Sunday, August 5, 2012

How to Love

“Love, too, has to be learned.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Maybe it seems like something we humans should understand innately, but from my observations, it’s not something we do very naturally.  Humans are selfish creatures, fixated on our own survival and success.  To expect an end that differs from this course without guidance is perhaps foolishly optimistic if not naive.  Like expecting a baby to change its own diaper, I'm sure it’s possible, but without loads of instruction and practice, it’s highly unlikely.

So how then? How do we teach a concept/principle that none of us have managed yet to master? Without strong examples and years of practice, how do we know if we are even executing that principle correctly? And even if we have mastered the theory, how do we plant and foster an understanding of its importance and potential within ourselves?  How do we continually practice the love we desire to attain and harbor in our relationships?

A few years ago, I found myself pondering those questions. I knew when I felt love for my fellowmen, but I didn’t always know how to create feelings of love if there wasn't already mutual affection.  Similarly, there were many times I wanted to reach out in charity to others, but didn't feel like I had energy or conviction to bring those desires into fruition.  Perhaps more often than not though,  I struggled feeling love towards those for whom I did not already foster a natural affection. I struggled greatly with the idea of ‘loving mine enemies,’ or even just people that often annoyed or inconvenienced me.  I could tell myself and others that I was trying to love them, but every time they did anything that frustrated or infuriated me, I knew I was failing at it completely.

So I did what I always do when stumped, I took these questions to the Lord.  I wanted to know how He expected me to live out a commandment that didn't appear to come with an instruction manual.  How do you love your enemies?  When I did good to those who hated me, I more often felt smug than I did peaceful or loving.  When I prayed for those who I felt had used or mistreated me, I felt self-righteous and even proud of myself for ‘doing the right thing,’ but rarely felt compassion or selflessness as a result.  I knew something wasn't right.  I knew that feeling sanctimonious is not feeling love.  I knew love was more stable and consistent than the roller coaster of emotions I was experiencing with those persons.  I was going through the motions of christian love, but I wasn't feeling actual love, and I wanted to know what I was doing wrong.

So I asked the Lord how we are supposed to love those that we just do not feel love for.  How do we create charity in an environment of mutual contempt or annoyance?  How do we make our hearts vulnerable enough to feel love in situations where we do not feel emotionally capable of it?  How do we love our fellowmen during those times that we just don’t want to?  How do I build love with those not willing or able to build it with me?  What is the process of creating real, charitable, Christlike love?

I remember exactly where I was when the answer to these questions was addressed. It was a pretty typical Sunday afternoon and I was sitting in an YSA Sunday school class discussing the New Testament. The teacher was one of my favorites, probably because he never shied away from discussing really deep and difficult applications of different gospel topics, but I remember feeling annoyed and a little vengeful due to some recent events, and that had put a damper on my desires to truly love mine enemies.

Without getting into too much detail, most of my annoyance was directed toward a woman who held an unfounded grudge against me, and was using her position to punish me.  I was frustrated by her selfishness in the matter and annoyed by the piety she hid her selfishness behind.  But here we were in class, discussing the importance of loving others, doing good to those that hate you, and praying for those who despitefully use you and persecute you.  I thought about trying to love this woman, and just felt complete revulsion at the idea.  I didn’t want to love her, I wanted to crush her.  I wanted to expose her and humiliate her in front of those she cared most about.  I wanted to make her feel and recognize just how wrong she was for what she did, and then sucker-punch her with her own insecurities just for my own gratification.

But there I was, getting lectured on the importance of loving others. I remember thinking, “How? Where in the world do I even start?  Cuz my current plan sounds easier, if not more appealing.” Well, if the Lord has a knack for one thing, it’s timing. Right as I was asking this question, the teacher had us read, as a class, 2 Peter 1:4-7.

“Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.”

While these scriptures were being read, I felt the distinctly, the spirit bring to my mind the words from 2 Nephi “I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept.”  Like a chemical reaction that finally receives its activation energy, the light turned on and I finally saw my answer.  There, in that passage in 2 Peter, was the answer to all of my questions, it was just being given in the format of ‘line upon line.’  I probably read those verses 10 times that afternoon.  I read it and kept rereading it, like I would a textbook, trying to understand how this formula for love actually works.

I mapped out the verses, used a dictionary to better understand the terminology, and then tried to figure out how I would use these steps to build the love I sought to feel. Here’s what I found.
Step 1: Faith.

