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How Does Love of Others Change Us?

Is there a definition of love that most of us can connect with from experience? A half century ago, psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan of the University of Chicago offered one that may come closest: “When the happiness, security, and well-being of another person is as real or more to you than your own, you love that person.”  Love is grounded in meaning and inclines us to action. When we love others, then, we feel that their happiness, security, and well-being matter to us greatly, and we act accordingly.

Love has its different spheres of activity. There is the sphere of the nearest and the dearest. Imagine young parents looking over their toddler, or a quiet moment between close friends. There is the sphere of the neediest. Imagine the chaplain who connects deeply with patients who are suffering with severe illness and is moved to tears. Cicely Saunders, founder of the world’s first hospice, remarked at age 83, “I still go into St. Christopher’s every morning to sit on the beds of the dying so I can listen attentively and follow them wherever they go with their emotions because then they feel loved.”

There is the sphere of humanity as whole, the equal-regarding affection for all that is associated with a Lincoln or a Gandhi or Rev. Martin Luther King. There is the love of non-human creatures, especially pets. Whatever the sphere, in love the other is no object (“it”) to be manipulated, but a subject (“thou”), a unique and cherished center of value. Ethically, love for the nearest and the dearest should not make us forget the neediest, our shared humanity, or other species.

Love manifests itself in different ways, all of which are necessary and useful. If love is the hub of a wheel, its spokes point outwards according to the needs of the beloved. There are at least ten modulations or forms that love takes. Celebration is love affirming the lives and achievements of others; Helping is love lifting burdens for others; Forgiveness is love in response to contrition; Carefrontation (confrontation being such a limited word) is love standing against destructive behaviors; Humor is love uplifting and reframing in mirthful lightness; Respect is love “looking twice” (re-spectare) at the views of  others; Attentive listening is love focused on the other’s narrative without distraction or interruption; Compassion is love aware of suffering and responding to it with depth; Loyalty is love sticking with others in their hard times; Creativity is love making gifts for  others. (See Why Good Things Happen to Good People).

Alas, human love so often fails. It can be unwise and overindulging, sending the message to the nearest that the neediest don’t matter, or that taking responsibility is unnecessary. Love for the near and dear is a good, but not when it demonizes outsiders. Our mere human love fades over time, here today and gone tomorrow. It is infected with impurities, and mutates into jealousy and rage. So spiritualities contrast human and divine love. Divine love is perfectly wise, extensive, enduring, and pure. Humans, it is asserted, must be elevated by the graceful experience of this divine love. But the stark pessimists, who grow all the more shocked by human nature based on what they read in the newspapers, claim that the human substrate does not need to be enhanced, but completely reversed. The great pessimists like St. Paul or Luther can be distinguished from the more optimistic Thomas Aquinas or Buddha.

Metaphysically, the perennial philosophers ask if God’s love is the Ultimate Reality  underlying all that is, bringing order to the universe and sustaining it. Is divine love the creative energy upon which all that exists depends?  Physics may or may not prove this a hundred years hence. But according to a recent scientific survey, 80 percent of adult Americans have experienced God’s love at least once, 45 percent experience it “most days,” and 9 percent daily (see The Heart of Religion). They report that it increases their love of neighbor and provides a higher purpose in life.  I shall offer a metaphysical definition of love: “Widely considered the highest form of virtue, Unlimited Love is deemed a Creative Presence underlying all of reality, the participation in which constitutes the fullest experience of spirituality” (see The Unlimited Love Institute).

