August 6

Real Love — Doing Vs. Feeling

August 6, 2009

Personal Growth

Recently I was asked the following insightful question:

“Real Love sounds like a noble goal, but if we really love people unconditionally, won’t we end up loving everybody the same? I can’t imagine loving everybody the same as my wife, for example. It seems like Real Love would cheapen the love I have for my wife or my children.”

First let’s address the imprecise way we tend to use the word love. When people talk about love they’re almost always referring to a confusing combination of actions and feelings, so we need to clearly identify these components before we can understand any discussion about love.

Unconditional love is a choice we make to care about the happiness of others without expecting anything in return, and we demonstrate this caring with our thoughts, words, and behavior. Loving is something we DO, and this is possible with a wide variety of people. The question is, can we unconditionally love some people — the “special people” in our lives — more? Of course.

In order to illustrate this, let me describe my relationship with Donna, my wife and My Favorite Person in the World. I try — with varying degrees of success — to love everyone unconditionally, so how is my relationship with Donna different? How is it special? How can I love her without conditions — as I attempt to do with other people — but also love her more than I do others? If I love her more than others, wouldn’t that necessarily be conditional on some characteristic she possessed or on something she did?

First, when I married Donna I made a commitment to put her first — to share more of my unconditional love with her than with anyone else. This is a choice I continue to make, which is not conditional on anything she does. If Donna requests my time, for example, I am far more inclined to stop what I’m doing for her than for anyone else. In terms of effort and inconvenience, I am willing to sacrifice more for her than for anyone else. And, finally, there are certain activities that I will share with no one but her. In a number of ways, then, our relationship is unique, despite my efforts to unconditionally love many people.

The more often we express our unconditional love for any person, the more connected we become to that person and the more we want to love that person. Most of us have seen this confirmed on many occasions where we or others have become engaged in acts of service — when we go on medical missions, serve in soup kitchens, visit the sick in hospitals, and so on. The more I serve Donna’s needs, the more connected to her I feel, and then I care about her happiness all the more. The act of loving begets more of the same.

But now we need to talk about the feeling of love, because this is where most people get confused. When people say that they love their partners and their children more than they love everyone else, they’re usually talking about a feeling. Real Love, however, is not primarily a feeling. Real Love is a conscious choice to care about the happiness of another person. As I care about the happiness of another, though — Donna, for example — the natural result IS a feeling. When I choose to love Donna, I feel wonderful, even if she gives me nothing in return. Let me illustrate this with a story.

A couple of years ago Donna had a major surgical procedure, after which she was in pain and unable to take care of herself. I had her transferred to a special wing of the hospital where I could stay in her room and take care of her around the clock. I was thrilled by this opportunity to care for her. I got up every two hours through the night to give her intravenous pain medication, so she wouldn’t be awakened by her pain and have to ask for relief. She couldn’t get up or roll over without help, and this gave me an opportunity to serve her with no thought for what I would receive in return. The more I took care of her, the more I found that I enjoyed it.

What was going on here? What I was doing was loving her. But what was I feeling? If you had asked me during the experience about my feelings, I might have said that I was feeling “love” toward her, and this is where the confusion arises in so many relationships. We often use the word love when it would be more correct to use the word enjoyment or happiness or gratitude. With my thoughts and behavior I was loving Donna, and, as a result, what I was feeling was happiness.

The feeling that naturally results from being loving is happiness. This naturally occurs because when we’re loving we bring ourselves in harmony with the most positive and powerful force in the universe. Love is the natural order of things. It is the universal, creative force. When we’re loving, we’re at peace with the laws of the universe. When we’re not loving, however, we’re in conflict with everything that is good and true, and we can only be unhappy. Again, allow me to illustrate with Donna. As I love her, I find that I am genuinely happier. I am motivated to be even more loving toward her, because I am simply happier when I behave in a loving way toward her. I enjoy how she feels when I’m loving, and I enjoy how I feel. I can hardly help myself. This happens whether she appreciates what I do or not.

This brings us back to the original question: Is it possible for us to simultaneously love many people unconditionally but still have a special love for certain people in our lives, like spouses, children, and others? The answer is now obvious. We can unconditionally love many people, but we can share that love to a much greater degree with certain people in our lives, and, as a result, enjoy a more profound happiness with them. No matter who we share Real Love with, however, our lives are greatly enriched by the experience.

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