Monday, March 21, 2016

Loving and being loved

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. This post on loving/being loved, planned to coincide with Holy Week, concludes my Lenten series on spiritual growth through cultivating the human spirit by developing its six facets (aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy, self-awareness, linguistic capacity, and loving/being loved).

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes humans as ultrasocial, a quality that is at least partially a function of human development and use of language as a means of symbolic communication. Communication, however, does not fully describe or explain humans' ultrasocial nature.

The historical trajectory of humans, far more than that of any other species, traces a broadening circle of those about whom others expect one to demonstrate caring or from whom one can reasonably expect to receive care. The oldest and most narrowly circumscribed circles of care identify immediate family, including the nuclear family and perhaps those at one or two removes from it, e.g., aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Subsequent circles of caring expanded to include all known or identifiable members of one's biological family and sometimes all members of a clan or tribe. More recently, circles of caring widened to encompass all of the members of a nation or citizens of a state. Arguably, the best hope for peace on earth is the further widening of circles of caring to include all creation and all species.

Evolutionary biologists, along with some other scholars, label the mutual expectations of caring reciprocal altruism (I've written about reciprocal altruism in Ethical Musings – cf. Why be religious? and A global order in transition).

I prefer the term loving/being loved for two reasons. First, the word love more strongly connotes the emotional attributes and expressions of this aspect of the spirit than does the term reciprocal altruism. Behaviors and thoughts associated with this aspect of the human spirit inseparably intertwine and cognitive and affective qualities. Second, the term loving/being loved points to the inherent link between this aspect of the spirit and ethics. Reciprocal altruism can too easily imply ethical neutrality whereas love connotes positive expectations and obligations, and the absence of love has negative connotations.

Christian theologians have long debated the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross. Expiation and propitiation are just two of the most popular alternative explanatory theories (cf. the Ethical Musings' post, Good Friday).

Importantly, almost every Christian theologian accepts the proposition that Jesus' crucifixion expressed God's unquenchable love for us, although most theologians probably reject this idea as insufficient to explain the cross by itself. Thus, Christians emulate Jesus, their moral exemplar, when they loving embrace humans and all creations.

This interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' death echoes the gospel record of Jesus teaching his disciples to love one another and to love others as they themselves wish to be loved. Jesus, who was Jewish, simply underscored what Judaism already taught. Indeed, the latter instruction, sometimes known as the Golden Rule, is a basic ethic found in all of the world's major religions. Given that loving/being loved is an intrinsic element of the human spirit, the Golden Rule's universality is predictable rather than surprising. Process theologian John Hick has suggested that mutuality of relationships is the most important quality of personal existence.

Implicit within the concept of loving/being loved – regardless of whether it is formulated as loving/being loved, the Golden Rule, or reciprocal altruism – is that a person must love her/himself in order to love others. Both self-abnegation and narcissism impede spiritual growth. Genuine self-love honestly appraises the self, affirmatively acknowledging what is good while also acknowledging and seeking to change that which is destructive or harmful to self, others, or creation.

Given this understanding of loving/being loved, the following are spiritual disciplines that may help a person to cultivate this aspect of the human spirit:

  • Daily perform an act of kindness – Intentionally cultivating this habit will result not only in a person becoming kinder but also more empathetic, more aware of the needs of others, and more generous. These characteristics, in turn, will help you to accept the love that others try to give to you.
  • Reconciliation with the estranged – Seeking to reconcile with those from whom you are estranged is a particular type of kindness. Hatred, jealousy, envy, shame, and other negative emotions are corrosive acids that diminish a person's spirit and thereby diminish one's humanity. Seeking reconciliation requires admitting one's own faults and sins, expressing sorrow for those shortcomings, opening one's self to being forgiven, and choosing to forgive others for their faults and sins. Reconciliation is not always possible, e.g., if the other person opposes refuses to work toward reconciliation. But I can act to ensure that I am not the obstacle to reconciliation. Additionally, reconciliation does not always entail restoration. For example, reconciliation may end mutual animosity without resuming intimacy or friendship.
  • Intentionally, regularly, and sacrificially giving of one's time, talents, and treasure to help build a more just, loving community – Each person is the steward of a life. Good stewardship – the intentional, regular, and sacrificial (think proportionally, i.e., as a percentage of time and wealth, initially aiming at 10% and then upping the percentage until the totality of one's time, abilities, and possessions are God's) giving – is a basic ethical principle. You love God and others. Could you do so more effectively (achieve more fulsome, life giving results)? Could you do so more efficiently (achieve the same results using less time or money)? When it comes to loving and being loved, both intentions and results matter. When another person looks at you, your words, and your actions, do they see the same love that so many discover when they look at Jesus hanging on the cross?
  • If you have a significant other, go on a weekly date together during which you converse for at least an hour. If you have children, do something with each child at least once a week, also allowing an hour for conversation. If a parent is alive, commit to speaking with that parent weekly. In short, carve out time each week to connect with those one is most likely to love and by whom one is most likely to be loved. Healthily incorporating loving/being loved into one's lifestyle does not mean loving all people equally. Only God can do that. Instead, loving/being love entails prioritizing our loves, beginning with those closest to us, but extending that love to incorporate all. I am not to feed a starving child abroad before I feed my own children. I am to do my best to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, have an adequate diet and good nutrition. This obligation does require subordinating excessive personal pleasure to the well-being of strangers, a challenging effort that defies easy or universal answers.

No comments: