“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” said Thich Nhat Hanh and I said ouch.
Over the years I have done so much loving that I think I deserve champion status. I have loved cats (well, not so much) and dogs, kids, friends, neighbors, orphans, widows, aliens and some people whom have been considered unlovely by many. I have loved them to the best of my ability. Often, I admit, the love has been flawed. That little blond boy I had a crush on in second grade may not have appreciated my love so much. Neither have my teenage daughters when they, at times, have been approached by a relatively neurotic mother who wanted to know exactly where they had been, and with who.
The thing about my love is that it has often been offered with wrong intentions and with limited understanding. “Understanding is love’s other name,” continues Thich Nhat Hanh, and I think that this is where most of us miss the mark. We love the way we think love should be expressed, assuming that the receiver of our love sees things exactly how we do. Not only that, but we love based on what we think is right and good.
Once my daughter loved a rabbit so much she hugged him to death. I think that may illustrate my point.
Years ago, getting to know refugees from Burma for the first time, I thought that the best way to love them was to give them all the stuff they didn’t have. I could give them clothes, food, old calendars with photos from Norway, medicines, and nail polish. Thinking I knew what they needed, my love was expressed from a sincere desire to be like Jesus. But over the years I have understood that I misunderstood Jesus, as well as the needs of the refugees. First off, I realized that what I think of as necessities are not always. Refugees don’t need coffee in the morning. I do. Also, I realized that handing them the stuff I thought they needed (and that they in fact did need) was not the best way to love them. Loving people more often means enabling them to provide for themselves.
If I may be so bold, I would like to add to Thich Nhat Hanh’s statement: If understanding is love’s other name, then listening is understanding’s other name.
See, I have come to understand that we cannot show true love to another person (nor people group or nation) without first understanding them. And there is no way we can understand them before we take a deep breath, stop thinking we know what the other person thinks and start listening.
So here is my challenge: Start loving with your ears. Become a detective that finds clues while observing the person or the group of people you want to love. You will be surprised to find that love is not always expressed the way you thought it ought to be expressed. It will take some self discipline and a wee bit of humility. But I have the faith that it can be done. It starts with me, and I am my biggest challenge. My heart is small, observes Thich Nhat Hanh. My compassion is limited. He recommends expanding my heart so I can love better.
His suggestions I find life-shattering. Because what he is proposing is that often I love because inside me there is an empty space that needs to be filled, and I try to fill it by loving others. It is only when that empty space is first filled that we can offer real love. When the focus of our love is them and not us, we can really start to understand. It is then that their suffering become our suffering, and their joy becomes ours.
And the question one must ask then, is: If it isn’t from loving others, where does our contentment and joy come from? Thich Nhat Hanh suggests practicing mindfulness which I think is a good place to start. My own personal opinion is that while practicing this mindfulness one will meet God who kindly whispers that his love is enough, and that the value he has given me does not depend on my deeds, but on the fact that I am a child of his.
So, this morning, I am thankful for the thoughts of Thich Nhat Hanh and for the chance to practice love to the people around me. I will seek to understand.
The article that inspired all this thoughts came from my, at the moment, favorite website: Brain pickings