To Know What Love Is (Want Me To Show You?)
I didn’t want to get all confrontational with this woman, and I tried to avoid it, but she just wouldn't take the hint. Over the years, she had sent me several Facebook friend requests, and I had declined every single one of them. We didn’t know each other at all, and by this point, I preferred it that way. In fact, the only thing I did know about her was that her name was Kathy, and sometime before I was born, she had been a married man's secretary. That man left the mother of his four children to be with this woman instead. And, oh yeah, that man was my dad’s father. I had no real memory of Kathy, or my grandfather. And now that I was a grown woman, she wanted to be my friend on Facebook.
This past year, on the other side of the universe—a.k.a my mom’s side of the family—we’ve lost three family members. We’re all helplessly mourning their absence, the fact that they’re not in our lives anymore, and we have absolutely no control in the matter. I guess I should mention that we lost them to divorce, and not to death, right? So really, it’s none of our business, and has nothing to do with us. Right?
I’m not sure about my dad’s side of my family, but on my mom’s side alone, there have been at least 10 divorces within my lifetime, including my parents’ when I was just a baby. My mom is one of six siblings, and part of my reality is that both of my grandfathers left my grandmothers—and their many children—for other women long before I was born, so I never got to know either of them. Is that normal? Or is that just me? I really hope it’s just me. I fear it’s not, though.
Still, I grew-up listening to my mother’s radio stations in the car all the time, so you’d think I’d be an expert on this whole concept of love by now. I know every single soft rock song from the 80’s and 90’s by heart! And sometime in late elementary school, it occurred to me that every single one of those songs—in one way or another—was about love. Even our movies tend to end with an epic make-out scene that somehow resolves the whole point of the story. We're a culture so obsessed with love, and yet, we are absolutely confused about what that word even means. As a whole, we just have no idea. At all.
Now, after nearly 13 years of marriage, and a lifetime of trying to figure out the meaning of love amid the fallouts of divorce culture, and following Christ in fits and starts until finally reaching utter surrender and abandon—I’ve picked-up on a few things about what true love is, and isn't, especially in regards to romance and married life. While I’ve still got a lot to learn, here are a few realities I am absolutely convinced of so far:
Love is not a feeling, it’s a choice. My husband, Josh, and I will be moving our family later this year, so I’ve already started looking at houses on zillow.com. I do that anyway, even when we're not moving. This morning, I found one that I liked so much, I nearly wept. “I’m in love with this house,” I told Josh. And according to what most people mean when they say these words, that was almost not a joke. I feel strongly about it. I want it. It’s everything I’m looking for. I think about it often, and imagine life with it. But here’s the thing. I know this feeling. I’ve been in love with houses before. I love houses in general! How will I ever settle for buying just one house?
The answer lies in the fact that what I feel for this house isn’t really love at all. Not yet. To buy the house and take care of it, that would be more like true love. Fixing leaks, decorating for the Holidays, setting off the fire alarm while trying to learn how to cook a new dish, keeping the fire alarm updated so the house doesn’t burn down. Love. Sure, this house gives me butterflies right now, but if we were to buy it, and I were to stop getting butterflies every single day, would that mean I stopped loving the house? No. The house just became home, that’s all.
Of course, the analogy breaks down with the fact that it's perfectly reasonable to sell your house, buy another one, own more than one house at a time, and even clean and maintain other people's houses for a living. So at some point we have to leave the realm of inanimate objects behind, and realize that when we're talking about true love, we're talking about human souls.
Love often does start with the butterflies. But you know, butterflies—as beautiful as they are—have very short lifespans. You really can't count on them much. Truthfully, we don’t know how much we can love someone until those butterflies have settled, and we see what’s really there. When we become familiar, understanding the other for who they really are, and not just some ideal that our imaginations built up about them by filling in the blanks of what we didn't know, we will not always feel the warm fuzz balls of new romance. We will get annoyed, and frustrated. We will have to fix leaks. But believe it or not, that is where the real stuff of love truly begins, when we chose to still say, “I am not going anywhere. I promised you I wouldn't, so I’m not going to abandon you right now just because you’re human. Let’s be human together, and see where it takes us.”
That's love. And the butterflies? While they’re never around for good, they're never gone for good, either. Love gets used to them flying in and out of the incredibly rich garden that grows and thrives between two people who have both chosen to love.
