The Personalist Project

What does it mean to love?

Well-catechized Catholics are typically ready with an answer to this question. "To love means to will and do the good." Travel a mile in Catholic circles, and every two or three minutes you will come across an article or talk or homily passionately proclaiming that "love isn't a feeling, it's an action."

I suppose I'm revealing something intimate about myself when I say I hate this. I hate it so much that hearing it makes me break out in spiritual hives. To refrain from getting mad at the one saying it, I have to quick remind myself: "He doesn't know any better; this is what everyone is taught. And—remember!— there's an important sense in which it's perfectly true. Focus on that, o my soul. And consider that but for the undeserved grace of having had personalist philosophy classes, you too would be announcing this half-truth as if it were the gospel."

This reaction of mine is multi-layered.

The most superfiicial is simple irritation with the way the claim is put forward as if it's new and profound, when really, insofar as it's true, it's so obvious and oft-repeated as to be head-bangingly trite. No one listening to this kind of preaching or reading these kind of articles thinks that love in the Christian sense is the same as love in the secular teenage-romance sense. No one thinks we are right to say we love someone if we neglect to do good for him. (Didn't we all grow up hearing about the Good Samaritan?) No one thinks that if you're not on cloud nine 24/7, it means you don't love.

The second layer of my inner resistance is more substantive and philosophical. Von Hildebrand's work isn't yet widely enough known, but his analysis of the heart is so luminous that once you've encountered it, it's hard to be patient with moral theories that deprecate feelings or fail to distinguish between mere sentiment and the deep responses of the heart that are the glory of human life. 

The richness and plentitude of a man depends greatly upon the power of his affectivity and, above all, on the quality of his affective life.

Further, von Hildebrand's focus on the nature of love as a value response seems to me much more adequate to the reality than the act-of-will account. Notice: the idea that "love is an act of the will" is all about the lover. It has nothing to do with the one loved. When we say that love is a value-response, though, it is the other, the one loved—in all his concrete uniqueness—that is at the center of attention, where he belongs. My love has more to do with his worth than my virtuousness. Then too, the concept of value-response captures both the freely-willed and the spontaneously-welling-up dimensions of love, while the "act of will" account neglects the latter completely.

But at the deepest, most visceral level, my reaction is existential and personal. I hate the proclamation that love is "willing and doing good", because it teaches conservative Catholics (that is to say, my people) exactly the wrong lessons. Rather than helping remedy the terrible love-dearth within and among us, it exacerbates it. It confirms many complacent Christians in the lying illusion that because we "will good" and "do good" and preach objective truth, we are commendably living out the command to "love your neighbor", when in reality, we are stuck in habits of hardness, egotistism, and abuse.

I suspect some readers are balking. "What are you talking about? Willing and doing the good is the opposite of egotism and abuse!"

To that I say, yes and no. Bear with me while I explain.

First, recall these familiar lines from Corinthians 13.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Clearly, then, it's possible to have faith and true knowledge and even to do heroic acts of virtue without love. That Paul wrote the passage indicates he had noticed the tendency in the early Church. That it has been a favorite passage ever since indicates that Christians recognize the problem in our own moral experience. We can will and do good lovelessly, and when we do, we "gain nothing," spiritually speaking.

Even more, we can be entirely sincere in "willing and doing good" while actually committing harm. This comes about when, for instance, we fail to recognize and do justice to the real, concrete person we're dealing with—when our "good act" is not a genuine response of love to her concrete worth and value, but something more like the implementation of a general moral theory. Take this vivid example from Elizabeth Esther's book, Girl at the End of the World:

I’m ten years old. Before my spanking, Mom tells me to sit on her bed while she draws a diagram of my sins. She says I must understand why I need this spanking. I am old enough now to calmly discuss my disobedience. On a piece of notebook paper, she assigns each of my sins a “swat value.” Being disobedient equals three swats. Lying about what I did equals four swats. Mom adds up my sins and circles the number seven with her pencil. “Do you believe you deserve this spanking?” she asks. I can’t talk because something is blocking my throat. I nod. Mom nods at her bed. That is my cue. I know what is required. I pull down my culottes and underwear, stretch myself across her waterbed. I must not scream, I must not cry out loudly, or I will receive more swats. Some parents I know give their kids ten to fifteen swats per spanking. We are all spanked multiple times per day. Mom takes her time. She pauses between each swat. She spanks me so hard it jars my whole body forward. I feel my jaw clamp shut, rattling my teeth. I focus on a tiny flower in the pattern of Mom’s bedspread. I stare at it until I can feel myself disappearing into it, sending my mind far, far away. After it is over, I pull up my underwear and have a quiet talk with Mom. “You must always tell the truth,” Mom says. “Even when it’s difficult. Even if it means you might get in trouble. You must not lie because God desires truth in the inward parts.” “Yes, Mom.” She hugs and kisses me. I ask her to forgive me, and she says she does. The next day when I look in the mirror, my bottom is bruised. It hurts to sit down. It hurts to walk. God desires truth in the inward parts, I remind myself. My parents spank me because the book of Proverbs says it will save my soul from hell. Even though Dad says I’m a Christian because I asked Jesus into my heart, the Bible says God chastens His children. My parents hurt me because they love me.

