During Florida’s latest hurricane scare, I downloaded a local news station’s app. Now, every day, on my phone, I get headlines about mass murders, murder-suicides, and
violence of all sorts. I do not regularly get alerts about kind things people have done, or happy times people are having. It reminded me of my last blog post, when I wrote about creating a culture of love to combat the current culture we are living in, one that seems almost obsessed with death.
Part of me wants to delete the news station’s app. Another part feels that doing so would be putting my head in the sand. “If you delete the app,” Part One of me says, “you won’t be supporting the news station, and maybe they will change their reporting.”
“Yet,” the Other Part of me says, “even if they change their reporting to focus less on death and murder, those deaths and murders would probably still be happening, and so not only will you be putting your head in the sand you’ll also be keeping others ignorant of the horrible things going on in the world.”
“Why do we need to know about the horrible things going on in the world?” asks Diane Part 1.
“Because we need to learn how to love,” answers Diane Part 2. “We need to be aware of violence and death in order to inspire us to love better.” And in that Part 2, of course, is the winner because Love. Always. Wins.
In my last post I wrote about radical love. In a conversation with my family, they told me that people may not know exactly what I mean by that because, if I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a thousand times, we have overburdened the word “love.” “You should write your next blog post about it,” the said, “because then you can just say ‘read my blog post’ and we can stop hearing you tell us about it.” And so, here we go.
How is it possible, a class of children once asked me, that we can love our moms yet also love pizza? Love God but also love Mickey Mouse? Are we supposed to love strangers the same way we love our parents? Are we supposed to love our husbands or wives the way we love our pets?
The questions came fast and furious, because they were beautifully inquisitive children, and it was difficult for me to answer them in a way they could understand. I told them that we love in different ways, and that a word can have many different meanings, and within those meanings very different senses. Like “fall” can mean a season, or toppling to the ground. That was enough for them at the time. But what I would have said if they were older is that our word “love,” creates a huge cognitive problem for us. Looking in the dictionary, the word is defined as everything from “a great interest or pleasure in something” to “an intense feeling of deep affection,” to “a deep romantic or sexual attraction to someone.”
While our love for pizza can be described as “a great interest or pleasure in something,” “an intense feeling of deep affection” is so non-specific that I can apply it to my husband, my kids, and my best friends. Yet I know I do not love them in the same way. Granted, for my husband I can add “a deep romantic or sexual attraction,” but how do I distinguish my love for my kids from my love for my friends? And when we are told to “love one another,” to love even strangers, none of those definitions works.
In this, as in many things, I find clarity and profound edification from one of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis. In his book The Four Loves, Lewis tells us the ancient Greeks had four different words for love. The first one he deals with is “storge,” which he calls “affection.” This is the filial love that a mother feels for her child and a child feels for his or her mother. It a natural kind of love that exists regardless (or despite) the qualities of the person who is loved.
The second form of love Lewis describes is “friendship,” from “philia” in Greek. This is a love shared by good friends or any people who feel united by a common bond, whether it comes from activities, values, or hobbies. It’s a quiet form of love that is chosen and cultivated. Lewis states, and I agree, that philia is an underrepresented form of love, and one that is taken for granted. Though the Greeks saw this as a love that led to the most happiness, Lewis believes that in adults philia is on the decline. I need only think of how many times my friends and I are too busy to get together to feel that maybe he has a point. He also feels that this type of love is not adequately represented in art. And this leads us to his next definition.
Lewis’s third type of love is “eros,”—sexual love or passion. I don’t know whether it’s because, as we are told, “sex sells,” but our focus on eros seems to be overriding any understanding of philia. I can’t watch a tv show nowadays without hearing about “shipping”–creating a romantic involvement between characters, often characters that the writers do not in any way intend to put in a romantic relationship. Because of our preoccupation (bordering on obession) with eros, it is so easy to see gestures of friendship as precursors to romantic love. Yet that can be a real problem. How many times have we not reached out to someone because we don’t want our gestures taken the wrong way? And how often have our gestures of friendship indeed been taken the wrong way?
If we can acknowledge that eros may have overwritten philia, has instead created barriers of fear rather than innocent friendship, then the final type of love is even harder to see. It is called “agape.” Many have said this is the highest form of love. Lewis calls it “charity.” It is, according to Thomas Aquinas, “the love that wills the good of
another.” It is a love that never changes, that exists regardless of the state of the world or the person. It is love that goes beyond friendship, beyond marriage, beyond family. It is unconditional, eternal, and available to everyone.
When I talk about transformative love, I’m talking about agape. I’m talking about “the
love that wills the good of another.” Not a particular other. Not a relative, not a spouse, not a child, not a countryman, not someone in our own faith, not someone who shares our beliefs, not someone who loves us back. Another. This means someone we may see as our enemy. Someone who scares us. Someone we don’t agree with. Someone we can’t understand. Someone we don’t want to try to understand.
Agape imposes no prerequisites on the person receiving it. Agape doesn’t require a familial bond, or mutual interests, or romantic attraction. What it requires is from the side of the giver—an emptying out of ego, of emotion, and of judgement. It is an ultimately sacrificial love, because we have to sacrifice the beliefs, ideas, emotions, and sometimes even the sense of self that we hold most dear.
Agape is how Pope John Paull II was able to forgive and love the person who tried to kill him. It is how a soldier can sacrifice his or her life for a country full of people who will never know his or her name. It is how a parent can forgive a drunk driver who killed his or her child. It is how volunteers throughout the world can tirelessly serve the poorest and sickest people. It is the source of not just tolerance, but forgiveness and absolute service to other human beings, no matter who they are.
It is an uncommon love. Some would say it is an impossible love. But I would say thereare too many examples of it for that to be true. My eldest daughter is going to embark upon her first experience of agape love by going on a mission trip with her school this year. She could choose to stay home; instead she’s either going to help repair homes in a place destroyed by natural disaster, tend to mothers and children in some incredibly struggling areas, or assist in a place that tries to bring hope and joy to very sick children.
Critics might say that she’ll be receiving some kind of school credit for this. She won’t. They might say she’s only doing it to add to her college application. Chances are she won’t do that either. She wants to do this, she says, because she wants to do something good on her own–not something I make her do, or drag her along to do, or work with something I lead, or do something to earn service hours. She wants to find her own thing, apply for it, argue why she wants to do it, and really give it her all. No reward but in the giving. Agape.
So there it is. It’s real, and it’s possible, and it’s the type of love we need to cultivate if we are going to break free of this cycle of violence and death in which we are immersed. We don’t need to master it. We don’t even need to be good at it. We just have to see it is something to strive for even if we never manage to fully achieve it. The world will be a better place, and we will be better people, simply for our trying.