The Nature and Importance of Love
I was asked by a reader, “What is the most important thing in life to you?” Since many of us may occasionally ask ourselves the same question, I thought it would be a good idea to share my answer with all our readers. By the way, you are also invited to ask me a question or suggest a topic for me to write about.
Although we may hesitate before arriving at the one most important thing in life, it is an easy matter to think of several things that are important to us. Some of things that immediately come to mind are a job, money, friends, food and shelter, and a spouse and family. Now, we cannot get any of the above without the help of others. So, how do we get their help?
Life gives back to us what we give to it. So, if I help others, what do you suppose they will do? That’s right, they will help me. Because we need the help of others to reach our goals, one of the most important things in life is to help others, thereby receiving their help. But don’t misunderstand. The purpose of helping others is not because we need their help, but because they need our help.
How do you feel when you are served by an ingratiating waiter in a restaurant? It is not pleasant when a waiter fawns on you because he wants a big tip. But when the waiter is sincere and offers impeccable service because he takes his job seriously, it is a delightful experience. For this simple reason, when we help others, sincerity and the desire to always do and be our best must be our guiding principles.
But what causes us to serve others with a pure motive? Isn’t it love? Now we can answer the question. The most important thing in life is love because, as Marianne Williamson wrote in her book A Return to Love, “Love Is Our Soul Purpose.” Now that we know the answer, we can begin to reflect on the meaning of love and the fruit it bears.
Love means to cherish, hold dear, and treasure. We do not hurt, harm, or cause pain to those we love; rather, we seek to relieve their suffering. Also, love is liberating because it is the absence of fear. It frees us from suspicion, hostility, envy, and resentment. It rejoices in the achievements of others. It is not about wanting people; it’s about wanting people to be happy. It’s not about wanting to possess or control others; it’s about wanting to set them free.
Here is an excellent description of love by John Oxenham, “Love ever gives. Forgives, outlives. And ever stands with open hands. And while it lives, it gives. For this is love’s prerogatives — to give, and give, and give.” Love is all there is. What more do we need to know?
Before we can love others, we have to discover and experience it for ourselves. Although it is helpful to say we first need to love ourselves, it is also inaccurate to say so. You see, to love oneself implies two people: the lover and the beloved. But we are not two; we are one. So, it is more accurate to say that when we become still and plunge into our depths, we will discover that we are love. Love is our very nature. This becomes clear when we watch infants smile at strangers. Igor Stravinsky said something similar, “Is it not by love alone that we succeed in penetrating to the very essence of being?”
Love is not about feeling good; it is about doing good. A perfect example of love in action is Mother Teresa. But how did such a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, find the energy to work so tirelessly? The answer can be found in the words of Thomas ã Kempis, “Love feels no burden, thinks nothing of trouble, attempts what is above its strength… It is therefore able to undertake all things, and it completes many things, and warrants them to take effect, where he who does not love would faint and lie down.”
When we do all things with love, we infuse our tasks and ourselves with energy. Nevertheless, after considering the extraordinary hurdles overcome by Mother Teresa, we may feel painfully inadequate and doubt that we can make much of a difference. At such a time, we should earnestly listen to her own words: “Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”
Mother Teresa also exemplified one of the fruits of love, which is respect for others. When asked by a reporter if she tried to convert those she helped, she replied, “Of course I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu or a better Muslim or a better Protestant. Once you’ve found God, it’s up to you to decide how to worship him.” It would bode well for us to follow her example, for if we cannot respect others, we cannot respect God.
Innately, we seek freedom, joy, and endless growth. They are the ingredients of happiness, and they are also the fruit of love. No longer a hostage of anger, a captive of greed, or a prisoner of negative thinking, love frees us to be ourselves. As to joy, it is the natural by-product of bringing joy to others. And for endless growth to flourish, we need an environment of love, for we cannot learn from those we don’t love. Love allows us to accept others and makes us willing to listen to what they have to say, the reward of which is knowledge, learning, and growth.
“The essence of love is kindness,” said Robert Louis Stevenson. Those who are portals of love are kind, gentle, and humble. They express their love by serving others, and their service provides meaning and purpose in their lives. On the physical plane, an enlarged heart is a malady, but spiritually, an enlarged heart embraces more and more of humanity, raising our consciousness. As our heart expands, we come to love everything under the sun: the streams, brooks, trees, and creatures of the forest. This leads us to God, for as Vincent Van Gogh said, “The best way to know God is to love many things.” When we love, we are not bringing God into our heart. Rather, we are stepping into the heart of God. What better way to get to know Him?
