When Love Isn’t Enough

My mother always said, “When love fails, double the dose.” As a teacher, I often quoted her wisdom. I think the concept works in the classroom, well, with all humans really. The only flaw is in our misapplication of the word “love.” As a widow, I find myself grieving over love’s labors lost. I see folks squandering opportunities and I want to shout, “We have such a short time to love one another! Get it right!” It’s not enough just to say “love you” and then do as we please. We need to evaluate what kind of lover we are. But there’s no pill to pop to improve our love dysfunction. We need to love fiercely. But we also need to refine our understanding of the word. It seems to me we have three applications – “apps,” if you will – that we learn to use when we say we love another.

The shallowest love we employ is a selfish, love-myself-INSTEAD-of-others kind. But before we start pointing fingers at those we consider examples, we must confess we all start there. At birth, we cry to get what we want. And we “love” those who do our will. Sadly, some seem never to outgrow this form of ego-centric, need-satisfaction-based love, a strictly utilitarian application of affection. What’s in it for me? Romantic lovers are often accused of loving in order to get sex, or security, or children, or – you name it. But face it, we have all used the Love Hook to get other needs met, as well. An acquaintance I once knew was outraged when the family she “adopted” one Christmas failed to be sufficiently grateful for her charity. Suddenly, the poor children she loved so much as she wrapped their presents were the target for condemnation. Her expectations were not met. In other words, she didn’t get what she wanted from the transaction. We learn that selfish form of love early. However, we can learn to go for that app less often. When this kind of love fails us – and it will – we have an opportunity to go deeper, to discover that putting a hook in love keeps us infantile. We can do better.

A second “app” that gets a lot of use – even though it misapplies important principles of love – is the “Love-others-INSTEAD-of-yourself” application, one that masquerades as the Christian understanding of love. In this approach to loving, the person places him/herself last, thinking this is the self-sacrificing action required to be authentically loving. At its most perverted, this kind of lover loves others because she believes herself unlovable and/or he feels undeserving of love. So everyone else’s needs come first, and I must serve because others deserve it more than I do. And if I totally focus on the other, maybe I can trick this one into thinking I deserve to be loved, even though I really don’t. Again, this approach is certainly a more positive choice than hating others and seems more constructive at first, especially to the ones receiving the love gift. However, love applied in this fashion is not healthy – either for the recipient (who usually senses there is a hook called “guilt” in that bait somewhere) or for the lover (who eventually will feel put upon and Unappreciated). This behavior when identified is usually called the “martyr complex.” And, while there are many noble Christan lovers who are admiringly labeled “martyrs,” their sacrifice of blood did not come from a place of low self-esteem or from a place of manipulation and control. This form of “buying” love with our behavior is another form of love that fails time and time again. Parents often get trapped in this format. They expect children to be grateful for the sacrifices they have made – yes, out of love. But what kind of love is it that feels disappointed when the return on the investment wasn’t as anticipated? I read once that we don’t love our children in order to get them to love us, but in order to teach them how to love others.

Which brings us to the third love “app” – the application that, I believe, is the healthy, joyful, best use of the word “love” – the loving-others-AS-OURSELVES” approach. In other words, I am instructed to love myself authentically – to recognize my needs and act appropriately to satisfy them, to have the understanding that I am lovable and capable and important – just like everyone else. Jesus never asked anyone to give up what they didn’t already possess. Before I can “lay down my life for a friend,” I must first truly possess a sense of my own value. There are those who see the Jesus message in the light of martyrdom, of sacrificing self for a “cause” in order to accomplish something. And that application is certainly there. But what they miss is the sweating blood moment beforehand. Jesus didn’t really WANT to die. He CHOSE to – even with the uncertainty of whether others would get the message he was delivering or not. Counseling folks who found marriages crumbling, I have often heard desperate pleas to get the estranged loved one to stay or to come back. Generally, that marriage has been the result of love application #1 or #2. For, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, “Him that I love I wish to be free – even from me.” That is truly love without a hook in it.

God knows the condition necessary for human beings to grow is the freedom to choose. That God-given freedom is what life in this world provides – not freedom from limits, but freedom to choose our responses within them. How to love is one of our choices. I believe we employ God’s gift best when we seek to offer unconditional love. Yet we continue to choose other cheaper versions of the love concept because app #3 is so costly. God has completely demonstrated perfect love for us. Did God chose the path of sacrifice to seek our love in return? No. Jesus’ sacrifice was God showing us how to love others.

Maybe my mother’s favorite saying should be modified slightly: “When love fails, examine the Source, then double the dose.”