Sunday, February 23, 2014

Loving the Stranger Beside You

The Wedding March, Theodore Robinson, 1892, Paris
Last Sunday my husband Whitney and I gave a talk for our church’s Marriage Alpha program. The topic was The Impact of Family - Past and Present, and one of the areas of discussion was differences: ways our families of origin differed, and how those differences can cause stress or conflict.

Preparation prompted some helpful reflection and thoughtful conversation about the ways our families, and experiences of family, were different. His family made a big deal about Christmas; mine did as little as possible. I’m from a long line of do-it-yourselfers. His family saw little delight in building shelves, ripping out bathrooms, refinishing furniture.

Along the way, I came across an interesting observation by ethicist Stanley Hauerwas that set the whole discussion in context: 
We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the “right” person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage . . . means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.  
Looking back across our more than 36 years of marriage, I note with amusement the truth of Hauerwas’ comment. In many ways Whitney and I have become each other: I was the driven student, meticulous multi-tasker, aware of every penny spent, type A before I knew the term. I’m now far more casual about record-keeping than Whitney might like, far more likely to wander off bird-watching while he edits his latest writing project. Some of that is the way experiences and job demands have shaped us. Some of that is about gaining space to relax into our truer selves.

I’ve been struggling this month to come to terms with the word “love.” It’s a small overused word asked to stretch in too many directions. What does it mean to love this person next to me? I watch him with affection, sew on his buttons, listen, as well as I can, to his stories or thoughts about his work.

The Greeks had multiple words for love: agápe, éros, philía, storgē, ludus, pragma, mania, philautia. Those words tried to capture aspects of love and box them into neat little subsets: 
  • Agápe is unconditional, gift-giving love, often equated with God’s love
  • Eros is sensual, or romantic, or passionate
  • Storgē is the love between family members, the devoted love between parent and child
  • Philia is the kind of love between brothers or sisters, or the slow, steady love between long-term friends
  • Ludus is playful, maybe in a competitive way (as in “a player,”), or in a childlike way (teasing or silly)
  • Pragma: practical, mutually beneficial love, as in a long, settled marriage
  • Mania: obsessive, jealous, extreme
  • Philautia: love of self, self-esteem shading toward narcissism   

Double Portrait of Paul and Max von
Mila, Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow, Germany
Do the categories clarify, or confuse?

Or do they simply demonstrate that one word, eight, a dozen words, are not adequate to capture the complexity and importance of love?

Where’s the word that captures the sense of safety and warmth found in the presence of a loved one?

Or the word that captures the panic we feel when a loved one is in any kind of danger?

Or the word that illuminates the tension when a loved one struggles, the desire to intervene, the knowledge that struggle is sometimes needed for growth, the temptation to be the hero, the hope for a long-term good?

Words fall far short.

The Greek words try to convey the difference between love of spouse, love of child, love of friend.

Where’s the word for love of God?

Love of neighbor?

Love of enemy?

The synchroblog topic last week, Loving Your Enemies, prompted much soul-searching about what it might mean to love anyone at all, not just an enemy.

My own fall-back definition of love would be determined, self-giving pursuit of the other’s flourishing.

When I read 1 Corinthians 13, that’s what I hear: 
“Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 
I can love in a determined, self-giving way for minutes on end. Hours sometimes. Maybe – rarely – days.

But always? Not likely.
The Artist's Children, Friedrich Wilhelm
Schadow, Germany, 1830

And here’s where I get stuck: I can love in a determined, self-giving way those closest to me - my husband, my children, my grandchildren.

Intermittently. Imperfectly.

If needed, I can muster that kind of love for extended family – for a limited time.

And for select friends and their families – if it fits my schedule.

If I set the bar a bit lower, I can extend the circle a bit wider.

If love is a willingness to expend some energy, once in a while, for someone when it fits my schedule, well then yes, I love my neighbors. I’m willing to shovel an extra few feet to clear their sidewalks (if the snow isn’t too deep). Willing to watch a cat or some fish for a week or two. But am I willing to spend creative energy to see my neighbors flourish? I'd like to. But do I?

If love is simply a desire that you be warm and well-fed, then yes, I love you all: known, unknown, near, far. Have a good life. Be happy and healthy. May the road rise up to meet you.

But, as James reminds us: love in word only isn’t much love at all: 
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
I was struck by aSynchroblog post last week, EmKay Anderson’s Loving While Angry
If I watch my own emotions and actions for signs of anger, hurt, contempt, or even just the tendency to see people as their role rather than as real persons (whether "the grocery clerk "or "my mom"), I can use those signs as a spur to find a way to both really listen and to take real action on behalf of that person's well-being. 
Loving while angry (or impatient, or annoyed) strikes me as a practical spiritual discipline that forces attention both toward myself (why am I angry? impatient? annoyed?)  and toward those around me. That discipline
is the cultivation of prayer in asking God what that person needs from me.  It is the cultivation of margins in my own time and attention and money so that I can afford to pay attention and give time or other resources.  And it is the practice of actual empathetic conversation, in which I let my own dislike or pain or disagreement be the very trigger that let's me remember to bracket that reaction, pray for understanding of both my reaction and of that of the other, and then reach out to converse and listen and maybe even be changed.
 This practice is not comforting.  It pushes me out of safety into war zones regularly, and it breaks the artificial bonds of alignment with others through relationship or sociological circumstance or ideology.  Much of our shared life is built on the unwritten rules of any subculture.
 But this practice does give me the spiritual workout I need to grow strong and to stay strong, and it does allow me to cultivate a practice of the presence of God.

Mother and Child, Mary Cassatt,
Pennsylvania, 1890
Today, I’ll be helping make, serve, clean up a meal for eighty or so people in my church. Hearty soup, hot roles from the oven. I’ll feel aggravation, irritation, impatience. Mostly with myself. Food for many is not my strength. I do it out of love for the strangers in my church: those who rarely eat a hot meal, those who have few conversations through a long, lonely week, new college students, unconnected families.

And I’ll pause to wonder: how can I build more margin into a simple task, so I have time to pause with the child who wants to help stack chairs, to talk with the slow-moving gentleman waiting between me and the serving table, to focus on something other than the task at hand, to love the stranger more attentively?  

I will never love perfectly: not myself, not my husband, children, siblings, friends. I fall far short, and recognize every day my own lack of patience, wisdom, insight.

But as I invite God to open my eyes and ears, to keep me attentive to the needs around me and the ways I pull back out of fear, indifference, irritation, anger, I can grow.

And as I grow, as we grow, that love for us – strangers ourselves – becomes more evident, in, through, around us. And we, and the other strangers around us, find refuge, comfort, and safety in that love. 

But the stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.. . .Leviticus 19:34  

In honor of Valentine’s Day, and as a warming exploration in a very cold, gray month, this is the last in a four part exploration of love.  
  1. What's It Like to Be You?
  2. Ice Shards that Pop Soap Bubbles of Comfort
  3. Circles of Love
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