The spiritual traditions assert that each individual can get “plugged in” to God and express extraordinary creative love. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven that is within, and St. Paul wrote that we are each God’s temple in which dwells divine spirit. Shankara (788 – 820 CE) was the Hindu Indian sage who formulated the doctrine of Advaita, which refers to the identity of the Atman (“self” or “spirit”) and the Brahman (the “Supreme” or “Ultimate Reality” or “Godhead”). Each of our individual souls (Atman) is like a grain of sand. The whole mound of sand together comprises the Brahman, which shares bits of itself with each human being for the purpose of multiplying new agents of creative love. Creative love is thus our purpose in life and constitutes the image of God within us. Because human mind is of the same substance as Infinite Mind, it is capable of divine levels of creative love, as in moral and spiritual genius. Sir John Templeton described the biblical notion of our being “in God’s image” with explicit reference to Shankara.

Theo-philosophy aside, love is not “taught” didactically but “transmitted” by role models. We love because we first were loved and the torch was passed. Christians proclaim, “We love because He first loved us” (I John 4:19).

So how does the love of others change us?

How are we changed when we extend active love?

First, when so engaged we are freed from preoccupation with the self and its problems, with rumination, and with other destructive emotions. Disappointment and betrayal are unavoidable in life. We get sucked down into a negative vortex of bitterness, despair, and resentment. Simple acts of loving kindness can transform us emotionally. It is said that if you do not feel happy, smile anyway, and happiness will likely follow. The keys to forgiveness are acts of love coupled with patience, because with the passing of time our perspectives mature. (See The Hidden Gifts of Helping)

Second, life becomes interesting. Selfishness is boring. When we seek the happiness, security, and well-being of another in creative love the world becomes full and engaging. Sir John Templeton once wrote that it is impossible to be bored if you love your neighbor.

Third, loving others gives us a reason to develop our gifts. Students learn more when they have to tutor younger peers, or when they learn in groups and are responsible for teaching one another. Most great people have fine-tuned their talents in the service of the neighbor.

Fourth, we make deeper friendships. Our friends are no longer the people we just hang out with, but they are the ones with whom we find exhilarating common cause and commitment. Finally we have serious friends, the kind who are loyal and want to keep us on our course and true to our higher selves.

Fifth, loving others is a source of hope because as active agents we use our strengths to make a difference in the life of another, and we can therefore have greater confidence in shaping the future.  This is an active hope, rather than the passive variety that just waits for a surprise.

Sixth, loving others is a source of joy. Happiness is to joy as optimism is to hope. Joy, like hope, is not a mere innate disposition, but a virtue fine-honed through bringing creative goodness into the life of the beloved. Thus, we should not worry much about reciprocity, because the benefits are already there inwardly.  As they say, “pay it forward,” although a note of gratitude is nice.

Seventh, loving others, so long as one also cares for the self and its limits both physical and psychological, is associated with self-reported physical health (see Altruism and Health).

With regard to many of these benefits listed above, I will site the 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey, released by United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch, based on a survey of 4,500 American adults. Forty-one percent of Americans volunteered an average of 100 hours a year. Sixty-eight percent of those who volunteered reported that volunteering made them feel physically healthier. Moreover,

89% report that “volunteering has improved my sense of well-being”
73% agree that “volunteering lowered my stress levels”
92% agree that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life
72% characterize themselves as “optimistic” compared to 60% of non-volunteers
42% of volunteers report a “very good” sense of meaning in their lives, compared with 28% of non-volunteers
96% said volunteering made them “feel happier”

They reported deeper friendships, sleeping better, and other benefits.

Investigations in Alcoholics Anonymous show that helping other alcoholics at a robust level in AA doubles the recovery rate in the year after initially going dry. The difference is a dramatic increase from 22 percent to 40 percent. Helpers also experience decreased depression. (See Helping Others Live Sober) In addition, those alcoholics who are more spiritual benefit even more from loving their neighbor alcoholics.

Finally, do people who sincerely love God and their neighbor as themselves flourish in a special way? Some people truly abide in the double love commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all they soul, and with all they mind,” and “Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-40). Do they flourish? I refer to this three-love matrix as the ontological generality, which means that we are formed as creatures to realize our fullest well-being in this matrix. This is the next big project of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Does love of others change us only when we are motivated by generous emotions?

