Love has different meanings for different people. We may love people, things, animals, nature, ideas, and experiences. The love that usually generates the most fervor and activity is the love we seek from others and the love we yearn to express.
We typically associate love with favorable treatment, trust, and the expectation of fulfillment. Sometimes we love others who disappoint us or even cause heartbreak. In situations where love doesn't last or isn't reciprocated, we try to staunch the pain by "stopping" the love. When someone hurts us, we seek to tone down our vulnerability.
I am fortunate to be loved, to feel love, to know that I am loved, and to be able to express and give love. As I reminisce, I know that it wasn't always that way, at least with regard to my security and capacity to give less selfish love. As I mature, I find that I am more able to experience another dimension of loving, one that seems strange and paradoxical: I am caught up in loving people who are deeply flawed.
As humans, we are all flawed, of course. When referring to loving those who are deeply flawed, I’m not talking about accepting people's imperfections. And I’m no Mother Teresa! I'm revealing my growing awareness of my ability—in fact, my fervent desire—to love important people in my life, despite the fact that their behavior and interactions with me cause much pain and frustration. It amazes me that I persist and find joy in loving people who are dysfunctional, selfish, outrageous, and often unwilling or unable to reciprocate in decent ways.
Discard thoughts about codependency, enabling, people-pleasing, kindness, and other explanations for my "need" to throw myself at disappointment or suffering. This loving is different; it is in another dimension.
As a psychologist, I have experience and knowledge about motivations, needs, behaviors, and about the essentials of healthy relationships. My love for those who are deeply flawed is not the result of blindsided entanglements in dysfunctional or toxic relationships. Instead, it is a growing capacity to embrace my interest and compassion for those I care about who often don’t give back in kind. Loving people who are deeply flawed sensitizes me to my own vulnerability and the fulfillment I derive from expressing affection for people and in situations where there is no ostensible reward or payback. I am profoundly stunned by my propensity to become involved in providing this type of love.
To the extent that behavior is purposeful or goal-oriented, I try to discern the payoff. (After all, I am trained in behavioral psychology.) Yet what I “get” out of loving others who are difficult does not make sense or line up with my other motivations and other building blocks of my self-image. All my knowledge about keeping boundaries and maintaining healthy interactions and values are deferred when I deeply love floundering, dysfunctional, and frequently hurtful individuals.
Why is this, and what is actually going on?
Let’s visit family, where it all starts. As a friend of mine said with a knowing chuckle, "Family really rocks!" His statement and tone is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the imbroglio of ambiguities, ambivalent feelings, attachments, responsibilities, and complications that beset family relationships and the love that tries to flourish within those relationships.
"Home is where, when you have no place else to go, they have to take you in."
This saying reflects the security that family provides. It also implies acceptance, responsibility, and compassion for those who belong unconditionally. And those elements are certainly bases of love. Yet family is the milieu in which we love people—warts and all—whose belonging is unquestioned but whose behavior often yields consternation and conflict.
Family is the context and the bedrock of where we discover love (or the lack of it), the exchange of emotion and affection, and the reliability and depth of our security. It is the original and true "homeland security." However, many people emerge from fractured or traumatic families into the world with an incomplete or injured sense of self, worth, and security. That is, they don’t grasp and practice nurturing and fulfilling love. So, love for these folks (a lot of us) becomes a confusing hunt for need satisfaction, recognition, anxiety soothing, and power control.
An early life that is insecure or deprived is surely disadvantageous. But it is hardly insurmountable. In many cases, a bad start can feed desire, determination, and perseverance that propel a person to discover and learn about real love.
Maturity hones the process of fending for oneself and also finding out that life is not just about oneself.
How, then, does one grow from being loved (or not being adequately loved) to loving others who don’t, can’t, or won’t love back in kind?
When I was in college, I found one therapist who really helped me (as contrasted with the many who didn't). This doctor and I formed a deep bond, and he taught me many truths about life and the intricacies supporting good relationships and becoming productive and successful. He was compassionate and practical. About one thing, however, he was wrong: he equated love with need. In fact, he stated, "Love is need."
His statement was succinct, behaviorally based, and sounded practical. Yet it is indeed a very malnourished equation, as I would discover during the ensuing years. Love goes far beyond fulfilling one’s own needs or in meeting the needs of others. Certainly, love involves and includes the desire and sacrifice to serve others, as well as the reaching out to grasp and welcome the benefits provided by others. In its more magnificent and profound dimensions, though, love transcends the biological and pragmatic.
Perhaps you have experienced unrequited love: a broken romance in which you keep loving a paramour, even after it's clearly over; love for a child who’s extremely selfish, rebellious, destructive, or unforthcoming; confusion and ambivalence within a marriage or across generations; a yearning to express tenderness or forgiveness to someone who is physically or emotionally unavailable to receive or reciprocate. These very common situations allow us to begin to understand that love can be felt and expressed in a dimension that transcends the behavior exchange of satisfying needs.
There is a love that transforms the boundaries and dimensions of the varied types of love we normally experience and offer. This is the love that God gives to us who are unlovable.
