Make the gift of selfless love your highest priority in life
Each one of us has the unspoken aim to make the most of our life. We want to find and assert our worth. We want to be affirmed as being a unique and lovable person. We want to live to the full all the power of our creative and emotional potential.
Paradoxically, we will achieve these aims best by turning outwards, by making others, rather than ourself, the prime target of our efforts.
Love is the principle that expresses this paradox. The belief that God is Love means in practice that the paradox of love provides the key to our self fulfilment. Allow me to work this out in seven concrete suggestions.
1. Try to make others happy
Making love our priority means that instead of focussing attention on ourselves, we think of others first. It requires an altruistic attitude.
In a family situation, for example, we ask ourselves: `What will make my wife/husband happy? What can I do to make my children happy? What can I do that would really please my ageing parents?' I look at the situation from their point of view. I try to do honestly what is best for them, never mind the inconveniences or discomforts it brings me.
I am not suggesting that we should simply become a doormat, or that we should injudiciously try to satisfy everyone's dreams and wishes. Concern for people's true happiness requires prudence and discretion. Yet life becomes crucially different when I myself no longer feature as the focus of my endeavours, but the happiness of others.
The same should obviously apply to other relationships: my colleagues at work, the people I serve, my companions when I travel, my fellow tourists when I am on holiday, and so on.
By being an altruistic person I will, unexpectedly, find a lot of happiness myself.
2. Affirm others in their self-worth
The principle of genuine love will take me a step further. In all my dealings with other people I will attempt to affirm them whenever the opportunity arises.
Affirmation requires that I let another person know that I respect his or her dignity, that he or she is a unique and lovable individual. I will not utter these precise words of course, nor will I need to use words all the time. Affirming people is also effectively done through the gift of time, attention, respect, friendship, genuine admiration.
Wanting to affirm people should be kept clearly distinct from mere diplomatic gestures. Diplomatic flattery and related techniques are tricks to manipulate the other person. Genuine affirmation springs from respect for the other's individuality, and seeks to strengthen the other in his or her autonomous self worth.
3. Bring quality to your service
The priority of love requires from us also that in every transaction with people, we give them of the best that is in us. Each one of us has tasks and responsibilities through which we render a service to others. The quality of what we do matters to those people. By assuring that quality we are contributing substantially to their welfare.
Suppose you are an optician. People depend on you for your professional assessment of their eyesight and for your honest advice as to what is best for them. If love is your priority, you will take extra care to be up to date with the latest academic studies. You will give each customer the attention he or she deserves. You will not sell products which you know to be inferior or unnecessary, simply because you would make more money on the sale.
Again, the paradox works. Even though it may seem that your adherence to quality and truth is costly to you, it will pay off in other ways. It may well increase your clientele, for instance. And, within a wider perspective, if you can be trusted in your service, there is a better hope that you can trust others in the services they render to you. But most of all, by delivering real quality, you are being true to yourself and will thus be a happier person.
4. Make sex a means of expressing tenderness and genuine love.
Sexual intimacy can be such a wonderful way of relating to another person. In its fulness, sex leads to the creation of new life. We should do everything in our power to keep sex subservient to genuine love and life.
Sex corrupts when we reduce other people to being mere objects that give us pleasure. In all contemporary Christian Churches a much needed debate is going on regarding sexual morality: What freedom should be given to homosexuals? When, if ever, is abortion allowed? What forms of contraception do justice to respect for love and life?
Underlying the debate is the strong Christian conviction that genuine love requires that we restrain our sexual impulses. Fidelity to a partner does matter. Voluntary celibacy to dedicate one's life more fully to serving God and the neighbour, make sense for those who have the gift. Even within a married relationship voluntary restraint is frequently a sign of genuine love.
Such a basic disposition is not a denial of sex, but an attempt to raise it to its full human dignity and potential. Sex is an area in which each individual should formulate his or her own principles of action, in order that the priority of genuine love is safeguarded.
5. Defend the rights of the weak.
In our society it is the poor, the weak and the marginalised who are the most at risk. They are subject to multiple disadvantages. They neither have the knowledge, the skill, the capital nor the social support to fend for themselves.
Defending their rights is a sacred duty. If in any way we ourselves are directly involved, we should unhesitatingly take their side, even if such support can only be given at a cost. The principle of Love is no respecter of persons. We have to give people their due as human beings and citizens.
Love may well require us to join a campaign, march in a demonstration or engage in political action. The cause we fight for could well extend beyond national borders - for instance to secure human rights for a minority group in a distant country.
If we do not abandon the underdog, God and others will not abandon us.
6. Be generous to the needy.
If love is our priority, we will often have to go out of our way to help people in need. As we come to know a particular need, we should dig deeply into our purse and share of our wealth.
Often, much more is required. We may be called upon to contribute our personal skill, our time, our confidence, our enthusiasm which alone can give the human support that will truly help. We should then be willing to volunteer our services, if it is within our power to do so.
Sharing the life of people in need can bring us marvellous benefits. Children with learning disorders, patients in hospital, the handicapped, the mentally ill and other disadvantaged groups can give us so much more in return than we could ever give them by the service we render. A friend I knew spent a Christmas looking after homeless people in an urban shelter. He expected it to be hell. In fact, he told me, it was the best Christmas he had ever had.
7. Give thanks for the gift of life.
If we are able to give and receive Love from other people, it is only because we received all we have and whatever we are from God, Ultimate Reality. God is personal and God is Love. What is more appropriate than for us to respond to God in our own human way - with a personal gift of gratitude and love?
And if we go through a spell of suffering or sadness, what is more natural than to entrust ourselves firmly to God's care? Our gratitude will be mingled with a cry for help.
We can express our feelings to God in a personal prayer, in the ways I have outlined before: by thinking aloud in God's presence, by talking to friends and by speaking to him/her directly.
Our prayer will be a prayer of love if it contains all the elements I described in this chapter: concern for others, commitment to high-quality service, attention to human needs. We will talk about all these things to God, expressing our own relationship to him/her as the reality that gives ultimate meaning to our life.
Since words can only express our thoughts and feelings inadequately, and since we would like to draw strength from the sacramental gifts of God's love, we will also, if at all possible, take part in the communal acts of thanksgiving that celebrate God's love among us.
The text in this lesson is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
The video clips are from Journey to the Centre of Love (scriptwriter & executive producer John Wijngaards) which was awarded the GRAND PRIX by the Tenth International Catholic Film Festival held in Warsaw (18-23 May 1995). It also received the prestigious Chris Award at the International Film Festival, Columbus Ohio, in 1997.