Thursday, February 09, 2006

The gift of love is the gift of self

In a Florida supermarket where they sold postage stamps a man in the checkout line requested some. Pulling the stamps from under her tray in the cash register, the clerk said, ‘We only have love stamps.’ Unexpectedly, in a voice loud enough to startle those around him the man barked. ’I hate love stamps!’ He paid his bill and left angrily.

I can understand why that angry character wouldn’t want to mail a letter to the IRS with love stamps, but couldn’t he use them on a valentine or a note to a friend somewhere, sometime? I hope so. For we all need to love and be loved for happiness and health. The Dalai Lama tells us ‘without love we could not survive. Human beings are social creatures, and a concern for each other is the very basis of our life together.’

Love is big in the news recently. Pope Benedict just wrote his first encyclical on it. Valentines Day is soon upon us. Brokeback Mountain, Desperate Housewives and Dr. Phil McGraw make us look at love in different ways. Much, of course, depends on whether we can first love ourselves and what ‘love’ really means.

Our culture is perplexed by what love is. It confuses altruism and passion, concern and romance, caring and sex. The couple in the bunny rabbit stage of sexual attraction sees love one way. Mature jubilarians know there is much, much more to it. The firefighter rescuing someone from a burning building, the soldier defending his country, committed teachers in inner-city schools are lovers. They place the needs of others before their safety, preferences or comfort. Theologians like the Pope see love intellectually and identify it with the Loving Mystery who shares divine bounty and sustains us all. Indeed, the Christian Scripture says boldly, ‘God is love.’ (1 John 4:16)

Nor are these distinctions merely theoretical. If some really believes that love is primarily sexual attraction and romance, they will have great difficulty with commitment. When romantic feelings for spouse fade, as they inevitably do, the disillusioned partner will look to other relationships expecting them to last. Moreover, if we believe implicitly or explicitly that love reflects a God who gives constantly and abundantly, it will help us too to live unselfishly.

Eknath Easwaran puts it aptly in Words to Live By.’‘We only need to ask ourselves, am I ready to put the other person first? ‘ Relationships break down not because people are bad but because they are illiterate in love. To become literate in love, we must learn how to reduce our lifelong preoccupation with our own needs and feelings.’

And how do we lessen that lifelong preoccupation? We love by loving. Love grows through practice. It is a skill that can be sharpened. When you put aside your own wants in order to give time and energy to the needs around you, not only are you loving; you are increasing your capacity to love.

It is primarily in the mundane and the ordinary that we love. Not in expensive meals in five-star restaurants but at the family supper table. Not in romantic cruises but in picking up the laundry or emptying the dishwasher. In bringing a casserole to a shut-in or sending a note to the grieving.

Not that there is anything wrong with restaurants and cruises. They can help re-enkindle relationships. The danger, however, is that the exceptional and exotic become the norm. They aren’t; love’s arena is the ordinary. Its venue is the everyday. It is there where love either grows or fades, flourishes or dies.

The essence of love is spiritual. Despite nagging media ads love is not chocolate, red roses or diamonds. Of course, love can prompt such gifts, but it is not those gifts. Love comes from the heart and soul, not from the wallet or credit card. Love is the gift of self, not the gift of stuff.

When we speak of love, marriage gets lots of attention. All love, of course, is not conjugal. There is love of family and friends, neighbor and God. Love can be caring and erotic. Ideally, they are united in marriage, which brings all aspects of love into sharper focus.

Married love is not commercial. Even when there are pre-nuptial agreements, arriage is not a business contract. It does not count and keep book, e.g. ‘I ran the vacuum; it’s your turn to put the kids to bed.’ Or ‘I washed the car; you wash the dishes.’ When it’s really love, doing those things come naturally. They are done for the other without thinking. Love is then instinctive. It’s easy and natural. It’s a way of life, a habit.

Oh I know there are givers and takers. There are the exploiters and the xploited. There are those who find it difficult to love themselves and therefore almost impossible to love others. There are the insecure and the self-centered, those who must control or be controlled. And often there is effective professional help for such as these. To be honest, however, there is a bit of all that in all of us.
It’s a matter of degree, and sometimes in relationships an unselfish attitude can be contagious.

Moreover, acknowledged or not there is always grace. It enables us to love flawed human beings, or as W. H. Auden said to love our crooked neighbor with our crooked hearts. That grace is the healing power of the loving Mystery we call God. It has transformed many a selfish person and a struggling marriage.

Daniel O’Rourke is a married Catholic priest, retired from the administration at State University College, Fredonia. A mediator for the Center for Resolution and Justice, he lives in Cassadaga. Comments may be sent to

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