So, if I said to you, “I’ve opened a bank account in your name. The account contains a balance of $5 million. To access the money, you’ll need the PIN number, which only I know. And I’m not going to tell you.”
It seems logical to me, then, your next question might appropriately be, “So, what’s the difference between that and not having the money at all?” And I would say, “No difference. But at least you’ll know it’s always there.”
I ran this little parable by my eldest son, who added a spin. “I guessed I’d have hope that someday you might give me the PIN number,” he said. But would that hope be a good thing? Or would it, eventually and inexorably, merely add a layer of cruelty to your poverty? Wouldn’t many people be obliged, sooner or later, to abandon a hope whose presence only made the plight more glaringly obvious? Some “hopes” become an impediment to freedom. In this case, an anxious distraction, breeding resentment and draining energy from the pressing task of earning and providing for oneself.
Or, what if I owned the finest, rarest bottle of cabernet sauvignon ever crafted? It was worth thousands. Nectar of the gods. A one-of-a-kind experience for any mortal palate. But then I said to you, “I’m never going to open it.”
It seems logical to me, then, your next question might appropriately be, “So, what’s the difference between that and not having the wine at all?” And I would say, “No difference. But at least you’ll know it’s always there.”
In my dictionary, the word “love” is a noun and a verb. As a noun, it refers to either a principle or a feeling. As a principle, love is an ethos. A worldview. An all-consuming frame of ethics, as when the Apostle Paul says, “Hope, faith and love remain … but the greatest of these is love.” As a feeling, love describes an intense, vulnerable, gentling, sentimental warm sensation generating from the solar plexus.
As a verb, love is action. The Greek transliteration is agapao, “the love that sacrifices.” As a verb, love doesn’t spend much time philosophizing about principles nor basking and marinating in feelings. It’s on the move. In motion. It is wholly and freely offered. It is compelled by the happiness and best interest of the subject. And it sacrifices in service to that end.
Love as a verb is, in the end, more meaningful than love as a noun. I know this because I can act in your best interest (that is, love you) absent any feeling of love whatsoever. I can even act in your best interest while I feel nothing for you but anger, scorn and antipathy. It is in this latter sense that I can make sense out of the mandate to “love my enemies.”
I’m saying I don’t have to like you in order to love you. And conversely, just because I am overwhelmed with intense love feelings for you in no way guarantees you will feel loved. Nor do love feelings stop me sometimes from not acting in your best interest. I sometimes behave stupidly and selfishly toward people for whom I feel love.
I think of these things when I listen to adults strain and agonize to understand their childhood experience of love. Countless times a patient has recounted to me the tale of one parent (often the mother) coming to them about the other parent (often the father) and reassuring, “Your father loves you very much, he just doesn’t know how to show it.”
It seems logical to me, then, the next question might appropriately be, “So, what’s the difference between a love you can’t show and not being loved at all?”
No difference. But at least you’ll know it’s always there.
To fathers and mothers everywhere, not to mention daughters and sons and husbands and wives and brothers and sisters and covenant friends, let us never forget:
It doesn’t matter that we love unless love binds us to the work of love. It doesn’t matter if we understand love as principle nor if our hearts are awash with love feelings … unless and until we act with constancy and faithfulness in service to another. The more pressing question is not “Do I love?”
Rather, “Does the one I love have an abiding experience of being loved?”
Tell them the PIN number. Open that bottle. Pour that wine.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” His column appears each Wednesday in the Tribune-Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.