Love does not isolate, it incorporates. No one really exists in isolation; we exist in relationship. For example, you know a dating relationship might be getting serious when the couple meets each others' parents, right? That's because parent-child relationships are important. Both of my grandfathers were married men with children. I am a daughter, a wife, a mother, a cousin, a niece, a friend. My husband is a son, a grandson, a brother, a role model for younger men, etc. You get the picture. We cannot truly love a person without also loving everyone that makes that person who they are. This doesn’t mean we have to be besties with everyone in their lives, or agree with the in-laws on all points (or any points, for that matter), but we care about these people, because in being a part of someone we love, they become a part of us as well.
This is especially true once romantic love brings children into the picture. Cultivating true love always involves having their well-being in mind as a priority. We hear a lot of negativity these days towards the concept of staying together for the sake of the kids, like that's a horrible thing to do. Sure, that is absolutely not a mode anyone wants to remain in, but if a marriage is struggling, and the couple needs a reason not to give up, I’d say it’s actually a very honorable and loving place to start. Sometimes things are complicated by violence or abuse, and in these cases, distance may actually be the most loving option. But it is precisely the kind of love that takes everyone’s well-being into account that can have the clarity to discern what's best in that situation. This reason for separation is the complete opposite of ending a relationship without considering how it affects everyone else in the picture.
Love does not destroy our character; it strengthens it. I’m convinced that if Kathy had truly loved my grandfather, I would never have even heard of her. Instead, I would have grown-up knowing my grandfather very well. If she truly loved him for his own sake, she never would have let him be the kind of man who would abandon his wife and family for her own sake. She had the chance to play a minor, supportive role in another person's truly honorable legacy. Instead, she played a major role in destroying it. That became her legacy. And that’s pretty much what I told her.
One day, she sent me yet another Facebook friend request, only this time it was accompanied by a message. She thought maybe the reason I hadn’t accepted her requests before was that I didn’t recognize her. “I am Kathy C— and my husband is James C—, your Grandfather,” she said.
The timing of her message was extremely unfortunate. I was growing huge with child, working full-time in a stressful newsroom, and my husband had left for deployment to Afghanistan just days before she reached out to me. Things may have gotten a little intense, and I’ll be the first to admit that my response was not a loving one. I told her that I knew exactly who she was the whole time. Then, the hurting child version of me—the one that never understood why I had no grandfathers in my life even though they were both alive somewhere in the world—woke-up angry that day, and let this woman know exactly what I thought of her.
If you ever respond to this (and you don't have to by any means), spare me any nonsense explanation about how in love you were with my grandfather… truly loving someone means encouraging and inspiring them to be the kind of honorable person who does the right thing, who sticks to their commitments, who always has integrity and makes the world a better place, even if helping that person be the best version of himself means you don’t get to have what you want. That is real love, the kind that sacrifices for others. What you did was just selfish, and we are the ones who have always paid for it.
It was a long message, and a long time in coming. I did not accept her friend request, and she did not send me anymore. But because this is my life we’re talking about, I did accidentally press some random buttons, and awkwardly send her a sticker immediately following my message. It was this guy:
*sigh* Oh well. At least it was a grouchy face.
Love doesn’t begin with us; it begins with God. For the most part, we're all familiar with the saying that God is Love, right? We read it in 1 John 4:8. It sounds wonderful, and has that goosebumpy feel to it. But what does that even mean, exactly? That God can’t fight this feeling anymore? Is He living in a powder keg and giving off sparks? Can He not live if living is without us?
This past Sunday, in the Catholic Mass liturgy, our second scripture reading came from the famous 1 Corinthians 12-13 verses. You don’t even have to be Christian to recognize some of these words. “Love is patient. Love is kind.” If we’re ever not sure exactly what true love is—the kind of Love that God is—this is where we look.
In his Word on Fire homily to accompany the 1 Corinthians 12-13 readings, Bishop Robert Barron had this to say about the kind of Love that God is:
What is this absolutely indispensable reality? I always rely on [Saint] Thomas Aquinas: ‘To love is to will the good of the other as other.’ Not to will my good through you. That’s indirect egotism. Not to do nice things to get attention; do nice things so people will like me. That isn’t love. That’s indirect egotism. To love is to break free of the black hole of my own self-regard, and truly to want what is good for the other. Listen everybody. That’s what God is. That’s what God is. That’s what God is.