Are you unlovable? How can you even think about this without homage to your "ego?" We are all caught up in fortifying ourselves with good self-image, skills, confidence, and the elements of attractiveness and self-esteem. Some people have high ego strength, which means they feel "good" about themselves and have the coping mechanisms and defenses to withstand the many assaults to personal integrity that life doles out. Others have low ego strength, meaning that they are habitually self-critical, negative, and susceptible to impingements upon their sense of well-being and value.
Without realizing it, we somehow equate lovability and lovingness with adequacy or proficiency in the human and cultural hierarchy of values. Love is meted out according to what is "felt" or "deserved." That is quintessential and natural human love. Surely, it includes compassion and affection. Still, such love is confined by the limits of how one feels about oneself and the worthiness or behavior of others.
For many people, the transforming and unconditional love that God gives comes at their lowest periods of feeling desperately and inescapably unlovable. Strangely, the sense of stark "unlovability" can come either at the nadir of one's acts—hitting bottom—or when one is achieving peak performance, level of material attainment, or popularity—yet, despite the ostensible "success," the overbearing emptiness and lost connection can envelop a person with feelings of prevailing worthlessness and alienation.
God sees everything and loves us despite the flaws. To experience this—being loved despite being unlovable—changes everything. It inspires hope, confidence, belief, motivation, and gratitude. Beyond these factors, it changes one's experience of love and one’s attitude toward others. Experiencing God’s love, though you’re hardly worth it, is the beginning of allowing yourself to love others who may not be "worth it" or who may not give back in kind.
This is truly a transformation! It renders love an act of offering and connection that belies the normal conditions of recognition or reciprocation.
Much to my amazement, I love people who do bad and hurtful things—not because they do these things, but in spite of their acts. And it is hard, because I’m critical and judgmental. I have standards, sensitivities, and can become fearful and self-protective. Often, I experience profound love for people I don’t want to love that much! I try to rationalize and talk myself out of it, but cannot. I review how wrong and undeserving they are. Quickly, almost defenselessly, I realize that this is the trap my mind and ego set for me: as if love depends on relative worth or receptivity, theirs or mine. So I accept that loving has become a habit that works better for me than disdaining someone or fantasizing cosmic revenge. Also, I want to share this magnificent gift that God has given me—like wanting someone to taste a fabulous, delicious food—only this compulsion to share love is much, much better!
Consider what the Apostle Paul has to say about love:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:4–13)
Love means being devoted to the welfare of others, putting the needs of others ahead of my own needs, treating others as I want to be treated, and forgiving others their trespasses. Love includes, but also transcends, wants, needs, and feelings.
God wants us to love all people, not just the ones who treat us well or who seem attractive. Love is a duty, but it is also a joy. To love is to experience sensitivity, humility, vulnerability, sometimes hurt, and always concern. Love may accompany a flood of ecstatic hormones, or it may yield anguish.
Loving in a divine dimension means looking toward, looking for, and looking upward, for we love truly through God's example and assistance. Loving means the investment of yourself with no assurance of return. Love comprises exposure, expectation, fallibility, and the willingness to endure disappointment.
Loving divinely necessitates loving those who mean well, but who hurt you anyway. It also means loving those who want to hurt you. Indeed, this is a tall order!
Love requires enduring conflict, uncertainty, and the possibility of loss. I am surprised by my active love for my deceased parents, with whom I endured such ambivalence throughout our lives and in our relationships. I love my father, who mocked me until the day he died. I love my mother, whose adoration and protection would have smothered me, had I not rebelled against it (or so I thought).
I love my oldest son, whose life ended by his own hands, as he took parts of me with him. I am continuously awed by my persistence in attachment to a man-child so deeply flawed. My love vacillates between proud memories and bitter disappointments. I have let go, but the deep love remains. How astonishing!
And this is a striking model for my openness to forgive and understand others whose behaviors seem unconscionable. I must remember how much God cares for them, because he cares for me. Therein live the obligations and the joys.
Consider the challenge of loving those who are bent on evil: each day, the news reports are filled with stories of violence, predation, and acts of malice and terror. How can I love those people? Should I love ISIS? Isn’t that weird? And foolish?
I watched a documentary about ISIS in Afghanistan: makeshift schools where young children are taught to pronounce (and use) "Kalashnikov" rifles with pride and attachment to their modeling teachers. The content is horrifying; yet, at the same time, it's obvious that these children need love and are learning and practicing love and allegiance. I assume that their lives are lacking in my notions of proper love and protection. They are being groomed to hate and to destroy. They may eventually damage or kill someone I love. But they are children, naïve beings and victims of wrong ideas and vicious leadership.
Are such people not also looking for love, needing to belong, desperate for connection, attention, and approval? They are engaged in evil acts. How can I love them? But how can I not extend what God has taught and given me to those people, too? How do I do this—condemn their acts and intent, but love their souls?
Who is listening to this private struggle? A philosophical luxury, it may seem, in the comfort of bourgeois affluence and indulgence. But my heart aches with passion and conflict, even as the bills must be paid and I'm enslaved to beliefs about right and wrong.
Entertaining ideas and feelings about loving oppressors may seem far-fetched and impractical. But given how loving in this new dimension has surprised and gratified me, I wonder what new levels of losing myself are possible.
I also must confide and confess: in comparison with the daunting challenges of loving those who would dismiss or harm me, most of what I have to do is pretty easy.