Gratitude has forced me to turn my eyes upward and outward. Once you do that…you have to be thankful. There’s so much to be thankful for. And once you’ve stopped the navel-gazing, you realize how much other people want and need to be loved, and you’re able to address those wants and needs because you can see them–because you’re looking.
And then there’s the third point–the hardest to get to in so many ways–loving oneself. You have to give love from a secure and healthy source. If you’re shaky in your view of yourself, how can you possibly give fully of yourself? I’m not saying that those who struggle with self-love can’t love other people. Obviously they can and they do. But you will love other people best when you love yourself honestly. (That is: recognizing your faults, but also that you are loved and redeemed.) True self-love removes so much of the insecurity, the doubt, and the jealousy that otherwise crowd to the surface when we’re trying to love others.
Self-love also opens the way to forgiveness. We’re all carrying scars, some of them incredibly deep and painful. In my own experience, the slow, awkward process of learning to love me has allowed me to look back on all the old hurts with compassion, with mercy, and even with gratitude. Like that painful 10th grade crush that went nowhere (trite? Probably. But you name me one girl who wasn’t scarred at least a little bit by a tragic high school non-romance), or feeling overlooked in school, or even those uncomfortable moments when a person you’ve met about four times in the past six weeks squints at you on meeting #5 and says, “Wait…what was your name again?” Or even worse, “I don’t think we’ve met…”
I guess ultimately it’s all about the right ordering of things. The outside (meaning, everyone and everything that isn’t God or I) has to stay outside, and you can’t really approach it correctly until you’ve got the inside ordered correctly. We have to love God first. Loving God and recognizing his love for us teaches us to love ourselves. Once we’ve got those two things in place, we can really reach out and love others well.
Taking a look at the practical application of all this, one of my commenters last week asked how I go about loving others. Yikes…tough question. Honestly, I think the best acts of love are hidden, so I’d rather not delve into it too much. One little act of love I’ve gotten into making recently, though, is one that’s new to me…but pretty standard for most people I think: making phone calls. Who knew a five-minute phone call to my sister or my grandmother or a close friend could really make their day? I’ve always been incredibly nervous about the phone. I hate to invade another person’s time, so I’m much more likely to send an email or a text message. But sometimes people need that forceful, audacious display of love. I’m still getting used to it, but it gets easier with each call.
Still, it’s all about those little things. I’ve had many friends in my lifetime who never seemed able to give me the time of day, who remained distant and aloof, but would assure me in our periodic meetings that they’d “always be there for me if I needed something.” I always felt guilty for finding that answer unsatisfactory. Now I see why. True love isn’t about being willing (or at least thinking you’ll be willing) to answer a 3:00 a.m. phone call. It’s about sharing your life with another person, and that means the details.
To quote that old school chaplain again, “Love is in the details.”
A little note; a text message; washing the dishes; visiting home for a weekend; anything that lets the other person know: I’m thinking of you and I’m putting you first. Because I love you.
*I recognize that no one is “very good at” this, that it’s a lifelong process, and that we’re all standing at the beginning of it. But there are beginners and there are the just-barely-out-of-the-box types who can barely stay up even with training wheels. I’m this second sort, so I have absolutely zero right to write about any of this. But I’m not letting that stop me, now am I?