Love, they say, makes the world go round. And, guess what? They’re right! When love is properly motivated, when it is not viewed as a means to an end but as an end in itself, then love becomes the most powerful force in the universe. It can see life through the toughest of times and infuse life with the most sublime of joys. If this sounds like spiritual wellness to you, then you’re well on the way to understanding the thrust of this Provision.
There’s no better way to conclude our series on spiritual wellness than to encourage you to embrace love. It is the sine qua non • the essential, crucial, and indispensable ingredient • apart from which neither spiritual wellness nor any other wellness is possible.
Of course there are many kinds of love. Romantic love (what the ancient Greeks called eros) is filled with passion and desire. We seek to connect with another person on intimate and deep of levels. Buddy love (called phileo) is filled with camaraderie and cooperation. These are the people we enjoy playing, working, and relaxing with. They are our friends. Altruistic love (called agape) is filled with generosity and commitment. We put the welfare of others ahead of our own welfare, even if that entails personal suffering.
Another way to speak of these three kinds of love is in terms of their primary impetuses. Romantic love is conditional “because of love.” We love someone “because of” their beauty, character, kindness, potential to make us complete, or any number of other possible reasons. We may not be aware of all the reasons that cause us to love someone, but where there is romance there is always reasons!
Buddy love, on the other hand, is conditional “if love.” I will treat you right if you treat me right, play shortstop if you play pitcher, work on your project if you work on my project, or give you a present if you give me a present. We may not state the contract so explicitly and we hopefully know better than to demand immediate reciprocity but we definitely want our friendships to be mutually satisfying.
Altruistic love is unconditional “in spite of love.” We do not condition our love on the basis of cause or contract. It matters neither how wonderful someone or something is nor if they will respond, or even if they have the potential to respond, in kind. We simply love them, right where they are, and just the way they are, without any strings attached.
All three kinds of love are worth embracing for spiritual wellness. It’s not that romance or friendship are incompatible with or lesser forms of love just because they are more conditional and self-interested. On the contrary, they are essential parts of life that often serve as great spiritual teachers. But romance and friendship are not complete and will not endure without the more unconditional and selfless impetuses of altruistic love.
M. Scott Peck defines love as “the will to extend oneself for one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Milton Mayeroff defines it as “the selfless promotion of the growth of the other.” Tim Sanders defines it as “the act of sharing your intangibles with others.” Sharon Salzberg defines it as “the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin defines it as “the universal synthesizer.”
These definitions all point to the more durable and transcendental dimensions of altruistic love. We give ourselves for others not because of who they are and what they can do for us but because of who we are and what we can do for them. When this becomes the focus of our joy, when we take pleasure in being kind for the sake of kindness alone, we find ourselves standing in the mystery and fullness of love.
Perhaps no description of love is better known than the poem penned by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church. It is a quintessential expression of altruistic love. If you haven’t read it in a while, or if you have never read it at all, then perhaps you will enjoy this rendering cobbled together from a variety of translations as well as my own understanding of the ancient Greek:
“If I speak with human wisdom and angelic ecstasy but I fail to love, then I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I can discern hidden mysteries and make everything plain as day, and if I have the faith to move mountains, but I fail to love, then I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and sacrifice my body to the cause, but I fail to love, then I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, know, or do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep a record of wrongs,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. What we speak, pray, and know about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete comes, our incompletes will be canceled. Then we will put an end to childish ways. We will stop squinting in the fog and peering through the mist. We will see and know things just as clearly as God sees and knows us. But until then, we would do well to trust steadily in God, to hope unswervingly, and to love extravagantly. Of these three, the greatest of these is love.”
Now that’s a description of altruistic love! And it makes clear the connection with spiritual wellness. The love that cares for others is the love that draws us close to God and the love that cares for God is the love that draws us close to others. There is simply no way to have one without the other.
The relationship is like that of a tree and its shadow, which we can come at from either direction. Climb up in the tree • pour out your love for God • and you’re bound to cast a shadow. Work in the shadow • pour out your love for people • and you’re bound to see the tree. True love in any sector carries over to true love in every sector until we make visible the hidden power supply of the universe.
Emmet Fox gives a soaring description of this power in his interpretation of The Sermon on the Mount: “There is no difficulty that enough love will not conquer,” he writes; “no disease that enough love will not heal; no door that enough love will not open; no gulf that enough love will not bridge; no wall that enough love will not throw down; no sin that enough love will not redeem…. It makes no difference how deeply seated may be the trouble; how hopeless the outlook; how muddled the tangle; how great the mistake. A sufficient realization of love will dissolve it all. If only you could love enough you would be the happiest and most powerful being in the world.”
Yet that realization comes only to those who set aside their ambition for such remarkable results. As soon as we make the results our concern, rather than the expression of love, we slip back into love that is motivated by causes and contracts. Only when we abandon such ambitions, only when we stop wanting what we do not have, will we be able to love so fully and completely as to discover the happiness that we seek.
Such a paradox! By doing what’s right just because it’s right, and not because of what it may or may not produce, we end up producing far more of what we want than if we go after the result itself. That’s why coaches speak of success as a byproduct rather than as a product. Success is not what we go after. It is what comes as a byproduct of going after love.
As I write this my wife and I are in Atlanta, Georgia assisting our daughter to set up her new home before she starts her third year of medical school on Tuesday. Why are we here? Because we want to be with her for a few days to share the work and to coach her through this time of transition. In some ways it would have been easier and less expensive to stay home, but that would not have been the loving thing to do. And neither one of us would have felt as good as we do right now.
Last weekend we did the same thing with our son and daughter-in-law in Charlottesville, Virginia. As they set up housekeeping as a married couple, it helps to have the support, encouragement, and press of those who have gone before. They, like our daughter, could have done all this on their own, but it would not have been so well mixed with love.
Do you see how these things work? Altruistic love is not about doing things because one has to, ought to, or must. It is not a should that generates guilt when it is not done. Altruistic love is a selfless impetus that generates goodness when it is done.
So get yourself in that frame of mind. Forget about the quid pro quo calculation of what your good deeds will bring you. Instead, focus on the pure pleasure of loving others as God has loved you. In so doing, you too will discover the spiritual wellness of love.
Coaching Inquiries: What motivates you to love? Is it selfless and unconditional? Or is it based upon causes and conditions? Do you focus more on what you can do for others or on what they can do for you? Does it bring you joy to reach out to others in love? How could you become more joyful and energized by love?
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May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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