Love and Loneliness

This week I took an all-too-rare opportunity to slow to a halt and do nothing but be in my daughter’s space without distraction. In a moment of clarity I noticed her feeling lonely and knew my own culpability in that. It got me thinking.

Kids need connection. They need to be noticed, engaged, worshiped. While I won’t say they need this more than basic provisions, I will say they probably need it just as much–certainly more than they need the world given them on a silver platter.

Affluence can conjure a whole set of problems for us as parents. We can find ourselves awash in a sea of opportunities, layering guilt on ourselves even as we layer gifts on our children. I can provide her new toys and dance classes at the same time I’m chiding myself for being less generous with the paints than I meant to be.

My friend worried to me the other day about her unwillingness to let her kids get muddy. In the next breath she reported that her Lyme disease has flared up from stress this winter. Meanwhile I sat on her sofa and admired her as she connected with her kids. The last thing she needs right now is another load of laundry, and those kids are getting so much love that they’re going to be OK without the mud.

There is no substitute for love–no way around the essential gift of another person’s affection and attention. Our loving presence as parents is so much more important for our kids than mud or paints or even building good habits.

My sweet daughter has a sweet little five year old soul and body that needs a mommy to watch while it rides a bike in circles as fast as its legs can go. She needs me to watch and keep watching, not just so she’ll feel noticed. So she’ll be noticed. So that she is actually being loved. She is made for this.

And as her mom, I am made to be the person who loves her. It’s my job to make it true that she is loved. I’m fortunate that our family is whole and safe. We don’t struggle for basic survival, so there’s no reason that my children should have to experience loneliness. No reason, that is, outside of my own sin-broken nature.

At the very end of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is dying, blissful to be finally in the presence of Marius & his beloved Cosette. His last words to them are “Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.”

The Apostle Paul says as much to the Corinthians: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

I will confess I am not good at real love. My heart is too much given to itself, bent in on itself. I need Christ to remake me, resurrect me, teach me, show me. I need to be formed in his image. I need love to be given to me as a divine gift.

John’s assertion “God is love” is bafflingly simple. Love is the whole point because it is the essence of the tri-unity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the Community of Self-Giving; the Community of Mutual Delight. And as if that weren’t enough, love is the very project of Creation: More love!

The opposite of love, then? Self-absorption, self-interest, self-protection. Satan invites us to be like him in the hideous, agonizing, lonely comfort of ultimate lovelessness. That lovelessness is not just a failure to see the world outside yourself for all its beauty. It’s a failure to enjoy that world. A failure to be present in it. A failure to give yourself to it in self-forgetful worship. It’s isolation.

What do I become when I fail to see my daughter’s beauty and be present with her in love? I am choosing loneliness for myself. What becomes of her in the process? I am choosing loneliness for her, too. To be given someone to love is a sacred trust and a deep mystery. It is no small thing.

Could we say love and loneliness are opposites? Loneliness is such a painful experience because it is the opposite of our design in God’s image. We are made for love, and the absence of love is fatal. It dead-ends in misery. At its worst it becomes the rage, hatred, contempt, frustration of a young man who murders seventeen innocent people at a high school on Valentine’s Day.

My heart aches when I consider the epidemic proportions of acute loneliness in our society. I wonder why it’s so common until I look back into myself again and recognize the difficulty; the impossibility, really. Real love consumes the lover. It is not natural to expend yourself. It is not convenient or easy. It is costly.

There is a counterfeit love. But it is costly too. Counterfeit love has an agenda. It is self-oriented. It maximizes productivity, opportunity, and efficiency instead of connection and presence. It does not secure its object against loneliness.

I cannot love my daughter without investment and sacrifice. I cannot love her and spin all my plates in the same moment. I certainly can’t love her if I approach her as another plate to spin, because then I’m falling short of actually acknowledging her inherent worth as a creature.

I have a tendency toward this knock-off version of love. I turn my daughter into just another plate I’m spinning. Since I’m good at spinning plates, it’s easy to think she has all that she needs because she passes the hours of her days pleasantly and her life is full of good things. I often find myself looking at her as one of my Important Things To Invest In. Seeing her only as an aspect of my own life, I begin to prioritize efficiency. It’s easy to run out of energy and begin to resent the costliness of loving her.

My knock-off version of love is hard to sustain. Like any counterfeit, its source is different from the real thing. Not being divine, it has to be manufactured by my own energy, and this can be exhausting. Not being real, it leaves my daughter lonely.

Instead, if I look at my daughter as a creature made of love and entrusted to me in love, for love, investing in her isn’t exhausting. Yes, it is costly. Love lays aside itself for the good of the beloved. When I get caught up in her beauty–in how good it is to notice her; in how good it is for her to be noticed–then all the while it is costing me it is filling me up, too.

To lay aside self is unnatural. That is why love is so hard and loneliness so common. To lay aside self the heart must be turned toward the other, filled with the love which is the very essence of God. This is what Christ brought the world in his incarnation, bestowing himself on us in love; giving himself in order to be united with us. This is what Christ modeled for his disciples and what he commissioned them for. And this is what John wrote:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us…. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:7-12, 16)

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