Nicole Law didn’t expect that a heavy tome about love would prepare her so well for the annual February 14 romance-fest.
Responsibility, self-sacrifice, commitment, subordinating oneself to another … These are hardly the romantic terms we’d like to hear on or around St Valentine’s Day. Let Cupid fire his arrows: we’ll think about the long-term consequences another day.
But I’ve been reading a very deep book which precisely puts love within the context of responsibility. Love means just that: becoming responsible for another, the willingness to take the weight of that person’s life in both easy and hard times, through thick and thin. Love is more commitment than passion, though – as the author explains – there’s a place for this too.
I’ve always had deep respect for Saint John Paul II, in particular his heart for young people and his belief in their potential to be catalysts for change. To me, he was both a religious figure (a pope) and a spiritual father.
So when a friend of mine mentioned a book authored by him, Love and Responsibility, I was intrigued and bought myself a copy. I wondered what a celibate priest could have to say on love, sexuality and marriage. What could he say that I did not already know, whether from personal experience or via second hand observation?
I approached the book with caution because, to be honest, my recent experience of love has been very different. I’m familiar with the rising usage of dating apps, of hookup culture and a collective fear of commitment. I’ve heard countless friends recount stories of toxic relationships, of manipulation and use, and the lack of clarity when it comes to navigating romantic flings.
The allure that an app which reduces the person to a one-page profile, complete with a few lines of witty text, can bring us closer to our soul mate is powerful.
The small square on our mobile devices can appear to be a gateway to connection.
Yet, few of us proceed with rationality and self-control. More often than not, what we seek is validation. We are not really looking for love.
John Paul II reflects on the human tendency to ‘use’: people, objects … Employing something or one ‘as a means to an end’. And this bears out in how we sometimes treat people as a source of validation or comfort. We engage them in conversations, throwing them ‘breadcrumbs’, in contemporary parlance, and treat them as ‘back-up options’.
A friend of mine shared with me how a man she was speaking to online had told her quite plainly that, though he was interested in another woman, he was still engaging in flirtatious conversation with her because ‘he wanted to have an option to fall back on’.
This reminded me of how, if we are not careful, we may end up ‘using’ instead of ‘loving’ the people in our lives, whether consciously or unconsciously.
But the man’s apparent cavalier attitude also reveals, perhaps surprisingly, a deep fear of rejection and the shame surrounding it. If he had exercised greater clarity in his intention, he would have committed to pursuing the woman he was interested in, instead of continuing to have conversations with multiple women.
This speaks into a very human fear of not being wanted or loved, a fear that the love we feel for someone else will not be reciprocated. Fear of rejection leads to fear of commitment and this very lack of commitment transmits itself to the other leading him or her to reject us. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And once rejected, twice shy to commit ourselves, and the vicious circle begins.
At one point or another in our lives, maybe we have all loved and lost. Perhaps we have been told that the relationship we had been fighting for is over, that the feelings of love and affection have faded away over time.
John Paul II’s insights hold much truth here: “Love should be seen as something which in a sense never ‘is’ but is always only ‘becoming’, and what it becomes depends on the contribution of both persons and the depth of their commitment.”
The point is, though it could happen that we genuinely fall out of love for someone and a particular relationship might have to end, all too often we confuse the end of emotions with the end of love. Love is not only something we feel, it’s something we work towards, even fight for. It’s as much a struggle and self-conquest as the enjoyment and winning of another.
To know that love is independent of how we feel towards a person but is very much dependent on the daily decisions and choices we make was illuminating. It reminded me of why I try to hold my tongue when someone says something unloving to me or why I may still check in on someone I love even when I’m angry with them.
My love for another person is not seasonal, although my emotions may suggest otherwise.
Love is a constant force that drives us to go beyond our selfish human nature to understand, empathise and – crucially – sacrifice ourselves.
The idea of sacrifice brought me to the central theme of the book and its title – love and responsibility. Many people like the idea of love and the experiences and emotions associated with it. The rush of hormones, the lowered boundaries and the feeling of closeness are all good things. Yet, once the ‘honeymoon’ is over, the true test of the strength of a relationship arises from a willingness to resolve conflict and to be honest about our fears and insecurities.
