About three months ago I was sitting on a couch, listening to a couple of my friends discuss the idea of marriage. Neither of them took what could be called a “traditional” view on the subject and it was probably mere moments before I began raining my Catholic opinion down upon them like the ten plagues of Egypt.
Alas, just as I was preparing to get all Moses up in there, something happened that left me speechless. One of the pair let out a sigh and said, “Loving only one person for the rest of your life just sounds so, like, complicated.” To which the other replied, “Actually, I think it’s really simple, and that’s why it’s so difficult.”
One of the most well-known bible verses of all time is 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. It goes like this:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
It’s a beautiful passage but it leaves something out, something that had never occurred to me until that conversation 3 months ago. Love is simple.
Now, when I say “love,” I’m talking about more than the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you’re around that special someone. You know. When you see them time stops. They somehow make you feel confident and nervous at the same time. When they’re around suddenly everything is perfect – not even the imminent decline in the polar bear population due to the gradual melting of the ice caps can bring you down.
While these feelings of attraction are often given the label of “love” I think they are better described as “being in love.” Now obviously these feelings can be pretty amazing – they’ve captured the imaginations of poets, playwrights and sparkly-vampire-fiction-fangirls across the ages. Nonetheless, real love is far more than a spontaneous emotional reaction.
Before my great-grandparents passed away, I was privileged to watch them celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. Their love story was inspirational, but I’m sure there were times in their 70 years of marriage when “warm fuzzies” were the last thing on their minds. A famous story told across the dinner table in my family recounts one such occasion. My grandma had once been so mad at my granddad that when she slammed a door behind her, the power in the entire house cut out. During these times in my grandparent’s marriage, when they hardly felt “in love” with each other, I don’t think that love suddenly became absent from their relationship. If anything, when they cared for each other during these times, love was more present than ever.
So then, what is love?
To love is to desire the good of the beloved. This is a desire which manifests itself in our thoughts, our words and our actions. Love is not something that just happens. Love is something we do. It’s a decision we make to do what is best for the other person. Love is a choice.
If we’re being honest, I think many of us like “complicated” a whole lot more than we like “simple.” Complicated gives us something to hide behind. It’s much easier for me to say that I can’t attend/give/commit/care when I’ve got the excuse of being busy/stressed/ late/just-not-in-the-right-place-right-now.
Simple, on the other hand, can be hard. Simple might require us to be there always, to give everything, to commit anyway or to care unconditionally.
Love finds its simplicity in absoluteness. It is all or nothing. If I commit to loving a person “sometimes” then I have not really committed to loving them at all. If love only lasts in a relationship until the feelings fade, then you can be sure it was never really there to begin with. Pope John Paul II puts it like this, “The person who does not decide to love forever will find it very difficult to really love even for one day.”
It’s no surprise then that when we decide not to love, things become complicated. This is often the consequence of choosing lust over love. If love is simple, black-and-white, then lust is 50 shades of grey.
Lust is something we hear a lot about. Billboards are plastered with phrases urging us to “lust” after this burger, this bikini or this BMW. Lust is portrayed as some kind of edgy, uncontrollable desire that we really shouldn’t bother trying to resist. Magazines like Cosmopolitan even offer “lust lessons.”
In reality, lust is about using people. To lust after someone is to treat them like some kind of object for our own pleasure. It is often a lot easier to give in to this desire than it is to authentically love someone. It’s also a pretty sure fire way to mess up your life and your relationships.
Hook ups, friends-with-benefits and other arrangements based on lust are often put forward as being satisfying and uncomplicated. However, often they are the exact opposite. At times in the past when I was involved in the above, I would constantly find myself thinking thoughts like “What is the point of this whole thing?” “What if I want more?” “O God, what if she wants more and I don’t?” “Do either of us really care about each other?”
At any given time I would be asking more questions than a mature-aged student in a university lecture theatre. “Relationships” like this (and I use the term loosely) would inevitably end up being “til boredom do us part.”
In contrast, relationships based on love are accompanied by a beautiful clarity. Rather than having this nagging confusion at the back of your mind, there is an assurance that you will both fight to do what is best for the other.
Of course love like this isn’t just a romantic relationships thing, it’s a life thing. We are called to desire and do what is best for everyone who is part of our lives – family, friends, classmates, co-workers, even that guy you pass on the street who’s asking for loose change. We should seek to love in every relationship, every day. At this point I could dive right into some kind of 10,000 word theological essay about how we have been created for love, but I don’t think I need to. The desire to love and to be loved resonates with something deep inside of us. It just makes sense.
Unfortunately, simple is not the same thing as easy. Loving others can be really, really, really hard. It can require great sacrifice: calling us to give up our time, our money and our plans. It’s not enough to desire what’s best for those we love; we must strive to understand what “best” means in their lives.
For example, if I had just started a relationship with a girl and she began pressuring me to get really physically intimate when we were together, I would not be loving her by just giving in. While I would be giving her what she wanted, I wouldn’t be doing what was best for her. Instead, I would be doing something that could end up negatively affecting her and our relationship. Loving someone can make us really want to please them, but sometimes love can challenge us to go beyond that, to do what is truly best for them. Sometimes we have to love people more that they can understand.
There will be times when expressing our love for someone does not go to plan. I vividly remember one particular occasion when a girl burst into tears after I told her she looked beautiful. Later, after internalising some pretty serious concerns regarding my lonely future as the owner of several dozen cats, I found out that she had thought that I was being sarcastic. Stuff like this happens. Despite our best efforts to show people we love them, it can all go wrong. It can feel like every attempt we make to show someone we care ends up looking like a little heart-shaped mushroom cloud. One of the greatest expressions of love is to persevere through such difficulties and keep trying anyway.
There will also be moments when we just straight up fail. The times when we choose to be selfish, unforgiving, bitter, apathetic or just plain mean. An important aspect of the simplicity of love is that it is above our emotions. Regardless of how so-so, upset or furious we feel, love calls us to do what is best for the beloved regardless. When we fail, love means getting back up and trying again. Returning to Corinthians, love “endures all things.” Love doesn’t quit.
Unfortunately, there no comprehensive written guide or 12-steps-to-success for loving others. We can only, simply, love.