There is one feature that struck me in speaking of the meaning of “heart” as the inmost core or unifying centre of the person. It was not only the notion that love is what most gives meaning and fulfillment in our lives. It was the form of love expressed by Einstein, and in the stories of King Midas and Rumpelstiltzkin. This is the love of a parent for a child. This theme is found also in King Lear, where his outer blindness gives way to an inner seeing of the reality of a genuine love beyond manipulative flattery.
The story of Beauty and the Beast further illustrates how this basic love, now expressed for the child to the parent, at once remains and is drawn upon and transferred to the spouse. The myths and folktales, from Oedipus to Hansel and Gretel, as well as my experience with the Children’s Aid Society, also illustrate how frequently there is the presence of abuse rather than love. Yet they also hold out the hope that even where this has been the case, it is still possible for a person to find their way through that dark forest to their true home, and to be a home to others.
This is also a theme of Wayne Muller in his book Legacy of the Heart. He says that many adults who were hurt as children “exhibit a peculiar strength, a profound inner wisdom, and a remarkable creativity and insight. Deep within them–just below the wound–lies a profound spiritual vitality, a quiet knowing, a way of perceiving what is beautiful, right, and true.” In this light, he adds: “Your is not to keep trying to repair what was damaged; you practice instead is to reawaken what is already wise, strong, and whole within you, to cultivate those qualities of heart and spirit that are available to you in this very moment.”
These words again evoke our constant theme that there always remains within us a sacred and valuable core that nothing or no one can take away, whether we realize it or not. If we realize that we are a gift, the gift of who we are, embedded in the gift of life itself and its meaning, we will be able to share that gift. If we think of ourselves-erroneously in this view–as a burden, an accident, or a mistake, as wrong or evil, we will only be able to transmit that negativity to others. Sometimes it is other persons or the world of nature itself that conveys and supports that sense of self-worth that enables us, in turn, to love.
This perspective offers a renewed understanding of power. When someone feels deeply loved, they come to a sense that they are lovable and that they can love. To feel unlovable readily leads to withdrawal and lashing out, to destructive consequences. In a positive sense, power is understood as bringing something to life, calling forth life in someone. A more negative sense is power over or domination, which can be viewed as the tendency or compulsion to put something to death in someone. An example of the first meaning of power is to procreate, raise or educate a child. In the second meaning power means to batter, abuse, or neglect a child.
A third and perhaps most vital sense of power is exemplified in the possibility to take the battered, abused, or neglected child, and bring that child to life, physically, emotionally, mentally, artistically, morally, and spiritually. In this sense power is the ability to bring to life even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. And that is the power and meaning of love: to give life, to enhance life, to enrich life, in all its dimensions.
In a book simply titled About Love, Josef Pieper writes that more than the qualities another person may have, the basic experience of love is that it is good that the other person is, that they exist, and that it is good to be with that person. The celebration of a birthday is the recognition that the day that this person was born is a good day, that it is good that they are alive. A funeral, itself, if authentic, involves an acknowledgment that this person’s life is worthwhile, that it is worth remembering, that it is memorable. One expression of love is to say to another: “I will never forget you.”
Perhaps the most thorough and enlightening understanding of love is presented in the classic work by humanistic psychiatrist, Erich Fromm, in his book The Art of Loving. He begins by saying that the
deepest human need is to overcome our separateness without sacrificing our uniqueness, as happens in many mistaken forms. Mature love is not a superficial emotional reaction of clinging to or dominating one particular person. It is an underlying attitude and character development of the whole person. It is a matter of the kind of person we are, and of our underlying capacity to love, which we bring into any particular relationship.
This is an activity that comes from within our deepest self and shares our inner aliveness with another. It is an active concern for the real needs and the growth and development of the person. It sees the other person as they really are and cares for their unfolding in their own ways and for their own sake and not just in response to my perceived needs.
The most basic form of love which underlies all others, he adds, is the respectful concern to further the life of any other, based on the experience of our common humanity. Concretely and practically, however, our becoming fully human and being able to love genuinely, Fromm insists, is developed through responding marginalized., disadvantaged, and oppressed members of society. “Only in the love of those who do not serve a purpose,” he says, “does love begin to unfold.”
I would like to conclude this weeks reflection with a very brief story which is familiar to many of you. We can perhaps comment further on it in next week’s reflection. It is called The Gift.
In one seat a wispy old man sat holding a bunch of fresh flowers. Across the aisle was a young woman whose eyes came back again and again to the man’s flowers. The time came for the old man to get off. Impulsively he handed the flowers to the young woman,. “I can see you love the flowers,” he explained, “and I think my wife would like for you to have them. I’ll tell her I gave them to you.” She accepted the flowers, then watched the old man get off the bus and walk through the gate of a small cemetery.
This is an example of love as an underlying attitude to life, a life-giving attitude that is carried into any contact we have.
May a thread of respectful caring, both given and received, be woven into the fabric of every day of your life, and make of your life a beautiful tapestry
Norman King, November 15, 2021