By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published August 10, 2012, and November 9, 2013, in The Madera Tribune
My father taught that women should be treated with respect and never hit. So whenever a pair of kindergarten classmates would chase or play aggressively with girls at school I would insist they stop. A fight would follow and I would lose.
So began a cycle that would last four school years as the defender became seen as an enemy. Strangely I never stopped defending myself though I never won a single battle.
But the worst indignity happened near the outset: a female kindergartener gave me a love letter.
Technically it was a handcrafted card. The front showed a leafy green plant stalk made of colored paper. When opened, the plant tripled in height and flowered. “My love for you will grow and grow,” it promised. The sender signed her name.
I was horrified. I may have been willing to be beaten up for the sake of girls, but that didn’t mean I liked them. They were strange and alien beings. I’d never heard the silly notion that girls have “cooties,” an infectious social ickiness. But if I had I would’ve agreed.
Nonetheless my parents, who clearly didn’t understand this, said I had to thank her. Compelled by obedience, I waited until she was busily passing out papers for the teacher. As she walked by, I muttered, “Thank you for the card.” Thanks to my skillful timing and her distraction, she didn’t seem to hear me. Thusly it ended.
Years later puberty led a revolution among the hearts and bodies of my classmates and I. But paper flowers only bloom for so long.
Human love is “a mutual relationship between persons,” noted a former ethics professor of the Jagiellonian University and the Catholic University of Lublin. Without mutuality, human love is frustrated. Humans are “co-creators” of love.
True love, he wrote, recognizes the good in another person (attraction), longs for that person (desire), and selflessly seeks the good for that person (goodwill). Of these, goodwill is the purest.
Those insights are only the starting point of a Christian philosophy book, “Love and Responsibility,” by Karol Wojtyla, Ph.D. (1920-2005).
The most obvious element of love, he wrote, is usually “sympathy,” which in Greek literally means “experiencing together.” Sympathy is the emotional attitude a person has for another, a sentimental surrender to attraction and desire, and makes people feel close to each other. When sympathy dies, many think love has ended.
“Yet sympathy is not by any means the whole of love, any more than excitement and emotion are the whole of a human being’s inner life — it is only one element among others,” he wrote.
Another element of love is friendship, which depends on sympathy but goes beyond it and includes goodwill. While sympathy is born a fickle lion, intense and strong, friendship takes its first steps as a fragile lamb that must be nurtured. Only together can the pair grow into something durable.
A third element of love, Wojtyla wrote, is comradeship, which “rests on such objective foundations as joint work, common goals, shared concerns, etc.” Comradeship doesn’t depend on sympathy to exist or grow, but it can enable sympathy to mature into friendship. Comradeship shows itself in sharing, and is more sociable than the other two; it can connect many people instead of only a few.
Beyond all these is a special form of love, which he calls betrothed love. It involves the giving of one’s own person to another. This involves a deep and real paradox, he writes, because by nature no person can be given or surrendered to another. To be a person is to be set on a path, whether accepted or abandoned, towards “ever greater fullness of existence.”
He wrote, “This [betrothed love] is doubly paradoxical: firstly in that it is impossible to step outside of one’s own ‘I’ in this way, and secondly in that the ‘I’ far from being destroyed or impaired as a result is enlarged and enriched…”
Betrothed love isn’t limited to marriage relationships. A doctor, teacher, or pastor can give themselves utterly to those under their care, he wrote.
But betrothed love is most clearly seen in matrimony. For the married, he wrote, self-giving involves far more than sex but certainly includes it. Yet the self-giving within marriage must be mutual to guard against exploitation, a very real danger.
For Christians, betrothed love is worth such risks. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16:25)