I don’t know about you, but St. Thomas Aquinas isn’t the first historical figure (or saint, for that matter) who comes to mind on Valentine’s Day. Or he wasn’t. But he may well be in future years. And all because my niece, Myka, posted the video (below) by an oddly compelling priest and professor, Father Michael Himes, which elucidates the great Scholastic’s definition of love.
So, in case you skipped the video, or didn’t watch the whole thing, here’s a brief recap: Aquinas defined love as the “effective willing of the good of the other.” Therefore, love is not an emotion or feeling, something that happens to us. Instead, it is a choice, an act of will – something we do. I’ve heard this much before, but Fr. Himes goes on to say that love is not simply a choice, or mere benevolence. Love is more than wanting the best for the beloved and hoping they get it. “Love is no less than acting to make that ‘best’ real for the beloved.”
Wow, talk about setting the bar high! Thanks, Aquinas. After watching the video, I spent a great deal of time thinking about the people in my life I say I love…and wondering if what they receive from me is the effective willing of their good.
The sticky wicket I kept rubbing up against was the word “effective”.
I think I can “will” the good of those I love with the best of them. I will for my friends to discover and achieve their heart’s desire. I will my family to achieve and maintain their optimal health. These are good things that I will for my loved ones. But how am I to effectively bring them about?
And that’s when it occurred to me that Thomas Aquinas was a theologian and philosopher. He dealt with the realm of ideas and lofty concepts. This doesn’t mean that what he says, such as his definition of love, can be ignored as too high-brow for the more pedestrian among us. It just means that we need to translate it down into language and experience that is human-sized. Fr. Himes waxes eloquent as he “unpacks” Aquinas for us. But even he is a college professor, a man at home in the cerebral realm. On the daily-living-of-our-puny-human-lives level, both are kind of silent.
So, here are three ideas, guaranteed to be “unlofty”. They might be effective if practiced with intent. (I don’t really know, for sure. They are based on things my loved ones do for me that have worked. My practice of them has been spotty.)
Tell those you love the truth..
…but with loving kindness. We need to have people in our lives who tell us the truth. However, it isn’t very effective when shared in a brutal manner. When I haven’t taken the time to think about the fact I love the other person, my attempts at honesty are brutal – and then I justify the harshness by calling it “the truth”. Folks, brutal is brutal. Honesty can be approached with generosity of spirit. My friend, Molly, has a gift for this. She’s a straight-shooter, but she is also incredibly kind. She can tell me that my thinking is completely screwed up, yet I leave the conversation feeling supported and loved.
Actually think about the other person…
…instead of thinking about yourself. This sounds easy, and I’m the first one to justify thoughtlessness with, “I was only thinking about you”. In reality, most times throughout my hectic days, I am busy thinking about myself. The people I love come in second to that. Not because I don’t care, but because I am wrapped up in what I need to get done, what my deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise) are, etc. I fail to carve out moments to stop, focus on the other, and allow my brain to shift gears. My friend, Colette does this really well. She’s incredibly busy, yet when you are with her, her attention is laser-focused on you. I’m not going to lie, it can be disconcerting because it is so not the norm in my experience. But I always leave time with Colette feeling more sharply focused myself.
Offer both words and tokens of love…
…and don’t be stingy with them. I’ve learned over the past three years just how important this one is. I’ve learned this from my family (my Dad’s messages of “Way to go, Jen!”, my cousin Stephanie cheering me on daily). I’ve learned this from the amazing women with whom I work who check in with me, who don’t just go through the motions of polite interaction, but who have been there for me on good days and bad. And I’ve learned it from my closest friends – from the guys at coffee reassuring me that the colonoscopy I’m scheduled for will be easy-peasy to Wendy showing up with tea roses on Valentine’s Day; from Sara always remembering my minor life events and calling to ask to Sue who has stuck with me for nearly 30 years. Be profligate with these words and tokens: most of us don’t hear them enough. When we do, we grow and we shine with it. And we take courage from it to step a little outside our comfort zone, because we know we have people who believe in us.
In the end, I believe that effective willing of the good of the other involves helping them to be effective on their own behalf, in their own lives. My experience has been that I am best able to act in my own life with the honesty, loving focus, and generous support of the people who love me. If I can provide those gifts in return, then I think its possible we will all experience what St. Thomas Aquinas was defining: deep, true, love.