When we are asked what it looks like to love others, our natural inclination is to say, “Being kind to others."
We are to treat people with kindness, for there is kindness in love. However, kindness is not tantamount to love. When kindness is disconnected from love’s other elements, it involves an undercurrent of indifference. According to C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, “Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering.” It does not entail any long-term commitment to the wellbeing of its object; rather it satisfies itself with a “niceness” that does no harm. How do we see this isolated kindness in the environment around us? When I read this excerpt from The Problem of Pain, I immediately related it to quotidian interactions with people on campus–namely because I found myself perpetuating this very strain of kindness.
Whenever I encounter people with whom I am only vaguely acquainted, I instinctively feel inclined to adopt a congenial demeanor to make sure they feel comfortable. I plaster on a cheerful smile, alter the tenor of my voice, and ready my habitual greeting, “Hey, how’s it going?” to express a degree of concern. I hope that they will respond with a brief “I’m good; how are you?”, smile, and continue on their way. It’s painless, easy, and efficient. But even when I am in a particularly gregarious mood, I can’t seem to get past the threshold of feeling truly connected, despite my best intentions. I find it extremely easy to fall into my default state of being: relying on scripts and social cues to navigate my way through conversations to avoid the risk of displeasing others. When this default state comes to define our interactions, the moment we’ve exhausted our arsenal of pleasantries and the conversation grows stale, an awkward silence prevails as we try to extricate ourselves in the least offensive way possible. All we’ve done is ensure that the other person has escaped the interaction unscathed, and, spurred by feelings of obligation to unfinished tasks and places to be, we gradually come to perceive the other person as someone, even something, to get through. This is the kindness C.S. Lewis is wary of: a façade of cold philanthropy harboring veiled feelings of indifference to the wellbeing of its object–keeping one another at arm’s length so that we don’t step on other people’s toes.
With this strain of shallow, impoverished kindness so far removed from the love in which it ought to be subsumed, how are we to know what kindness grounded in love looks like? We must remember kindness is not tantamount to love, for love is multifaceted and kindness is just one of it elements. Hence, preceding that question is this one: What does it mean to truly love others? In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Paul tells us, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” If considered individually and applied collectively in our daily interactions, these qualities will radically change how we understand the true nature of love.
To begin seeing love in this rich light, we must notice a clear thread in Paul’s description; love is inefficient. The fact that love is patient, does not insist on its own, rejoices with the truth, and endures all things suggests that love is inefficient in its very nature–it calls us away from making productivity primary. As unwelcome and subversive as this facet of love may sound, acknowledging it can prove to be one of the most liberating exercises in our practice of love. If we are willing to embrace this presently inconvenient truth, we can expect an alleviation of the anxieties and inhibitions suppressing our willingness to love. This may be the first step we need to take in our quest for nurturing a love that transcends mere kindness; accepting love’s inefficiency leads to patience, and patience opens us up to love’s many rich manifestations–including, but not limited to, the qualities listed in 1 Corinthians. As we divest incrementally from the internal monologue that binds us to our exacting agendas and invest ourselves in the spirit of loving, I believe we enter an authentic dialogue with not only the people around us but also with God. For if God is love, we are engaging in communion with Him when we seek to love others. As our love for others develops and supplants our self-centeredness, we will begin to see people the way He does, the way the people around us fit within His sovereign plan, and how we were created to run on God’s love as the nonpareil source of fuel, with every other source of purpose or meaning rendered superficial and insufficient in comparison.
As we are internalizing love’s disposition, we must be mindful that love requires application for it to be sustained. C.S. Lewis exhorts, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” Loving others take discipline and attention, especially at the beginning, because we are adjusting what has long been our default frame of mind in how we perceive and interact with the world. It will require continually praying for God to be the source of love, for love engendered by ourselves is unsustainable in the long-run susceptible to our own imperfections. The great news is that we are promised to get back what we put in, and more. Luke 6:38 says, “Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full–pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap.” The amount of genuine, willing effort we put into loving people will determine how much love we have for others as a result.
The way we love others can take a myriad of forms: It can be the conscious decisions to treat every person we encounter as the most important person in the world; it can be intentionally putting others’ needs far above our own until we begin to see their needs as inseparable from ours; it can be choosing to set a tone of vulnerability in as many conversations as possible; it can be writing little notes to affirm the people who we especially appreciate; etc. All these manifestations are inefficient because they go beyond mere kindness to affect kindness grounded in love.
It will be easier for us to accept this inefficiency if we remember that we are on this journey of life together. For while it is radically profound that God has chosen to love each of us in spite of our faults, it is even more unbelievably radical that he has chosen to love every person around us in the same way. If we can remember that God’s love for the people around us is eternal and infinite, and cultivate a deep longing to love those around us more and more in that boundless way, we will become more like the sort of people God created us to be–a people inextricably united through love.