The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 12:12:25

Please stop defining love as self-giving!

Katie van Schaijik, May 20, 2017

It happened again this week. I heard a homily identifying love as self-giving and its opposite as selfishness. We in the congregation were piously exhorted to think of others, not ourselves, as if this were the central moral call of the Christian life—as if thinking of ourselves and our own wants and needs is sinful.

It didn't help that I happen to know that this priest is an ex-Legionaire. He was formed in a messed up travesty of an order founded by a twisted predator of a priest. He's obviously devout and sincere in his faith, but when I hear him preach, I can't help noticing and resenting the half-truths being propagated along with the gospel. I can't help worrying about him, and wishing once again that all former Legionaires and Regnum Christi members were required to go through a program of spiritual and psychological detoxing before they're allowed to preach or teach in the Church. 

But I digress. I had meant to make a point about love.

Love involves self-giving, of course. And selfishness is one of its opposites. But there's much more to the mystery, and unless the rest is at least implicitly recognized in our preaching and teaching, we're offering a distortion—the kind that leads to or exacerbates serious dysfunction.

Let me come at it from another angle. 

Selfish, egotistical people might benefit from a stress on self-giving, but for the large portion of any given congregation who incline rather toward co-dependency, it's poison. In fact I doubt that even selfish types really benefit. In my experience, they usually find that such homilies tend to validate their impression that others aren't serving them selflessly enough.

Picture an ante-bellum white southerner who has recently whipped a slave for insubordination hearing the passage "slaves, obey your masters."  Does he receive it as a rebuke or a confirmation? Picture a domineering husband reading Ephesians 5. Is he likely to interpret it as challenging him to defer to his wife, or as ratifying his conviction that his wife isn't submissive enough?

And what is his wife going to think of homilies on such passages stressing that love is all about humility and self-giving? I'll tell you. If she's mired in co-dependency, she's going to think that the problem in her marriage is that she's too selfish; she's going to feel guilty and ashamed of not giving more. If she's begun to break free of dysfunction, though, she's going to think that Christianity is sick, and if she wants to get healthy, she'd better get out of her marriage and her religion.

Who can blamer her? In practical fact, what she's experiencing is that the Church is making her husband feel righteous about abusing her, at the same time it's making her feel guilty about standing up for herself.

These are maybe extreme examples. Maybe. Personally, I have come across many instances (between parent and child, husband and wife, teacher and student, boss and employee, rich and poor, black and white, priest and laity) that measure up. (Watch the movie Hidden Figures for a timely example.) In any case, lesser versions of the same dynamic are ubiquitous. We find it at play in practically all our bad acts and omissions. It menaces all our relationships and interactions with self and others.

Love has many opposites: hatred, contempt, indifference, egotism, manipulation, arrogance, violence...The most comprehensive—the most complete antithesis of the love that is the divine essence and the central mystery of every human life—is the master/slave relation.

Love isn't only self-giving. It's also other-receiving. It doesn't only pour out; it also stands back. It doesn't only humble, it also exalts. It lifts up the lowly, and sets the captive free. It raises up those who were bowed down.

Love is a reciprocal union and communion of persons. And among the love-deficits that afflict our relations are slavishness and co-dependence. In such cases, the concrete moral call might very well be to better self-care and more self-standing, even some non-violent resistance to someone else's habit of dominating us, however discretely or unwittingly.

John Paul II taught (though the point is underdeveloped in the popular teaching surrounding his thought) that persons must learn to assert themselves as persons, as unique and unrepeatable centers of experience and moral agency, of freedom and responsibility—individuals with rights and needs as well as duties. (This was the spiritual impetus behind the Soldiarity movement in Poland that brought down the Soviet Union.) Otherwise, love is impossible. Only a person who has herself can give herself. And very often, in order to have yourself, you have to first fight for yourself.

I might go so far as to say that for every person out there whose problem is selfishness is another whose problem is a too-weak sense of self—a person who has expended herself before she learned to gather herself, who has confused self-squandering with love. If you tell her she need to think of herself less and others more, you're adding to the problem.