Elizabeth Esther's mother was not a monster. She was sincere in her faith and her intention to do good for her daughter. But she was acting on a theory, rather than out of a genuine response of love to the terrified little girl in front of her. She was, in fact, neglecting and abusing that little girl. She was also profoundly confusing her in her conscience, badly skewing her moral formation, because she abused her child in the name of love and religion.

I have witnessed and experienced the same thing often and often (God, forgive me, I've done it myself to my own children): religious people saying, "I'm doing you good" or "I love you" at the very moment they are abusing you. (NB: Emotional neglect is abuse of a very serious and destructive kind.)

But wait, there's more! It's not only in cases of punishment that "love" can be abusive, but even in cases of "charity". We can mistreat a person in the very act of bestowing a good on her. How? It happens when our in our "charity" we treat another as the object of our condescenion and beneficence, rather than as a subject. Whenever we neglect to respond to the concrete reality of the individual before us, as an individual who deserves our respect, attention and care, we are failing in love. We may be being generous from one point of view, but we remain, as Guardini put it, locked in the prison of egotism. 

This is the kernel of truth behind the distaste people sometimes express for being seen as "a charity case". A person wants and deserves to be something more than the object of someone else's benevolent intentions and good works. She wants and needs to be seen and understood and appreciated and valued for who she is. She wants to matter to othersnot just theoretically (as an instantiation of humanity) but actually, as an individual. She's right to want that. It belongs to her nature and vocation as a person.

Devra's recent post about a "third way" of dealing with homosexuality raises another common case. We claim that we love homosexuals when we condemn homosexual acts as immoral, because, after all, "admonishing the sinner" is a spiritual work of mercy, right? Meanwhile, we show no interest in or concern for the person in front of us, suffering the pain and confusion of same-sex attraction, and the myriad problems it entails. That person and his suffering and need are neglected—not seen, not felt, not addressed. Neither is his genuine goodness and virtue—his heroic effort to be honest with himself and accept himself, for instance—seen and affirmed. We treat him and relate to him as if he is his disordered erotic desires, because that's all we see.

Meanwhile, we pat ourselves on the back for our courage in proclaiming consistently the truth that homosexual acts are immoral. "It's true that same sex acts are immoral; to tell the truth is to do good; to do good is to love; therefore I love." This is the lie we tell ourselves.

The truth is that unless we open our hearts to the concrete person before us—his thoughts and feelings, his essential preciousness as an individual, his good efforts, his pain, his real need—we are not loving him or her. Worse, if we are unseeing—overlooking the reality of that unique individual—while we "speak truth", we are committing emotional neglect, at best.

In short, it is possible to "will good" and "do good" while still being mired in egotism, still driven by the master/slave hermeneutic of the Fall. 

If you don't believe me, listen to Jean Vanier:

Loving someone does not simply mean doing things for them; it is much more profound. To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance; it is to understand them, understand their cries and their body language; it is to rejoice in their presence, spend time in their company and communicate with them. To love is to live a heart-to-heart relationship with another, giving to and receiving from each other.

If the heart is not open and engaged—if there's no warmth or tenderness involved—if I'm not seeing, affirming, and responding to the real individual in front of me, it's not love. We shouldn't fool ourselves about that.

Comments (3)

Natalia Juzyn

#1, Jul 2, 2014 10:17pm

"We can mistreat a person in the very act of bestowing a good on her. How? It happens when our in our "charity" we treat another as the object of our condescenion and beneficence, rather than as a subject."

How easily, in the name of truth, we can objectify a person.

Von Hidebrand's The Heart has had a profound effect on me. Philosophically, he bridges the gap between love in the will and love in the emotions. Clearly we cannot manufacture feelings of love for someone, "the concrete person before us." Yet we must love that person; and perhaps at specific moments, that love can be manifest only in willed acts. But this condition should be pedagogical, rather than normative. The is key.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 2, 2014 10:22pm

Yes, I agree. If our hearts are not engaged, we can still do good, according to the best of our abilities. But we should be aware of the imperfection of what we offer. We should realize that we're falling short of love.

Crucially, we should not blame the other for noticing and suffering from the fact that she's not loved.


#3, Apr 14, 2015 9:47am

Excellent post Katie.  Thank you for this.  I've often thought it's so much harder to love someone than we fancy it is.  We wade into the muck of humanity every time we want to truly love, and while it's rewarding and worthwhile, it's not pretty.  If love is pretty and neat and tied up in a bow (which is what we'd like it to be), we're not doing it right.  If we could just walk up to everyone and tell them what, exactly, they're doing wrong and then walk away, how easy would "love" be?  No, it's walking with someone, through all their crazy, where love is found.  Thanks again. I'll be bookmarking this one. 

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