Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Baby Don't Hurt Me

A few weeks ago, in the midst of a little chit-chat with a friend, self-deprecating humour (I'm pretty sure this is one of the reasons we're friends, for I do the same) reared its head.

Friend: "It's a good thing nobody ends up liking me - except for my boyfriend!"
Me: "You've never been in a situation where a guy liked you but you didn't like him back?"
Friend: "Well, no, I have. But I've just been too mean to lead them on."
Me: "Wait...what? Not leading them on?...that's not being mean. That's being loving."

My friend's response was a knee-jerk one; I don't fault her for it. Sometimes, being loving can feel like you're being mean. And gosh, you can't be mean to anyone! You have to be "nice." (I really, really dislike that word. "Nice." When describing someone, it's the word you use when you have no idea what to say about them. It's one of the most meaningless adjectives. But I digress). But that's just it - far too often, we confuse love with meanness (and I know my friend knows this distinction), and so we slowly slink back into the cave of nicety.

St. Paul's 1st letter to the Corinthians 13:4-7 was part of the mass readings on Sunday. Love is described as being patient, kind, selfless, humble, rejoicing in truth. And the Greek word that St. Paul uses for love in this passage is agape, meaning to love as God loves. To love unconditionally; to will the good of the other as other, and then using your whole self to do something about it. I'm not saying that being nice is a bad thing. But damn it, being nice isn't enough. Wanting what is best for another person doesn't always equate to being nice. Willing the good can hurt. As Flannery O'Conner said, "grace changes us, and change is painful." God is always loving. He's never nice. As an example:
Yipee ki-yay, money changers! 
The writers of the Old Testament often refer to "God's wrath." This doesn't mean that God is vengeful, wanting to see us burn. God's wrath is His love: we recoil so much from him that His desire for our Good feels like a burning fire, yearning to purify us and let us share in His divine goodness, but us refusing to let Him. And man, isn't that annoying.

Simply put: love can piss you off. Loving someone can make you mad, only because you want what is best for this person, and you see that they are missing the mark. "It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak... [We are like] an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased" (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory). And being loved by someone can make you angry too, because you're annoyed that you can't simply do what you "feel is right," and deep down inside, you know that this other person only wants what is best for you. Too often, people try to love others by tiptoeing around, as the priest in mass said on Sunday, trying to be tolerant or compromising. But trying to compromise or be tolerant isn't Christian virtue. Sometimes you'll need to slap a person (I've been on the receiving end) to wake him or her up from months of wallowing in self-pity. Sometimes you'll need to shake a person out of complacency about a serious problem that they have. Sometimes you'll need to yell and tackle a person before they jump headlong off that cliff after taking a wrong turn on the road to Happiness.

There's the old saying that "love is blind." That couldn't be further from the truth. Love isn't blind. Love has 20/15 vision after getting laser eye surgery, and sees everything that can be done to better the beloved. If a person loves you, they love YOU, including all of your life-damaging faults - but they don't love the faults themselves. Of all things, Love demands the most and tolerates the least. Gold is purified in fire.

Now obviously, to love someone doesn't mean that you exclude all of the other virtues. If the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) are the highest virtues whose end is to attain God, and love is the greatest of these virtues, as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:13, then Love is the greatest of all virtues. St. Thomas Aquinas says that Love is what makes all the other virtues possible (ST II-II q.23 a.7); the other virtues subsist in love, and draw their strength from it. In willing the good of another, that isn't to say that you show no gentleness, no understanding, or no patience. Love makes it possible to use prudence to discern when, where, and how to enact all the other virtues. But if push comes to shove, Love demands that you be open to God's grace to call upon such virtues as courage, in order to help the other person. It may not be nice, but it will be loving.


  1. Ever look at the root of the word 'Nice'? Check out the Online Etymology Dictionary. No, we are not called to be 'nice' - ever.

    1. Huh. Good to know about its etymology. I was using the word "nice" in the way that the etymology dictionary said it has been used since 1926: "a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness." But reading about its original meaning makes me dislike it even more.