Back in our Phoenix apartment, Clare and I would often spend evenings on our couch discussing life, sometimes with wine in-hand. We’d exchange our revelations and pose theories to better explain our experiences. So now, here I am, on the same couch, sharing one of mine with you.
I’ve come to realize that we are all novices in this thing we call love. Very few of us know the best way to love the people in our lives in all the crazy and nuanced situations life throws at us. Whether it’s in a friendship, relationship or family, I often have the feeling of wanting to do something for someone but not knowing the best way to do so. The loss for words with the mother that’s just lost her son. The feeling of driving by the same homeless man on the street corner, day after day. This idea that we are all learning how to love offers an explanation for why we may spoil our children or enable people we love that have addictions. We have great intentions, we just don’t always know the best way to act on them. And that second part, acting on our intentions, is love, which is what we are all working to figure out.
If we accept this theory, that we are all still learning how to love, it means a few things.
First, it means we may have different ideas of what love should look like. If our expectations for how someone will treat us don’t align with their actions, that’s when we feel disappointed, misunderstood, or hurt.
“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”-Thich Nhat Hanh
Since we’re all still learning to love, it means we should have more compassion and patience for others. Love is a difficult task. Very often people aren’t intending to hurt us, they just don’t know how to best love us yet. It’s a work in progress. It also means we can look for love in the places we wouldn’t expect. It might be lurking in the stern warning, a response of “no,” or words left unsaid.
On the other hand, the fact that love is something that can be practiced and learned also means we can do better. We can actively seek opportunities to practice love and get better at it.
What does love look like? Since we’re all a little different in how we give and receive love (check out those five love languages), we need to be constantly refining how we love each other and broaden and shape our idea to fit the person in front of us. I think it looks like listening to an individual’s needs, even if unspoken, seeing the best in them, and calling out to that best person we see. Not just wishing for the best for that person, but actively working to discern what the best is for that individual in that moment. It’s a focus on the other and not ourselves. And sometimes it means recognizing that we may not be able to do very much besides just be with them in unwavering support.
I’m still learning so much about how to love people. But I think it has a lot to do with seeking a genuine connection, in an effort to see things from that person’s perspective, and knowing that “I don’t know what to say” is allowed. Another thing I’ve learned is that love takes courage. How often am I held back from acting on my good intentions for fear of how they will be perceived? More than I’d like to admit.
I think in our closer relationships, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask, “how can I better show you love?” Sure it’s not quite rom-com material, but it’s an intentional act for understanding and empathy.
Maybe love isn’t all impulse and feeling. Maybe it’s a calculated and thoughtful action to connect with the other. Maybe that’s what Dostoevsky meant with this little nugget of wisdom: “active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.” Maybe it’s not just a science but an art-an art that can be honed and crafted. An art with experts and schools in which we are apprentices.
This life is training in the art of loving. May we continually practice and learn to love well, and be gracious with ourselves and others along the way.