Before feeling love for any individual, a degree of faith is required. You may not need much, but without faith, the whole purpose and motivation to love others becomes elusive, if not unattainable.  What kind of faith?  Well, I think that depends on who and where you are.  For me, it starts with faith that human beings deserve respect and love.  Somehow, I have to remember the divine nature and potential of all God’s children in order to put in the work requisite to loving them.  If I can remember that the person spitting in my face is a beloved child of God, it becomes a lot easier to see past the spitting.  If I can remember that I am a child of God and that He desires me to be happy and love others, it becomes easier to look at the spitting with a better, more eternal, perspective.  The way I see it, faith is required for us to know that the work of trying to love someone is work worth doing.  It's why we choose to sow the seed of love.  Because if you don't believe that the seed will grow or eventually result in something good, why bother even planting the seed?  Why put in all the work required to help it grow?

Step 2: Virtue

Virtue, not a popular word these days, was a difficult one for me to wrap my head around.  Most people think of virtue as moral purity, usually in reference to chastity.  But virtue and even moral purity, goes far beyond a chaste lifestyle.  Virtue is goodness, integrity, honesty, and every other word that can be used to describe good character.  It’s not just about avoiding the fickle winds of wickedness, it’s about creating the type of character too rooted in truth for those winds to ever have power.  It's being completely in tune with and loyal to your own conscience and values.  It's avoiding things like rationalization, justifications, and other tricks we use to quiet the nagging voice that dictates to each of us what is right and wrong.  It’s doing something because you innately know it’s what you should do, not because it will offer you any immediate or even long term advantage.

It's acting according to our conscience, which to me, translates into acting according to Gods will.  When we act out of the desire to do Gods will before our own, we introduce a crucial element required to love others - namely, humility.  If anybody has ever sacrificed something they wanted for something they knew to be right, they can testify to the degree of humility that requires.  But I think that in that submission, we create a place and environment for the seed of love to take root.

Step 3: Knowledge

Ok, so this was my favorite step to study.  Not just because I’ve always been obsessed with the concept of knowledge, but because it’s the step that I find most effective when trying to learn how to love another human being.  For me, gaining knowledge of someone else’s perspective, insights, and even background always seems to make it easier to love them.  It stands as good foundation for greater tolerance and compassion.

Like an arborist learning about what different trees need to grow, it makes it easier to accept and navigate the idiosyncrasies, the frustrations, and even the offences that so often obstruct the process of loving one another.  But even beyond gaining knowledge of that other human being, I think a different type of knowledge is required.  Along with knowing what that tree specifically needs to flourish, you need to have a basic understanding truth (ie that the seed will become a tree, that the tree will require care, etc).  Likewise, faith in one another’s potential to become like God and a knowledge of things as they really are (ie: that all men are imperfect, that all men need love and have agency, that God loves His children, etc), is a great tool to building a foundation of love with another human being.

Step 4: Temperance

Temperance seems to be another unpopular word these days.  I think that this is because over the years, people have used temperance as a means of judging and chastising others, rather than a method of learning to love them better.  So often, I’ve heard people degrade and look down on others for their various unchecked appetites and vices.  They belittle and exclude them for not practicing temperance, and in the process manage to miss the whole point of practicing temperance in the first place.  Just to be clear on this, because I don’t think we address this often enough, the whole point of the Word of Wisdom and every law of sacrifice is meant to help us love one another better.  Remember that pesky addendum to Christ's first two commandments?  "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."  Temperance is the principle given to help us govern selfish appetites because being governed by appetite and selfishness obstructs our ability and capacity to love others.  Judging and excusing yourself from loving others because they lack temperance is just moronic and acts completely against temperance's intended purpose.  You'd be better off loving them and lacking temperance.

The way I see it, temperance is the principle taught to help us overcome selfishness.  It's the method by which we overcome appetite and it's tendency to obstruct clarity of thought/conscience.  As I mentioned before, that clarity of conscience is necessary for virtue to ever be achieved, so virtue and temperance are very closely linked. Basically, temperance is the practice of balancing the pH of the soil we are planting in.  While this definitely includes any mind-altering or addictive substances/habits, its definitely not limited to those things.  Temperance, in the form of balanced self control, is constantly required in all aspects of our lives in order to foster love with others.  It's the bridle that helps us control our appetites and passions, rather than be controlled by them.  It's what helps us remember what we want most, so that we don't sacrifice those desires for what we want in any given moment. 

Whether it's meth, gambling, or pornography, anybody dealing with someone under the influence of addiction can testify to their limited capacity to create and nurture loving bonds.  As willing as they may be to love and sacrifice for another, the moment their addiction wields its ugly head, that willingness often fades, the root is ripped up, and the bonds of love are damaged.  While that may be an extreme example of where temperance is needed, it still holds under less extreme circumstances.  Whether it’s substance abuse, a tempting distraction, or an unhealthy lifestyle, we need temperance if we ever hope to break free of our appetite driven life styles and learn to love others and respect ourselves.  It takes discipline to weed out the choking tendencies of negligence and excess, and foster the consistently nourishing environment necessary for our relationships to grow.

