Today, the word "love" has become synonymous with "like." For example, we say we love pizza, or we loved the last episode of Stranger Things. Yet, we also say that we love our family, or our significant other. But, surely, we do not feel the same way toward food or images on a TV as we do toward a living human being who we care about and who cares about us.
“Like” comes from the Old English word for “to please, be pleasing, be sufficient.” The meaning of “love” is a bit more ambiguous because its origins are varied. The word itself comes from Old English, meaning, “to feel love for, cherish, show love to; delight in, approve.” The complex part comes when you trace the word “love” back to the Latin “caritatem” and the Greek “agape,” meaning “brotherly love, charity,” or “the love of God for man and man for God.” When the Gospels were translated from Greek to Latin, “caritatem” became the replacement for “agape.” Then, when the Bible was translated into English, “caritatem” was translated to either “charity” or “love.” For the most part, we now limit the definition of “love” to the self-pleasing emotion, and disregard the connotation of charitable affection because the emotional type is more instantly gratifying to us. And, if you know a little psychology, you may understand how when something is pleasing, we tend to form a habit of it. Unfortunately, this limited understanding of love has permeated throughout society.
The linguistic ambiguity of "love" does not only affect how we speak; it also influences how we understand what love really is. St. Thomas Aquinas described love as, “to will the good of the other." You can also see the true definition of love when Christ says, "no one has greater love [agape] than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (John 15:13). It is in giving that we truly love. Ironically, by emptying ourselves, we become devoid of our selfish, mundane desires, and are able to be filled with others, their thoughts, desires, and feelings. We were made for this union with others, not for isolated self-seeking.
However, our society and our language tell us that love is all about me. Love has been reduced to self-pleasure, instead of an encounter with another. Since the sexual revolution in the 50s and 60s, we have seen a regression from chaste, wholesome relationships to a hurting culture that settles for short, improperly-ordered hook ups. We take the pleasures and emotions of a relationship to be the meaning of love. We try to hold on to the euphoric feelings that come with companionship and romance. But, when times are tough in a relationship, we often want to give up and move on. However, St. Paul clearly lays out that,
“love [agape] is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love [agape] never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)
His words reveal that love is totally other-centered. He does not define love as being pleasurable. He does not say that love becomes easily-irritated or that it quits. Rather, he characterizes this greatest of all virtues as not seeking its own interests, not being quick-tempered, and never failing. Of course, we are human and struggle with living out this noble ideal. But, it should be our aim; we should not settle for a lesser love. For, Christ tells us, “be [perfected], just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Also, Pope Francis beckons us “to be revolutionaries, . . . to swim against the tide; . . . to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love.” We must be revolutionaries of this true love - revolutionaries of agape.
A harsh example of how much our society has tainted our perception of love is the anti-life culture. Society has gone so far as to warp our perception of what constitutes an “other,” so that we cannot even identify who we should love. We have turned so much inward toward ourselves, that we have taken defining personhood into our own hands. A person is only valuable as long as they suit our desires, or as long as they do not make us feel uncomfortable. When a new life us “unintentionally” formed, it is acceptable to kill it because otherwise it will mess up the plans we have for our life, or we assume that the baby will not live a valuable life under non-ideal circumstances. If a person on life-support is costing a hospital too much money, it is okay to let them prematurely die, under the euphemistic guise of organ donation, so that the hospital can have an empty bed and so that they can receive compensation for the organs. If someone is struggling with a terminal illness, doctors are encouraged to assist their patient in suicide, instead of entering into their patient’s hurt, and helping them find palliative care and support to deal with their illness. These horrific cultural norms are canaries in a coal mine, revealing the destructive path down which we have moved, straying from true meaning and fulfillment. We have given so much power to our passions that our will and intellect have atrophied. Our desire for pleasure drowns out our ability to stop and ponder the consequences and alternatives of our narcissistic actions.
Now, I don't mean to be all gloom and doom. Rather, I belabored this topic because it can be so easy to become blinded by the many deceitful societal lies that vie for our attention and distract us from who we were really made to be. But, St. Paul tells us, “do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Thankfully, Christ offers another alternative to our misguided path. He tells us, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). We love ourselves so much that this great commandment highlights how much Christ wants us to love others. He says, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Christ exemplified his own words throughout the Gospels. In his meetings with the sick, the shunned, and the sinful, he entered into their life, their pain; he encountered them where they were, no matter how unpleasant it was, or how much it injured his reputation. He lived this way so fiercely that he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
A majority of us will not have to suffer the unfathomable amount of pain that Christ suffered on the cross. But, we can participate in his suffering, uniting our daily mortifications to his cross. We can seek out others, those nearby us, in our families, at work, at school, and in our community. Those Christ has placed in our lives are images of Him whom we should serve and love charitably. “These least brothers” can be a friend who lost a family member, a coworker dealing with depression, or a sibling who has a debilitating disease. Walking beside them in their time of struggle is being Christ to them. Also, strangers are others who we can serve; think if the parable of the Good Samaritan. Smiling at the people you pass by, thanking the service men and women that you meet, and encountering and talking with the homeless, instead of just passing them by or throwing them some change, are all ways to serve the least among us. If we see the other as they truly are, and not as the stereotype with which society has labeled them, we can move closer to encountering people as Christ does. By focusing our relationships less on our selfish desires and expectations, and more on knowing and experiencing the other, the more we are drawn out of ourselves to live the revolution of agape. When we make our relationships, and our lives, centered more on the other, we become more Christlike; and, we can repeat with John the Baptist, “he must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).