If so, can we simply engage in helping others as an external activity and expect that kindly emotions will follow along, at least for most of us?

2. Does the love of others change us most powerfully when we are doing so with a sense of divine presence and expectation?

For example, in AA does helping others help the helper even more when the helper feels deeply connected to a Higher Power?

Discussion Summary

Thanks to all my readers for your fabulous comments.

One reader suggested that engaging in the active love of others, even if only external at first, can indeed give rise to inward warmth. This is true, as emotions follow actions through the unexpected discovery of gratification and meaning leading to joy. In First Corinthians, St. Paul wrote famously: “Though I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, I am as a sounding gong, or a clanging symbol.”  He went on to assert that we may sacrifice ourselves entirely for others, but without love this too is hollow.  But why not get started doing “unto others,” and see if this inward warmth unfolds?

Another reader noted that divine love is greater than our thoughts, and therefore we can still be its conduits even if we are agnostics or atheists intellectually. I agree. God’s love, if real, is not limited by human thought, which is flawed even at its best as paradigms shift.

A reader noted Swedenborg’s metaphysics of a Divine Love that underlies all of reality (all energy and matter) as the Ground of Being. This may sound a little over the top, but so does String Theory. Given what some respected physicists claim without any real empirical evidence, Swedenborg sounds pretty mild.

The last reader views family love as a school for more expansive love. I agree that in functional families we learn to love, and I once wrote a book entitled More Lasting Unions that made this argument for expansivity. But families do not reliably lean outwards toward the neediest or all humanity, and at their worst, they can become insular and destructive. Families really benefit from being part of communities of faith that call them beyond their narrowness.

How does love of others change us?

(1) It bestows our dignity.

Our dignity is ours to claim when we treat another person with love. Human dignity lies chiefly in expanding the range and power of our greatest asset.

(2) It forms us from birth.

Without love, children will not thrive, and they may not survive. We humans rely on parental nurturance and protection as infants for a much longer period than occurs in any other species.

(3) It is the source of our significance.

Love responds to the deepest of human needs – the need for significance. It reflects back to the beloved that their existence does not rest on a cosmic error.

(4) It is the origin of our moral and creative energy.

We use our gifts creatively and morally, we are doing so out of love energy. Such energy seems to grow only more intense and expansive over time. Love defies the 2nd law of thermodynamics—i.e., it does not seem to run down or use itself up; instead, the more love is given the more there is to be given. It runs uphill instead of downhill energetically.

(5) It displaces our destructive emotions

Love and hate are polar opposites. It has been written, “Perfect love casts out fear.” It casts out hatred, bitterness, hostility, vindictiveness, rage, and jealousy as well.

(6) It is a gift to pass on to the future.

Love is transmitted by example. We are all its role models. And when we look back on our lives, it is most inspiring to see generous love in the hearts of those we mentored.

(7) It allows us to care for the weakest.

When it comes to the cognitively imperiled, how much some people, like Jean Vanier, do for them. The first principle of love for persons with cognitive disability is to reveal to them their equal value by providing attention, concern, and tenderness. Love does this heavy lifting.

(8) It can invade our consciousness.

One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two woman and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had anyone of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it – what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience.  (In the case of one of them, I was able later to confirm this.) My personal feelings towards them were unchanged – they were still colleagues, not intimate friends – but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it. [i]

Good spirituality always has something to do with feeling that self and others are of infinite value and rejoicing in this.

I hope that each of us, in thought, word and deed, might abide in love. The Sir John Templeton I knew for some years cared most about one thing – our growth in love.

[i] Cited by W.H. Auden in his Introduction to The Protestant Mystics: An Anthology of Spiritual Experience from Martin Luther to T.S. Eliot, Edited by Anne Fremantle (New York: Mentor Books, 1965), p. 30.


Two New Big Questions:

1. Is growth in love the most important purpose in life, to which all else is secondary?

2. Is Unlimited Divine Love Ultimate Reality?