Practicing Catholic VI: Wise and Skillful Love

The British theologian Rosemary Haughton once said that the greatest fraud perpetrated on modern people was the conviction that “skill” doesn’t apply to loving. People “fall in love”; sing about “love”; and, tragically, sometimes do terrible and even violent things in the name of “love.” Something’s wrong; we who claim to follow and imitate a God Who is Love Personified need to do better, and perhaps educate our culture along the way.

Our culture’s first wrongheaded error is its assumption that love is primarily a feeling over which we have limited or no control: People “fall into” it, and out of it seemingly without much choice or effort. They either “feel it,” or don’t. In polite terms, that’s destructive hogwash. The feeling people experience — an ordinary, normal, even God-given one — is not love, it’s infatuation (some would call it addiction when it’s long-lasting). Infatuation has a role to play in human existence, but that’s a topic for another time. Real love is more like a decision than it’s like a feeling — a decision to care about and, to the degree possible, work for the well-being of the loved person. That puts us immediately into the realm of attention, understanding, skill, and courage.

Attention, first, to see and hear what the other person truly needs at any given moment. Parents love their children by imposing appropriate discipline — so long as it’s for the child’s wellbeing, and not the parent’s comfort. Friends sometimes need lovingly to point out errors or foolishness to friends — to speak uncomfortable truths for the other person’s awareness. And institutions (yes, institutions can and often should be loved in an appropriate way) need not only loyal support but also voices bringing new perspectives and information, and pointing out seeming blind spots, if they are to flourish and fulfill their mission.

Understanding, next. Even objectively-good advice will not be helpful if it’s not suited to the situation of the person who needs to hear it. Understanding requires patience — to see how another person’s life has been developing, to appreciate issues as s/he sees them, to recognize the person’s memories of failures and successes that weighs on this particular moment. And sometimes an understanding love concludes that it’s wiser to say nothing at this particular time, and to wait for a better moment…

Then skill. I may well notice and understand someone’s need for help in order to grow, but not be able to provide what the person needs. In that case I may want to love the person well and wisely, but have to admit that I’m not yet able to do so — what s/he needs is beyond me.

Courage, finally. Courage to act on what we see and understand, even when that action is waiting. Courage sometimes to (as Buddhist wisdom says) “leave people alone” as a way of loving. Sometimes this is “letting them make their own mistakes (and hopefully learn from them),” but often it’s encouragement to explore new territory, different perspectives and activities. Courage to admit that I am not in charge — God is, and my job is to assist God in what God is already doing in the person to the extent that I can see and understand God’s work.

What would our families, our friendships, our parish look like if we all could do that: to love others by seeking to understand what God is already doing in each other person, and assist — skillfully and wisely — in that Holy Work as we are able? The foundation of such loving has to be our own awareness of how God is loving us; without that, how could we presume to know how God loves others?

You might take this week to think back over your life in these terms: Who has loved you skillfully next week, peace.