Today is the funeral of my wife’s mother. She was 91 and lived with us in our home for the last 4 ¾ years. My wife is German and her mother had been in a nursing home in Germany. She had Alzheimer’s and was in full-time care there. My wife, who had had training in geriatric care, wanted to look after her mother in her last years and so, with the agreement of family, she was transferred from Germany to our house in Ireland.
While I’ve had a go at writing about love, it has been demonstrated to me daily what it means in practice. I’m not going to go into details of what that looked like daily, save to say it was 24/7 care, 365 days a year, for nearly 5 years.
Love can be hard to define, but one way of looking at it is as both an attitude and as action.
Love as attitude and action
It seems nonsensical to think of ‘dispassionate’ love doesn’t it? Love by definition is relational and empathetic – it cares for the good of the other. But it is more than empathy – it involves a determined commitment to the other that is going to result in practical action.
In The Message of Love I say somewhere that love
‘seeks the best for the other in a relationship that fosters life, growth, respect and human flourishing.’
Thomas Jay Oord, a theologian who has written much on love defines it like this – and note his combination of both attitude and action
‘acting intentionally, in sympathetic response to others … to promote overall well-being.’
Love in this sense is going to be costly to the self. It is likely going to be inconvenient – possibly extremely so.
What form such love will take varies in a million ways. It can be an entrepreneur creating jobs for people so they can support their families; it can be a friend leaving soup and homemade bread at a door of a grieving family (to us, yesterday – thanks CB and so many others for your practical kindnesses); it can be giving someone a second chance; it can be working for justice for those who have no voice – sometimes in the face of hostility and even death.
And it can be caring physically for those who cannot care for themselves: the mentally and physically disabled; the disempowered; those imprisoned unjustly by the state; people trafficked for profit; vulnerable children; the sick; and the elderly.
So my wife’s caring for her mother is one expression of love. I don’t think it is a ‘higher’ form of love than others. It is certainly not unique. A dear friend of mine has been very ill for some time and the care his wife has shown him has similarly demonstrated how love is a ‘relentless commitment’ to the good of the other come what may.
But perhaps my wife’s care for her mother, who could do nothing for herself and could not communicate, does highlight how love for the other is utterly unconditioned on what they can ‘give’ back.
It speaks of the unique value of each human life as not dependent on what they can ‘contribute’ to others or to a society that measures worth by productivity.
My wife would be the first to say she gets uncomfortable with people talking about ‘cost’ as if she has been paying a price of some sort. Love is not some sort of mathematical equation that calculates the cost in advance – love ‘just’ gets on with responding to the needs of the other.
And, paradoxically, in that ‘cost’ to the self, there is actually joy, fulfilment and happiness. Certainly, that’s what I’ve witnessed.
I think this is something of what Jesus means when he said it is in losing our lives that we find them.
So as we bury Mama today, we do so with no regrets. The last few years have not been somehow ‘lost’ – without them, and without her presence in our home, our lives would have been much the poorer.
Rest in peace Mama