Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! February is certainly my favorite month, bathed in the colors pink and red, celebrating what it means to love each other, whether romantically or as close friends and family, or even to love a stranger. Love Train has been on repeat for me since February 1st, and it really does help me focus on loving others throughout the day!
But what is love, really?
This is something I have been thinking about a lot recently as Valentine’s Day has approached. I have experienced love much differently here in L.A. than I have at any other time in my life.
When most of us think of love, I would say our minds jump to romantic stories of “falling in love” with someone, or long term friendships, or the unconditional love parents have for their children. We like to think of love as an easy thing, something that just happens, a peaceful, sweet feeling we get within the very center of our being as we engage with something or someone that is beautiful to us.
But what if love isn’t really a feeling at all?
Any couple who has been married for several years will tell you the honeymoon phase comes to an end. The feelings of love, aka butterflies in the stomach and the desire for constant companionship, don’t last forever even though they may come and go throughout the relationship.
What if love is actually an action?
If you Google the definition of love, like I just did, it will tell you that love can be either a noun or a verb. What I’ve been learning throughout this year however, is that genuine love is most often a verb. Love is a choice. Couples who have been married for 50 years have (hopefully) spent a great amount of time making choices to act lovingly toward each other, even when they didn’t feel love for them. My boyfriend, Brett, and I have most definitely made a choice to love each other from more than 2,000 miles away, sacrificing what most couples take for granted in frequent kisses and dates. We have had to act lovingly in very different ways, like making time for FaceTime chats and sending encouraging messages of love and support when they are most needed. Because we do care for each other in more ways than just wanting to hold hands, we have been able to make our relationship work very well.
When we first came here in September, not knowing any of our housemates, our site coordinator told us straight up that this year would be one very similar to marriage in that living with other imperfect, culturally different people is hard! I don’t love my housemates like I would a spouse, and yet living with them has indeed taught me very much about how to love other people. In a way I guess we skipped the honeymoon phase altogether and went straight for the hardcore compromise. We signed a physical covenant stating that we would choose to act lovingly toward each other even when we don’t feel the sweet, happy love in our hearts. What keeps us together is the commitment we made to being here and striving for the same goal in seeking justice and peace in our world.
I am currently reading the book The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck, M.D. The entire second part of the book is devoted to love and this concept of love as an action. Dr. Peck says that truly loving someone is a choice we make to extend the boundaries of ourselves to include the other person. He also says that a requirement of love is to be concerned with the spiritual growth of the other person. With that in mind, I can easily say that my housemates and I have love for each other as we have spent a large portion of our time together discussing where we are in our psychological and spiritual lives.
But how can we love strangers if we don’t know them well enough to have deep discussions about our innermost thoughts and feelings?
Here is what I have learned about love from my work with new people I don’t know every day. Often times when I approach a person experiencing homelessness, it is required for me to show love and genuine concern for them first. I do not know the first thing about the person or their story, but I do know that saying hello and speaking to them as a fellow human being is a simple interaction they do not get to enjoy very often, and therefore is an act of love to them. I would say that 80% of my interactions with strangers go well when they begin with a simple smile and hello. Incredible stories and deep feelings can be shared within the first hour of meeting someone if they truly accept your greeting as an act of love
The people who are hardest to work with are the ones who readily take my acts of love toward them, but they do so in a very greedy way, taking all of my energy and not giving any back. This is when it’s hardest to love; when the client walks through the door who has turned down countless shelters and apartments we have offered to put her in, cursed me out one day and hugged me, crying, the next. It’s hardest to love when I am so tired from walking at the end of the work day and a client needs me to transport them to the hospital. But God has truly given me a patient and loving spirit. This is something I have known from the time I was little, that being nice to others comes naturally to me, even when I really want to scream curse words at them.
I have also learned from my work and my home life (and the Dr. Peck book) that listening is an act of love. To truly listen to someone is work. Passive listening is not work. But love is work, and therefore passive listening is not love. Only truly listening and working to understand the other person is an act of love. My outreach team has actually complimented me on my listening skills, saying that I have a lot to teach them about how to truly listen to clients. I have found I am particularly good at listening to some of our severely manic clients whose sentences jump from space ships, to computers, to bicycle shops, to the devil, to yesterday’s lunch. These were the very kind of people I was afraid to interact with before working with PATH. I assumed they had to be dangerous and volatile. But what I have found is that when you really listen to them, their true selves start to emerge. So many people in their lives have stopped listening because they refused to put the work and the love into finding the nuggets of reality that sprinkle their consciousness. If I had the time, I would sit and listen to Space Ship Man all day, just asking questions and listening to every word until he finally makes it back around to his birthday, or where he grew up, or when his last meal was. There is a real person inside the disconnected consciousness, and these people deserve my love just as much as my housemates do, or my family does.
But just like marriage, my motivation and “feelings” of love for my clients come and go throughout my weeks. I often don’t feel like I have the energy to help all five clients I made appointments with to go stand in line at the Social Security office and the bank. But I have noticed a trend in the past five and a half months; whenever I choose to act with love for another person, even if it’s with a tired face and selfish heart, I eventually come back around to have the feeling of love again. I almost always end my day very fulfilled with what I was able to do, even if the last person I talked to flipped me the bird.
Love is sometimes a very abstract and wishy-washy thing. But what I have ultimately learned about it this year is that love begets love. I have learned that the feeling of love doesn’t always make another person love you, as anyone who has been rejected by a crush can tell you. But when you show another person acts of love, you will build a much more genuine relationship than anything that comes with the fragile emotions of the human mind.
This Valentine’s Day, I would love for us all to see love as an action, and not just one of giving chocolates as gifts. Show someone love by telling them something you know they’ve been wanting to hear from you, or setting aside time to truly listen, or even take some time for self care and showing love to yourself! This four letter word is so much more than Hollywood makes it out to be, but ironically I’ve found quite a deeper meaning to it by living beneath the Hollywood sign.