I’m not sure whether it’s saving the best for last, or the most difficult for last, but we’ve finally come to the end of this series on character strengths as good spiritual fruit, and today’s topic is both among the best and the most difficult to talk about: Love.
Love lies at the heart of Western pop culture. Most of our songs, most of our stories, most of our desires for our lives, revolve around our understanding and misunderstanding of love. At the same time, it is also a central message of Christianity. But the theological language and pop-cultural language about it are increasingly divorced from one another. And, so, Love is a huge topic and so this post will only be able to make the smallest of scratches in it. But let’s get started.
Thinking of love as a character strength, the VIA Institute defines love as “the degree to which you value close relationships with people and contribute to that closeness in a warm and genuine way.” It is “reciprocal, referring to both loving others and the willingness to accept love from others.” Niemietz and McGrath add that it “involves strong positive feelings, commitment, and, often, sacrifices” (The Power of Character Strengths, 131).
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a research psychologist who has published extensively on human emotions, says: “Love draws you out of your cocoon of self-absorption to attune to others. Love allows you to really see the other person, holistically, with care, concern, and compassion. Within each moment of loving connection, you become sincerely invested in this other person’s well-being, simply for his or her own sake.” (Note: all references to Fredrickson’s work in this post are to her book Love 2.0.)
Fredrickson defines love as “true positivity-charged connection with other living beings.” Her research offers a bridge between the immediate, soaring emotional values of love in our popular culture and the psychological and theological values about love that emphasize commitment and sacrifice. She says, “Love is not a category of relationship. … [T]hat special bond and the commitment people often built around it are better taken as the products of love — the results of the many smaller moments in which love infuses you — rather than as love per se.” As such, love, while not long-lasting in and of itself “is forever renewable.”
In Fredrickson’s model, we can think of any interaction of positively-charged connection with someone as a drop of water. Our casual connections, whether it’s a good banter with a cashier or a fun flirt, could be compared to a light sprinkle of a sun shower; our intimate connections, whether to a romantic partner, a parent, or a best friend, are more like a hot bath, immersing us in the positivity of loving relationship.
Fredrickson’s research has validated our culture’s crowning of love as the highest of our emotional experiences, and so love has many benefits for our wellbeing. Love builds tolerance, empathy, and forgiveness. It also enhances healthy communication, compromise, and healthy conflict management and resolution. These qualities enable relationships to last, and since long-term connections with others are a leading contributor to human wellbeing, it is no surprise that of all the character strengths, love has one of the strongest associations with positive mood and reported life satisfaction (see Niemietz and McGrath, 132).
Despite its (not unearned) dour reputation these days, Christianity is fundamentally a religion of love. The theme of love infuses the Hebrew Scriptures, but comes to take on an explicitly central role in the New Testament. The most famous exploration of the theme comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he speaks of the importance of grounding everything we do and every gift we receive, whether natural or supernatural, in love. He concludes:
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. Love never ends. […] And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13.4-8, 13)
While beautiful and poetic, this doesn’t add anything particularly “Christian” to the equation. It’s in the writings of the evangelist John that Christianity puts its real stamp on love:
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3.16)
- “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15.12f)
- “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4.7f)
Here we see the characteristic emphasis in Christianity on humility and sacrifice as the true indicators of love. While it can certainly be taken too far, this emphasis inoculates love from the acquisitiveness and selfishness that so much of our pop culture assumes of it. Our culture tells us love is about what we can get, about having our desires fulfilled. Not so, says the Christian tradition. Rather, love is about what we can give others. Now, in a loving relationship, this desire will be reciprocated, so the other person will be concerned with our wellbeing as much as we are concerned with theirs, but the point is that for a Christian, love is about being love for others, about doing love, rather than about getting love from others.
And the promise is that it is in losing our life for the sake of another that we will find our life. As Fr. Thomas Hopko eloquently summarized the matter, “There is no self to be defended except the one that comes into existence by the act of love and self-emptying. It’s only by loving the other that myself actually emerges” (‘Living as Communion,’ Parabola 12.3).
The greater the blessing something can confer, the greater the risk there is in its misuse. And so with something as big and powerful as love, its pathologies are also big. Thinking about it in outward terms, a lack of love is apathy and isolation, a lack of concern or thought for others. But if we think of love in Fredrickson’s terms, a lack of love can also have serious damaging effects on our biochemistry, increasing our risk of physiological and psychological illness.
The opposite of loving experience, having actively negatively charged interactions with others, can lead to further isolation but also hatred and violence towards others.
More interesting to me, however, are the problems when love itself goes awry. If we focus too much on what we can gain from a relationship, it becomes narcissistic and selfish. If we focus too much on giving to a partner who does not love us in return, it can become abusive, not self-sacrificial but self-destructive. There is also the shadow sides of love represented by codependence and fusion: porous or erased boundaries that prevent us from being our own person in a relationship. Rather than the relationship helping us become more than we would be on our own (in the loving alchemical mathematics, one plus one is greater than two), it diminishes both parties.
With all this in mind, how might we improve the quantity and quality of love in our lives? Here are some simple ideas:
- Make a list of the people who matter most to you across the areas of your life and write down how you experience love, both giving and receiving, in those relationships.
- Think about what makes you feel loved and how you naturally express love to others. (If you’re not sure how to navigate this, the Five Love Languages is a helpful place to start.)
- When you see a colleague or friend seeming stressed out or having a bad day, go out of your way to provide a supportive word or act of kindness.
- Make an effort to understand the people around you at work or in your community; find out what they care about and are interested and make honest conversation with them.
- Brainstorm on how you might show love at all of the levels of your life: your self, your intimate relationships, your friends and acquaintances, your community, your country, and the world.
- Practice a loving-kindness meditation, in which you cultivate feelings of warmth for yourself and for others.