Friday, May 31, 2019

Love is not self gift

When I was in Regnum Christi, one of the recurring themes we talked about a lot was that love is self gift. It's not a feeeeeling (said in a contemptuous tone). It's the decision to desire the best for the other and work toward their benefit. You don't need any feelings at all!

I ate this up, to the point that it even became a theme in one of my first novels. (One of the many reasons it'll never see the light of day.)  It served me pretty well in a situation where you weren't allowed to pick your friends. Feelings were irrelevant. You simply chose to care about others' benefit. I think I treated people well, within the limitations placed on us, but I got very little enjoyment out of any of my relationships. I felt like no one actually liked me, they were being charitable to me, which isn't the same thing. I wanted to be chosen.

Love, of course, is best when it's two-sided. So you give to the other person and they give to you. So why was there so little joy? Why did I not feel loved? And what does that say about relationships where the other person can't do anything in return-like a parent-child relationship? Can it be satisfying or is it all one long sacrifice, hoping that one day they'll be mature enough to love you?

I think I've cracked the puzzle by dividing love into two parts: caring about the other person, and delighting in them. You should like the other person. Their existence and presence should make you happy. You should see the goodness that is already present in them and appreciate it.

Well, I'm sure this is obvious to 90% of you, but I'm going to keep going just to hash it out for myself. If you find it helpful too, great.

For me, knowing that the people who love me delight in me is important and a major part of my happiness. When I was a kid, my mother would often grin at something I did and say, "that's such a Sheila thing to do." I wasn't able to do much for my mother, but the thought that I delighted her by existing and being myself made me feel worthwhile-like I was a net positive in the world.

Whereas no one would be very happy being loved like this: "Here is the dinner I made you. You should know that I made it, not because of any superficial feeeeeelings I might have, but because I have made an act of the will to work for your benefit." It makes us feel unworthy of love - like the service done for us has more to do with them than it does with us.

That said, the delight only, without the service, wouldn't be ideal either. Imagine a friend who always talks about how much they like you, how fun you are to be around, how they look forward to hanging out - but whenever you need some help moving a sofa or getting a ride to the doctor, they're not there for you. You'd soon realize what they are there for is their own emotional satisfaction only, and if it's not fun, they're gone. It's still validating to think you're a fun person, but you'll be closer to the friends that are there for you.

When Jackie was born, I loved her for three months purely as a choice. I took care of her, she lacked for nothing, but I didn't delight in her at all. She seemed like a screamy potato. Then one day, she smiled for the first time, and for the first time, I liked her. Suddenly all the work she required was more of a joy, so much easier to do. These days she is even more of a delight, to the point that I even enjoy our evenings together sometimes, when she's supposed to be in bed. She's fun to be around. I think every child should know that they're fun to be around, that they make their loved ones happy.

I do believe delight can be, in some sense, a choice. You can choose to see the good in another person and appreciate it. This feeds love. But often, we don't have to try, because the goodness in another person is there to see.

Missing service or delight aren't the only ways love can go wrong. If our delight is focused on superficial details about a person, it'll end when they change. Yet, of course, we don't have access to their inner essence, to love that instead. We just approximate as best we can. And sometimes we find we were wrong, that the person whose honesty we loved was actually a liar, and the friendship ends.

Likewise, our desiring-the-good should be focused on their actual good, not a false approximation. Usually it should involve the person's agency, helping them be who they want to be and accomplish their goals, not paternalistically deciding what their real benefit is and imposing it on them. But love does have room for an occasional intervention, when we tell a person that their desires aren't going to do them any good in the long run. There's a balance there.

So there's a great deal more to say on the topic of love besides that it involves delight and desiring the good of the other. But I do think it's a basic definition and a place to start.

And if you're my friend, and instead of "I love you" I say, "I like you" - I'm saying something that's very meaningful to me. I don't mean "like love, but less." I mean, "I'm not hanging out with you out of selflessness, I'm doing it because you are a joy to me." Any kindness I do for you (such as it is-I could do better on this part) springs from that joy.

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