Frank Tebbets reminds us that “A life without love in it is like a heap of ashes upon a deserted hearth, with the fire dead, the laughter stilled and the light extinguished.” To the deserted, the lonely, the impoverished, let’s come bearing the gift of love. For as Oscar Wilde wrote, “Who, being loved, is poor?” I’m sure you agree with Euripides that “Love is all we have, the only way that each can help the other.” Although this article has an ending, love does not, for when we immerse ourselves in it, we get a taste of eternity. That’s why Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “…brief is life but love is long.”
Being Love versus Being Loved
If you seek to be loved, you may be disappointed because you cannot control others. You cannot ask for love because it is not a favor, it is a gift. But if you seek to be love, if you seek to become the gift, you will succeed. So, be a pillar of light, a fountain of love, a source of comfort. Embrace others with your heart. Even if you cannot help, the mere act of loving lightens their burdens, for they find consolation in your concern. When you follow this path, the love you willingly give will be returned to you. You will become loved without seeking it.
On a spiritual level, our very essence, or true nature is love, but on a material level, we need to love ourselves. Can we feed the hungry if we have no food? Can we shelter the homeless if we have no shelter? Can we give money to the needy if we don’t have any? How, then, can we love others, if we don’t first love ourselves? The cartoonist, author, and speaker Andrew Matthews explains why this is true in his own brilliant way:
“People who do not love themselves can adore others, because adoration is making someone else big and ourselves small. They can desire others, because desire comes out of a sense of inner incompleteness, which demands to be filled. But they cannot love others, because love is an affirmation of the living, growing being in all of us. If you don’t have it, you can’t give it.”
So, forgive yourself. Be patient with yourself. When you do so, you will be able to forgive others and be patient with them. When you learn to love yourself, not for who you are but despite who you are, you will be able to treat others in the same manner. You are not perfect and neither is anyone else, but love can be. Learn to be at home with yourself and you soon will be able to be a source of comfort to others.
You have a reason to love yourself. There is a Divine Spark glowing within you. And you are part of the magnificence we call the universe. Yet, don’t become preoccupied with yourself. If all you have in the room of your mind is mirrors, you will only be aware of yourself and your own needs. Replace some of those mirrors with windows so you can discover the world outside and the needs of others. For it is in loving that we unfold, mature, and reach our potential.
What is love? It is care, concern, and compassion for all those we meet because they are our brothers and sisters. When we give our time, devotion, and energy to others, we give the greatest gift of all, ourselves. Love is an idea. Service is how that idea is expressed. Love is a mother kissing her child’s wound, a teacher inspiring a student, and a spouse encouraging their mate. It is solace and encouragement, kindness and tenderness. It is a listening ear, a sympathetic heart, a welcoming gaze, and a tender touch. It is unconditional acceptance, for how can you love someone you are trying to change? Besides being an invaluable gift to others, love is a gift to ourselves because it adds meaning and purpose to our lives.
St. Augustine describes the appearance of love: “It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.” Love is also the great healer. It heals conflict, hatred, and injustice. For “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)
What about love between couples? There are two secrets to a successful marriage: 1) Pick the right mate. 2) Be the right mate. Love is not a feeling; it’s a decision. It’s not about “You make me feel good”, but about “I am committed to you because I respect and admire you. I want to be more like you. You are someone I can trust. You will make a great parent, friend, and partner.” Love is not about sharing a generic “I love you,” but about being specific, such as, “Honey, I admire your dedication to our family, what a great mother (father) you are!” Or, “Thank you for working so hard to help pay all our bills.”
In expressing our love, words like “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” play an important role, but they always go with action. We prove our love by lessening the burden of our partner by helping with family chores and responsibilities. But it’s about volunteering our services without being asked. And when problems arise, love always finds a way while indifference finds an excuse. Also, keep your relationship sparkling with humor. For example, here are two delightful descriptions of what it’s like to be in love, written by poet, author, and award winning journalist Judith Viorst:
“Love is much nicer to be in than an automobile accident, a tight girdle, a higher tax bracket, or a holding pattern over Philadelphia.”
“Infatuation is when you think that he’s as sexy as Robert Redford, as smart as Henry Kissinger, as noble as Ralph Nader, as funny as Woody Allen, and as athletic as Jimmy Conners. Love is when you realize that he’s as sexy as Woody Allen, as smart as Jimmy Conners, as funny as Ralph Nader, as athletic as Henry Kissinger, and nothing like Robert Redford — but you’ll take him anyway.”