Step 5: Patience

I would like to dedicate this entire step to Olya Polazhynets (now Goodrick I guess - weird).  She has been the single greatest example to me of what patience is and how I can learn to have more of it.  It may be one of her natural talents, but watching her exercise and utilize that gift has inspired me multiple times over.  More than anything, I've always been so impressed by her patience with me.  I am and always have been a person who does things in my own time.  She knows this about me, and I've seen how patiently she has loved and waited for me to understand all those things she knows already.  There have been countless conversations where she knew I was wrong about something, but didn't push or force her greater understanding upon me.  She introduced the idea, accepted me and my ignorance, and waited for the Lord to teach me otherwise.  Some of these took longer than others, but without fail, she patiently dealt with me (and my ignorance) in the meantime.

Because of her patience with me, I could never feel resentful or upset by the fact that she knows so much more than myself.  Likewise, when we are trying to love others, we need to practice patience and accept that everybody takes their own path and grows at their own pace, including ourselves.  Expecting anything out of anyone is dangerous enough in the foundation of love, expecting things on and in your time frame is downright destructive.  Have faith that the Lord can teach, change, and correct His children more effectively than you ever will.  Be patient as He works on them, and in the meantime, continue to nurture that tree.  Continue in those practices with patience, until the root of that love takes hold and eventually starts to blossom.

Step 6: Godliness (Reverence)

This step took a little more scripture searching to understand.  Maybe I can chalk it up to poor translation, but I guess the term godliness, when translated from Greek, actually refers to reverence and/or respect.  While the degree of respect may vary according to the depth of the relationship, I do see the vital role it plays in learning to love one another.  If you couldn't tell from the last paragraph, I've been blessed with friendships with people that easily evoke that kind reverence/respect from me.  I have copious amounts of this kind of respect with many of my friends, and I'm pretty sure the feeling is often mutual.  None of us are perfect, but even amidst our imperfections, we see one another's strengths, and we both feel a kind of admiration that inspires devotion, even amidst difficult circumstances.

That respect motivates us to always do and give of our best to one another.  It promotes a sense of safety, allowing us to reveal our most tender and sensitive portions of our psyche and spirit, because we trust one another with those vulnerabilities.  To me, respect is the trunk that supports and gives us access to the delicate but beautiful blossoms of love.  It's a quality that facilitates trust, resilience, and sustainability.  It's a quality that carries nutrients and helps those blossoms of brotherly kindness (spoiler alert) perpetually bloom.

Step 7: Brotherly Kindness (benevolence, compassion, kindness)

Though I do not wish to understate the importance of brotherly kindness, I do want to point out that brotherly kindness without the other steps to support it is not enough to create love.  For instance, benevolence without knowledge is often crippling, and compassion without respect is just pity.  Like a bud picked off of a tree, it's impotent, and unable to perpetuate.  We should always practice compassion and kindness with our fellowmen, but it needs to be rooted in faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, and respect if we expect it to be rooted and have any lasting impact or withstand any kind of trial.  Benevolence is a beautiful, moving, and inspiring thing, and I think that's exactly what it's meant to be.  After all, it is the figurative blossom in the tree of love that often eventually bears the fruit/seeds of love.  Seeing others act in benevolence, compassion, and kindness often instills in us the desire to do the same.  Just like seeing or enjoying the flowers of another's garden, it creates in us a desire to create those blossoms ourselves.

That's a good thing, but we need to remember that wanting to create that garden is just a small part in the law of the harvest.  Brotherly kindness is the goal/consequence of planting that tree, not the method by which it gets planted.  If we desire to create those blossoms, we need to be sowing, working on, and developing those other principles.  That way, as those blossoms mature, brotherly kindness allows us to eventually reap the wholesome, fulfilling, and nourishing fruit of charity.

Step 8: Charity

Wrapping up the tree analogy, I see charity as the fruit of love, and therefore, the food of love.  It's the fruit from the figurative tree of life, and the food that fuels us to work and plant more trees.  It's the element required for any and all creation as well as salvation.  Charity is the ultimate goal and purpose of existing on this earth.  Charity is the power behind everything good in the world.  Charity is the pure love of Christ and God..  It is "...the beginning, the middle, and the end of the pathway of discipleship." (Wirthlin)  Having charity is to love as God loves, to exist as God exists.  Without it, we profiteth nothing.  Without it, we are nothing.  Whatever we think, desire, and do in this life, it should be with an eye single to creating charity.  That's the key to happiness, peace, and fulfillment, both in this life and the next.  It's the fruit that makes planting possible, and the nourishment that sustains eternal happiness.  Without exception, 'charity never faileth'.  We just need to learn how to stop failing at charity.

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