Is there a definition of love that pretty much everyone out on an American highway can connect with from experience? I found one in the writing of a great psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan of the University of Chicago, writing a half century ago:
“When the happiness, security and well-being of another person is as real or more to you than your own, you love that person.”
Love is grounded in meaning and inclines us to action. When we love others, then, we feel that their happiness, security and well-being matter to us greatly, and we act accordingly.
Love has its different spheres of activity. There is the sphere of the nearest and the dearest. Imagine young parents looking over their toddler, or a quiet moment between close friends.
There is the sphere of the neediest. Imagine the chaplain who connects deeply with patients who are suffering with severe illness and is moved to tears. Cicely Saunders, founder of the world’s first hospice, remarked at age 83, “I still go into St. Christopher’s every morning to sit on the beds of the dying so I can listen attentively and follow them wherever they go with their emotions because then they feel loved.”
There is the sphere of humanity as whole, the equal-regarding affection for all that is associated with a Lincoln or a Ghandi or Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is the love of non-human creatures, especially pets.
Whatever the sphere, in love the other is no object (“it”) to be manipulated, but a subject (“thou”), a unique and cherished center of value. Ethically, love for the nearest and the dearest should not make us forget the neediest, our shared humanity or other species.
Manifestations of love
Love manifests itself in different ways, all of which are necessary and useful. If love is the hub of a wheel, its spokes point outwards according to the needs of the beloved.
- Celebration is love affirming the lives and achievements of others;
- Helping is love lifting burdens for others;
- Forgiveness is love in response to contrition;
- Carefrontation (confrontation being such a limited word) is love standing against destructive behaviors;
- Humor is love uplifting and reframing in mirthful lightness;
- Respect is love “looking twice” (re-spectare) at the views of others;
- Attentive listening is love focused on the other’s narrative without distraction or interruption;
- Compassion is love aware of suffering and responding to it with depth;
- Loyalty is love sticking with others in their hard times;
- Creativity is love making gifts for others.
Alas, human love so often fails. It can be unwise and overindulging, sending the message to the nearest that the neediest don’t matter, or that taking responsibility is unnecessary. Love for the near and dear is a good, but not when it demonizes outsiders. Our mere human love fades over time, here today and gone tomorrow. It is distorted by impurities, and mutates into its opposites.
So spiritualities contrast human and ideal love. Ideal love is perfectly wise, extensive, enduring and pure. The stark pessimists, who grow all the more shocked by human nature based on what they read in the newspapers, claim that the human substrate does not need to be enhanced, but completely reversed. The great pessimists like St. Paul or Luther can be distinguished from the more optimistic Thomas Aquinas or Buddha.
Love changes us
So how does the love of others change us? How are we changed when we extend active love?
First, when so engaged we are freed from preoccupation with the self and its problems, with rumination and with other destructive emotions. Disappointment and betrayal are unavoidable in life. We get sucked down into a negative vortex of bitterness, despair and resentment. Simple acts of loving kindness can transform us emotionally. It is said that if you do not feel happy, smile anyway, and happiness will likely follow. The keys to forgiveness are acts of love coupled with patience, because with the passing of time our perspectives mature.
Second, life becomes interesting. Selfishness is boring. When we seek the happiness, security and well-being of another in creative love the world becomes full and engaging. Sir John Templeton once wrote that it is impossible to be bored if you love your neighbor.
Third, loving others gives us a reason to develop our gifts. Students learn more when they have to tutor younger peers, or when they learn in groups and are responsible for teaching one another. Most great people have fine-tuned their talents in the service of the neighbor.
Fourth, we make deeper friendships. Our friends are no longer the people we just hang out with, but they are the ones with whom we find exhilarating common cause and commitment. Finally we have serious friends, the kind who are loyal and want to keep us on our course and true to our higher selves.
Fifth, loving others is a source of hope because as active agents we use our strengths to make a difference in the life of another, and we can therefore have greater confidence in shaping the future. This is an active hope, rather than the passive variety that just waits for a surprise.
Sixth, loving others is a source of joy. Happiness is to joy as optimism is to hope. Joy, like hope, is not a mere innate disposition, but a virtue fine-honed through bringing creative goodness into the life of the beloved. Thus, we should not worry much about reciprocity, because the benefits are already there inwardly. As they say, “Pay it forward,” although a note of gratitude is nice.
Seventh, loving others, so long as one also cares for the self and its limits both physical and psychological, is associated with self-reported physical health.
The impact of volunteering
With regard to many of these benefits listed above, I will site the 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey, released by United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch, based on a survey of 4,500 American adults. Forty-one percent of Americans volunteered an average of 100 hours a year. Sixty-eight percent of those who volunteered reported that volunteering made them feel physically healthier. Moreover,
- 89 percent report that “volunteering has improved my sense of well-bring.”
- 73 percent agree that “volunteering lowered my stress levels.”
- 92 percent agree that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life.
- 72 percent characterize themselves as “optimistic” compared to 60 percent of non-volunteers.
- 42 percent of volunteers report a “very good” sense of meaning in their lives, compared with 28 percent of non-volunteers.
- 96 percent said volunteering made them “feel happier.”
They reported deeper friendships, sleeping better and other benefits.
Investigations in Alcoholics Anonymous show that helping other alcoholics at a robust level in AA doubles the recovery rate in the year after initially going dry. The difference is a dramatic increase from 22 percent to 40 percent. Helpers also experience decreased depression. In addition, those alcoholics who are more spiritual benefit even more from loving their neighbor alcoholics.