Getting serious again, yes, we want to be a fountain of love for all those we meet, but love begins at home and its importance should never be underestimated. Here’s a story that was reported elsewhere, “A man approached Mother Teresa and said, ‘Mother, I want to do something great for God, but I don’t know what. Should I start a school, be a missionary in a foreign land, build up a charitable agency?’ He had great visions. Mother Teresa looked at him closely, with kindness, and responded: ‘What you need to do is make sure that no one in your family goes unloved.’” Something else Mother Teresa shared with us is the following, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”
One of the small things we can do with great love is to tell our friends and family members exactly how much they mean to us. Far too many times the words are left unsaid, left until it is too late to say them. Don’t let this happen to you, or if it already has, don’t let it happen again.
William Penn left us with a quotation that has inspired countless numbers of people over the years. Whether it’s your first or one hundredth time to see it, let it inspire you to action. “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Expressing Love through Kindness
When I was a thirteen year old student attending James Monroe High School in the Bronx, New York City, I had an English teacher everyone called “Mean Miss Williams.” In her early fifties and unmarried, Miss Williams treated every student curtly and coldly. She didn’t have any friends and my classmates disliked her.
At the time, I was in love. In love with life. And Miss Williams was part of the life I loved so much. So, every time I passed her on my way to class I would smile and say, “Good morning (or afternoon), Miss Williams!” Glaring, she would sternly scold me, “You know perfectly well you are not allowed to speak in the corridor; now be quiet!” I would just smile and say, “Sorry, Miss Williams!”
This went on every day: my warm greeting followed by her cold response. However, within a year, something remarkable occurred. Miss Williams had a change of attitude. Slowly, she became more pleasant to be around. She blossomed, as a flower does when exposed to the sun. Students stopped calling her mean. I was amazed by the change in Miss Williams. It was then that I discovered the power of kindness. It is a power we have to influence the world we inhabit.
The small acts of kindness we perform can create huge amounts of happiness in the lives of others. What a waste it would be to fail to use our power. There’s no need to be stingy with dispensing kindness, for unlike money, you won’t run out of it by giving it away. Just the opposite. The more you give away, the more you’ll receive.
Speaking eloquently on this subject, Princess Diana said, “Perhaps we’re too embarrassed to change or too frightened of the consequences of showing that we actually care. But why not risk it anyway? begin today! Carry out an act of kindness, with no expectation of reward or punishment. Safe in the knowledge that one day, someone somewhere might do the same for you.”
Random Acts of kindness
Professor Chuck Wall of Bakersfield College, California got fed up with the negativity appearing in the media. Every day he heard, read, or watched news reports of “random acts of violence.” Tired of learning about school bullies, road rage, and senseless attacks, he wondered why the media didn’t focus more on the positive. So, he coined the phrase, “Random Acts of Kindness” and encouraged members of his community to report on the acts of kindness they witnessed.
The story was picked up by the wire service and caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who invited Chuck Wall to appear on her show. Oprah encouraged her more than eleven million viewers to engage in “Random Acts of Kindness” to stop the ugly spread of violence in our society. Because of her show, churches, schools, and other organizations formed kindness groups in thousands of communities across the U.S.
Whether working alone or in a group, we can also contribute to the kindness movement. Once we realize that the absence of kindness is cruelty, and that kindness is the oil that takes the friction out of life, it becomes clear how important it is. Don’t be discouraged if the recipient of your kindness, like Mean Miss Williams, doesn’t respond. The truth is, whether they show it or not, anyone who stands in the sun will feel the warmth and benefit. What acts of kindness should we perform? That’s easy, we should do what we wish to receive from others.
Some would argue that man is cruel, but as Juvenal wrote nearly 2,000 years ago, “Nature in giving tears to man, confessed that he had a tender heart; this is our noblest quality.”
Advice from John Wesley
Do all the good you can
By all the means you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
At all the times you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can!
- A Gift of Love: Lessons Learned From My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa By Tony Cointreau
- Gift of Love: The Spiritual Nature & Meaning of Love by Joel Goldsmith
- Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff
- Love Lives Here: Finding What You Need in a World Telling You What You Want by Maria Goff
- What Love Is: And What It Could Be by Carrie Jenkins
- Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle