Friday, February 17, 2012

Love Is...

Superheroes of Love

I work for a human services organization as their chaplain, a term we use because it's understood by most people. But I really function more like a spiritual director, encouraging and probing, challenging long held beliefs and unbelief, serving as a kind of mirror and travel enthusiast. I reflect back to my clients what I (think I) see and unfold for them the sometimes, unfamiliar maps to distant lands whose place names include words like sustenance and abundance and hope. Most of these gentle folk started off with an intense curiosity about life's mysteries but then abruptly or gradually, in desperate need of relief, ended up trading down for a state that is neither life nor death but a middle world, where everything is asleep but not at rest, not at peace. The residents in this underworld have a familiar motto: "No rest for the weary." They are sleepwalking and they do not know it, dead, yet alive, and they do not care.

I am a guide for such ones, this community of broken hearts and sad, sad people that I love, who have mistaken such an existence for the real thing, who have, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, taken to eating sand when a feast awaits. But their senses would not know it were they to indulge contentment; such has been their (mostly) self-inflicted plight.

So I work in the "wake-up, it's time for life" business and it's hard duty, harder than rousing a teenager at 6am! Chilling stories unfold on my watch. From a 35 year-old man, thin, intelligent: "Wayne, he was OD-ing and I could have saved him, but I hated him and wanted him dead so didn't make the phone call and he died. After that, I figured it didn't matter. That was twenty years ago." From a muscular, tearful, 30-something Iraqi vet: "I saw a bus full of dead bodies, severely burned. We did that. Our helicopters did that. And the bus was still there, with the bodies in the same seats, two weeks later. I can't get that image out of my mind. Those people never knew what hit them..." One, beautiful, 33 year-old lady with a fabulous sense of humor: "I sold my body and didn't care; I needed the dope."

Trauma, pain, grief, and no easy answers. I listen. I feel it, take it in and let it go. I want to rescue them but I know how unstable the ground is under my own two feet let alone were I to get down there and imagine lifting them up and out, by myself. Somehow I am there and I must act and my sputtering reaction is empathy. But I cannot relate! I was never a drug addict, alcoholic, prisoner. I am simply a splintered man who understands that pain wears many a costume. I recognize it and can at least describe what I see and point to a better way.

And that way is love. All this week (it being Valentines week), I have been asking my groups to give me a definition of love. The teenage guys answer in a way that is mostly unhelpful. The adults have lived longer so their answers are more thoughtful. In every meeting we determine that love is an emotion and more than that, it's what makes any sane existence possible. I suggest a two-fold definition, the first part of which is that love is, love means, doing the right thing. One man suggests the obvious, "Of course most of us would jump in to the burning house to save the kid, it's the right thing to do." We all agree. There is talk about how loving others ain't easy or convenient but I seem to have given voice to their aspirations and we talk long and deeply about that. Each group finally begins to despair (Their default mode) because consistently doing the right thing is practically impossible, the terrain of "super-heroes who are always brave, always perfect at illuminating and confronting the darkness." Several ask, "How can the super-powerless do any of that?"

A few go further and wonder if doing the right thing, with the wrong attitude, might actually nullify the doing-the-right-thing principle. Perfect! That's my second point: Love is doing the right thing with the right attitude. Anyone can call the cops on that awful neighbor, the guy who obviously mistreats his garden and abuses his pet rhino. The lady you strongly dislike anyway. Phone away! Be rid of them, the world will be better off! The loving, right thing to do is to confront him (or call the cops). Right. It is. And some even go further and, in the name of love, die for their strongly held beliefs and yet have nothing to do with real love. I could go so far as to make a lot of noise preaching about love and never practice loving my neighbor. (See I Corinthians 13.)

"So what do I do, Wayne, if I have to choose between doing what's right and having the right attitude about doing it?" Ah, a great question! And we've just located the answer on the map. That's the place we're bound for. See it?


  1. A song by Martina McBride comes to mind when I read this post. In it is the line, "Loves the only house big enough for all the pain in the world!"