God needs nothing from us. We exist because this God is loving us into existence. And since the very purpose of our existence is to be loved by God, we find all of our need for love is truly met in pursuing Him more than anything else. When we try to have our deeply human need for love met primarily in other people, we end up disappointed and frustrated, because other people are just as needy as we are, and they make terrible gods. And then we make terrible life choices, because we are also not very good at being God. On the other hand, when we truly love God more than anything else, and our source of fulfillment is Love Himself, we become free to stop clinging to others, and to love them just as they are. Ironically, this makes us easier to love, too. True Love always comes from God, and goes right back to Him, and by His grace, we get to participate in that beautiful cycle as much or as little as we chose.
Love does not wound; it heals. Since I started writing this, I’ve had Pandora set on Soft Rock Radio to confirm my theory that none of those 80’s and 90’s songs about love actually refer to anything resembling the real thing. The closest any of them came was when Foreigner declared, “I want to know what love is! I want you to show me!” Fair enough, Foreigner. I’ll do my best.
A little more recently, however, someone finally came-up with some music that has allowed the truth of love to sneak its way into popular understanding. Here’s what Mumford & Sons had to say:
Love, it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
it will set you free.
Be more like the man you were made to be.
There is a design
an alignment, a cry of my heart to see
the beauty of love as it was made to be.
Spot on, you guys. I guess we were all just waiting for the banjo to be accepted as a cool instrument before we would be willing to pay any attention to anything wise of this nature.
Eventually, Josh did make it home safely from Afghanistan, our beautiful son was born, and a few months later, I messaged Kathy again, apologizing if I injured her in any way. I told her about being pregnant, and Josh going off to war and whatnot, but I said it was no excuse for me being so condescending. She seemed very understanding, and she told me to thank my husband for his service. We messaged back and forth a little more. We’re still not Facebook friends, and I don’t have any plans to change that anytime soon, but I’m not angry, either. While my grandfathers' absences from my childhood will always be an injury, I can't be mad about it anymore. I mean, I could. But Love doesn't want me to, because forgiveness is good for my soul. It's freeing, so that's what God wants for me. Plus, I’ve really changed a lot since before I was born, so maybe Kathy and my grandfather have, too. But even if they're both exactly the same, thinking only of themselves, I still want God’s best for them. Or at least I want to want God's best for them, anyway. Which is a start.
So far, it’s not like Josh and I are perfect at love by any stretch of the imagination. Just yesterday, we got in a serious argument about what happens if you get pulled over when you don’t have your driver’s license with you. This was followed by about an hour of bitter silence, lots of mental prayer, that all too familiar "working through it" conversation where both sides try to get on the same page about what just happened, and then our police officer friend confirming that I was right (which is not the point, but still worth mentioning). We’ve got a ways to go, but we've also come a long way, so it’s all good. We’ve only been married for nearly 13 years. Unfortunately, I know that sounds like a long time to most people these days, but in the reality of what Holy Matrimony is—and what the choice to love actually means—we’re still just getting started. And he’s a great person to learn with. I love him.
It pains us both to see so many great marriages fall apart because butterflies have taken the lead, or because the messages we're given about love, happiness, and God Himself are all so confusing. Thankfully, the 80's and 90's are behind us, and we can always write new music. I hope it continues to get more truthful. If the banjos help, I say we use them more. Whatever it takes to reverse the damage of the soft rock love mentality, and help us begin to discover the kind of true Love that God is.
By the way, while I have you here, have you read my new eBook yet? It's my Catholics on Spotlight blog series with a brand new 4th part called, "Things My Husband Has Said To Me While Standing In the Kitchen" You can download it for FREE right here!
Here's an excerpt from Part 4:
Finally, at one point, [Tim] stopped joking around and said, “Okay, in all seriousness, though. Let me ask you something. If I don’t believe in your Jesus, but I’m still a really good person, will Jesus still let me into heaven?”
Oh snap! It was a real question that needed a real answer! On your toes, Christina! Think fast!
“Let me ask you something,” I came back with right away. “If I made you a batch of really good brownies, but they just had a li-i-ittle bit of my own poop in them, would you still eat them?”
Yep. That is exactly what came out my mouth. Only I didn’t say poop. I said the S-word. I have no qualms speaking the native dialect if it is the most effective way to communicate, but I’m softening it to “poop” for a moment here to make things a little easier for my readers with more delicate vocabulary palates, because I am about to say that word a lot.