Love without responsibility is puppy love, a fair weather shared experience where the little that binds two people together are the feel good vibes and couple selfies. Strip away the sheen and the facade we present to social media and what lies beneath these layers of our relationships may prove to be quicksand instead.
We must be willing to do the hard work – to repair after conflict, have the difficult conversations and to be comfortable with discomfort in order to truly enter into the depth required of real love.
I sense a collective fear of the difficult parts of love and, more broadly, the idea of commitment. To be committed to something or someone is to be single-minded in our pursuit. What I observe on the contrary is a ‘substitution mentality’, as if love were a sporting fixture in which you could take off a player not performing well and bring on someone else whom, you hope, will deliver some late magic.
Dissatisfied with a relationship, we can also search for that new ‘magic’ and become emotionally or physically unfaithful to our loved one or begin ‘breadcrumbing’ people in online dating.
When we view people as a checklist or a tin man/woman with replaceable parts, then we are not loving the full and whole person. We pick and choose what we like about him or her instead of embracing their flaws. Our weaknesses are what make us human and which expose our deepest needs and desires.
I find that learning to love someone is a slow revelation, understanding their little idiosyncrasies and the annoying things they may do, but loving the whole painting and not just the half that’s illuminated. Shadows are as much a part of an artwork as the more obviously painted parts.
It has made me realise too that to love another person deeply is not a form of coercion but an act of free will. When we are forced to do something, we harbour resentment as our autonomy has been taken away from us. Curiously then, John Paul II says that “love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom – it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another.” The striking idea here is that of love as a conscious decision to limit one’s freedom.
This can certainly mean the self-sacrifice necessary to make any relationship work. But I think it also means things like managing our relationships with friends of the opposite sex in order to protect them, including respecting our loved one’s physical and emotional boundaries.
There is that grey line of intimacy which too many people cross in these over-sexualised times. We have to struggle to control our desire for the other person (John Paul II speaks plainly about the sexual urge) and respect their physical autonomy. This will almost certainly require the necessary discussion about ‘how far is too far’ and ‘should I always have sex if my beloved wants to?’.
What is clear here is that there are two opposing forces at play, our weaker human nature and its inclinations and urges, and the desire to uphold the other as an object of love and not use. We can be coerced (or coerce) into sex on the pretext that it is evidence of love or come to realise that in love we possess and exercise our free will and that to love is to will the good of the other.
Sex itself is not something to be feared or veiled with shame and is a natural fruit of a commitment made to our loved one, a commitment which only fully expresses itself in faithful marriage. We go back to the heart of the book itself – that love entails responsibility.
John Paul II reminds us that “the capacity to love is determined by the fact that man is ready to seek the good consciously with others, to subordinate himself to this good because of others, or to subordinate himself to others because of this good.”
If we seek the good of our loved ones ahead of our personal wants and needs, then we are closer to what real love is.
We often find ourselves disillusioned and dissatisfied with our relationships when we allow our own personal needs to take precedence over the needs of the other. When both parties actively put the other’s needs first, this reciprocity of mutual self-giving creates the right environment for love to develop, mature and thrive.
Maybe we are tired after a long day at work but let’s listen with interest to our loved one sharing about their day. Maybe he or she takes a detour on the way home to buy a slice of our favourite chocolate cake. Going beyond our immediate individual concerns gives us a sense of responsibility and self-denial for the other and is no easy task.
Too often our thoughts are so clouded by minor inconveniences or unfinished tasks that we forget about the very human needs of our loved ones for affection, closeness and understanding. I’ve become more conscious of this and am amazed at discovering the depth of love I am capable of.
Reading Love and Responsibility was not how I initially intended on spending the months leading up to Valentine’s Day but, in a timely way, it has reaffirmed some deep truths. It has provided a mirror in which I can look into and see my own fear-fueled attitudes with greater clarity.
The mirror also exposes cracks in my thinking and unhealed scars from relational trauma. I am hopeful for the journey that lies ahead, of learning and relearning how to love, to be continually humbled and to remember that without responsibility there is no love to speak of.
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