It’s St. Valentine’s Day and love is in the air… and on the air… and in the malls. Here’s what I’m thinking.
Love is a verb. It’s something we do and it can be difficult. That Greek word that gets kicked around (agape) implies something about sacrifice, about giving ourselves away to others. That can be challenging in light of our inherent selfishness. To really give oneself to another is a mighty feat. I have been married to a wonderful woman for almost 28 years and continue to struggle with it. In fact, while we may embrace the call to love others and commit ourselves to act on this call, we also may sometimes despair that we fail at this with the people we are closest to: our family members, our roommates, our neighbors. A legitimate critique of intentional service experiences is that they often take us to places and involve us with people far away from where we live – physically or experientially. Doing great things for the widow and the orphan is lovely work, but unless that same spirit of service is brought into our relationships with our spouses, our siblings, our children, or our living mates, the value of our work might be rightfully questioned.
I was recently at the funeral of a good friend who had succumbed to brain cancer after a year’s battle. One thing became clear at this funeral: Howie was deeply loved by many people. One friend after another stood to tell a story about Howie’s generosity, friendship, sacrifice, humor, and steadfast faith. The testimonials were powerful, and not surprising from what I knew of Howie myself. What was most impressive was what came after the friends and colleagues finished with their stories, when Howie’s wife and two grown children rose to speak. They talked about a husband and father, who loved them deeply, sacrificed happily for them, challenged them in faith, made them laugh hard, and even in the darkest moments of his battle with cancer, spoke of the power of hope. Howie had led a very good life, and he was a wonderful friend, husband and dad.
On the drive home from the funeral I was struck deeply by the experience of hearing just how far Howie’s love and commitment to others had reached. And I wondered: if that were my own funeral, and if there were any willing to stand and tell stories of how I had loved and sacrificed, would the family in the front row – my wife and kids – recognize the person being eulogized? Or would they instead wonder if this was the same human being they had lived with?
Love is a noun. It’s something we experience and, ultimately, it’s the only thing that lasts. This may just be a sign that I am getting older, but I spend some good time meditating on the fact that life is short and always changing. My body is changing, friends come and go, children grow up and want to cuddle less, our parents get older and eventually we have to let them go. The time is coming when I will no longer be on this earth and indeed, everything I have and treasure will pass away. The house I now call my home – so very special to my children and our family – will one day fall down and make way for something else. There is no certainty that the persons I love most – my wife Sue, my four children, family members young and old, my dearest friends – any one of them may be gone tomorrow. That happens. It happens. And because it happens it makes me wonder: what does last? If everything I know and love on this earth is dying and will one day vanish from memory, what lasts?
The invitation is to believe that while what we have now – the home, the marriage, the children, the family reunions and vacations, the joy of experiencing the exhilaration of life itself – will one day come to an end, the experience of love which is shared with these people in these holy moments and places is eternal. The wonder and mystery of love is that it is a participation in something far greater than our temporal human experience. So while we will lose those we love most, and eventually lose our own human life, the love that we experience in relationship with one another is eternal. That love will last. It’s what awaits us when we enter into the full presence of God, who is Love.
Daniel Ponsetto serves as director of the Volunteer and Service Learning Center at Boston College.