Sunday, November 06, 2016

Three Kinds of Love

In the New Testament, Christ says to his disciples: "You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" There are, of course, many kinds of love. There is the love between parents and children, there is the love between neighbors, friends, and lovers, and of course the love between a human being and God, to name but a few. Here, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the love between people, which he says ought to be modeled on the way God loves us -- God loves the righteous and the unrighteous alike. He will later say that this commandment, to love our neighbor, coupled with the commandment to love God, is the entire essence of the law. Christ begins by telling his disciples that they must love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. The concept of our 'enemy', of course, is by no means limited to those people who wish to literally kill or maim or ruin us.

Our 'enemy' can also include that person who, at the moment, happens to be aggravating us. As Jesus goes on to point out, there is nothing especially admirable or praiseworthy about loving someone who we know loves us - this is so simple that even tax collectors can do it! The disciples are told that their love has to be much more than this. They will have to love their neighbor even when their love is not returned, even when the neighbor is annoying or cruel and loving is difficult. We all like to wax sentimental about loving, yet a little authentic self-observation makes it abundantly clear that we rarely if ever can do it.

Our lack of success is evident everywhere we look -- from wars between nations, to violence in the streets, to broken homes and families, to all hatred that we hide within our hearts. Real loving is an arduous task. It requires a great deal of effort, a great deal of patience, and a great deal of Grace. Yet, for the most part, we are stunningly misled into believing that we have nothing more to learn about love than what we already figured out by about the age of fourteen. To the contrary, however, the subject of love ought to be the subject of a lifetime of contemplation. A human being is composed of a Body, Heart, and Mind, and each of these components has its own special kind of 'love'.

 (1) The love that has to do with the Body is all about chemical attraction. This is that desperate and dazzling sensation of sexual need and hunger that overtakes us in the presence of certain people, that focuses all our attention on the desire for union with their body and the release of overwhelming physical tension. Pure physical love can be profoundly enjoyable, and as such it is good for the soul and good for a relationship. Human beings have the right to enjoy their sexuality. (Jewish tradition even requires married couples to have sexual relations on the Sabbath). Once the union of bodies and the release of tension have been achieved, however, the 'hunger' disappears, at least temporarily and perhaps forever. So by itself, this kind of love does not sustain a meaningful relationship for very long. And, tragically, the vulgarity that pervades so much of modern culture tends to associate the sex act with filth, while relentlessly insisting that this is all the love we should ever expect or aspire to achieve. Sadly, then, this kind of love is all that some people will ever know.

 (2) But most of us will eventually go on to seek the kind of love that has to do with the Heart. This is the kind of love in which we feel a burning need to be utterly fulfilled by the Beloved after our heart has been struck by Cupid's Arrow and we find ourselves hopelessly 'in love'. This is the kind of love that is venerated in much of our literature and art, the exquisite experience of passion, desire, and romance, that we all hope we will find and remain immersed in forever. But unless great care is taken, the erotic force of these wonderful emotions will also eventually begin to dissipate, and ultimately degenerate into something negative. If we focus our attention inward and look honestly at these swirling emotions, we see that they are passive emotions. Rather than actually actively loving the Beloved, we find a desperate emotional need for the Beloved to love us. That is, after the initial exhilaration of falling 'in love', the situation soon deteriorates into a passive/aggressive demand to be loved. This, of course, eventually evokes resentment on the part of the Beloved, and we see this over and over again in the romantic tragedies of our lives, as couples get together, break up, get together in new pairs, break these up too, finally pair up in marriage, and then spend years tied together in misery and loneliness, or get divorced and continue the same old process all over again. This hopeless floundering between ecstasy and despair is all that most of us will ever know of love.

 (3) But there is a third kind of love which has to do with the Mind. This is the love that Jesus is talking about with his disciples, a conscious love that requires the Mind to be active - and this requires genuine maturity, so that we are no longer at the mercy of vulgar fashion trends or emotional selfishness. The disciples must learn to consciously and actively love, regardless of whether they receive love in return. They must love the enemies who hate them, they must love the persecutors who torture them, they must love the righteous and the unrighteous alike. This will require a Herculean effort of Will. Considering how filled with rage and malice we become when someone merely cuts us off in traffic, we really must see that, as we are, we would in no way be capable of loving an enemy who was literally trying to kill us. But if we recall that the term 'enemy' can symbolically refer to the friend or husband or wife who at the moment happens to be annoying us, we can bring this idea down to a level where we might be able to make use of it. Even tax collectors can feel lovingly toward people when all is going well and people are behaving lovingly toward them. When things are not going well, when life is difficult, when our 'Beloved' is being moody and exasperating - this is when real effort is required to give love, and this is when love really means something.

When we can honestly wish for the happiness and well-being of another human soul, regardless of their behavior, with no thought to any results for ourselves, this is when love really means something. In the case of a deep and nourishing friendship, the efforts of conscious love are necessary to sustain the relationship throughout the years. A marriage, however, requires even more. A marriage requires all three kinds of love. But it is only the Mind's conscious effort to steadfastly love even our 'enemies', to will ourselves to love the Beloved even in the most trying of moments, that can fan the fires of our physical hunger and emotional passion and keep them burning year after year.

 Our ancestors, at least in theory, understood this idea far better than we do. They arranged the marriages of their children, and then taught them (or perhaps just forced them by trial and error to learn for themselves) how to create an active and long lasting love. It did not always succeed, but many of these marriages were filled with contentment and joy as two strangers learned how to love one another.

Today, we base our marriages on emotionally 'falling in love', which certainly seems more fair and more romantic. But no one ever teaches us how to love our partners actively and consciously so that love can continue to blossom and to grow, rather than to passively deteriorate. Without this knowledge and ability, most marriages are doomed to fail, since a solely emotional 'love' (which is really just a demand to be loved) eventually evokes its opposite: that is, it evokes resentment in return. As Christ realized, it is only conscious love, a selfless love that does not demand anything in return, that paradoxically evokes love in return.

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