We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the sermon on the mount. -Omar N. Bradley
The concept of love is useless as a building block of life until a person realizes that, like the atom, it has three important subparts. Around 2300 years ago, Leucippus and Democritus correctly guessed that everything on earth was made from atoms. But the power of modern chemistry, electricity, and many other scientific discovers emerged only after scientists began to grasp that atoms were composed of protons, neutrons, electrons and other particles. To move spiritually beyond alchemy, hearsay, guesswork – perhaps even outright lies – an equally good understanding of love’s internal structure is also necessary. This begs the question: what are the fundamental building blocks – the pillars – of love?
First and foremost, love requires humility. This truth is hard to miss in modern societies because the temptation is to move in a different direction than humility demands. The wisdom of the world wants us to believe that some people are better than others. It offers hierarches in which certain folks are on top and others on the bottom. It pushes a fiduciary logic that requires individuals and corporation to do everything they can to advance their own interests, leaving little room for the interests of others.
If a group wants its members to move in the opposite direction of love, then narratives will abound that explain why members in the ingroup are smarter, cleaner, better…than members in the out group. That way the tribe can ask, why bother with that which is inferior to you, why care for, communicate with, or value them/that/it?
Without humility, there is not even a way to properly love one’s self. Nor can a person accept God’s love. For who is going to attempt to fix something they fail to believe needs fixing. And how can a person ask forgiveness for the sins they have not considered or admitted (Luke 18:9-14)?
Happiness research indicates that many people fail to live their best lives because they would rather be unhappy doing their own thing rather than happy while humbly taking suggestions from experts or people who know them better than they know themselves. Milton’s Paridise Lost offers a spiritual parallel to this research when it notes that Satan, like many people, would rather “rule in hell than serve in heaven.” So it is that pride goes before a fall, while humility marks the gateway to maturity, joy, and love.
The Second Pillar
Embracing humility focuses a microscope on the existence of an indispensable second part to love: The ability to listen and hear. When I was a child, I remember sitting at my father’s feet for hours while he and the other adults in the room talked about life, about their childhoods, about where they had been and what they had learned. Looking back in my mind’s eye at my younger self, I cannot help but note the resemblance of both my posture and my attitude to someone kneeling in prayer…ready to hear of rather than speak of mysteries that were still beyond me.
Humble listening means the suspension of judgement, the shelving of certainty, the willingness to embrace discomfort or disorientation. Humble listening marks the difference between a person who is at best merely being polite by going through the outward motions verse a person who is actually capable of an interior hearing. True listening does not begin with the ears. It begins with a heart humble enough to entertain the possibility of realities beyond one’s own.
(Looking for a beautiful reminder this article’s main points? Try, Love: A Manifesto)
So much of what it means to listen and hear in this way hinges on trust. Trust is a kind of humility in and of itself. It depends on the good-faith assumption that there is a signal on the other side of what sometimes simply sounds like stupidity or noise.
Recently, I was listening to a book on tape that made me so angry I turned it off seven times before I could get through one two-minute section. But I trusted this author. So as uncomfortable as I was, I dove back into his words to see if I could hear something I had not heard before.
When I finally understood the message, it was amazing. That, however, is a topic for another day. With regard to what I learned about listening: I realized that sometimes it is important to listen so hard that we listen beyond the words, beyond what a person is actually saying and, instead, to what they are trying to say.
The good faith assumption that makes that kind of listening possible is born of humility. It comes from the sense that in everyone there is at least some small piece of God and some small voice that has a message for us, something for us to learn, if we are humble enough to listen and hear. Sometimes we cannot hear because we do not care to hear, or care enough to hear. Which brings us to one final point, the last subpart necessary for love to become usefully incarnate in the world.
Empathy, the Final Pillar of Love
If you cannot tell, I was educated as a physics major. I believe, like Newton, that Nature is God’s Third Testament. If the universe is indeed woven of love, then it makes sense that studying its patterns in depth can lend us insight into what the other two Testaments are saying about that love.
In the world, what makes both atoms and love work is a willingness to give up a part of the self and to receive a part of another. They (the apocryphal they) say that when you lose someone you have loved, it hurts so much because they have taken a piece of you with them. But it is also said that the person who died is not truly dead because they have also left a part of themselves with you.
It is these parts of ourselves that we give to one another that lead to and allow for empathy. Humility cannot help but beget a willingness to listen and hear. Hearing gives rise to empathy. And something about empathy allows us to bind ourselves to other people by giving up and receiving each other’s stories – along with the truths, emotions, and parts of self-contained in them.
Thus, the final trait necessary for love to be a positive force in the world is empathy. Only by embracing a broad-based empathy can we be sure that we are bound to one another by our common humanity. The alternative to possessing such empathy is to lose more and more of who we are meant to be. It is to become like spiritual astronauts, precariously tethered to our humanity and ever in danger of losing even that tenuous connection.
My brother and I joke between ourselves that sometimes we possess what’s called grey matter, while other times our heads seem filled only with “doesn’t matter.” So too with love. People who practice a humble, listening, empathic love offer the world a love that matters. Any version of love that lacks these three traits, especially humility, hardly matters at all.
Questions for Contemplation and Study
- What does 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 say about what counts as merit in God’s eyes?
- Do you think this is the same as what counts as merit in the wisdom of the world?
- Are the wisdom of humility and the wisdom of meritocracy compatible? If you believe so, can you explain how? If not, why do you think not?
- Ask yourself what you believe it takes to be able to listen to someone (including God) sufficiently well so that you can explain their perspective back to them, even if you don’t agree with that perspective?
- How does your answer to question 4 compare to what Paul says in the remainder of 1 Corinthians 1
Read More from Love: The Foundation
Over the next few weeks, I want you to try an experiment. Pay close attention to the dialogue that takes place in your head as
In 2002, I visited Maine to see Gregg, my college roommate, and his young family. At the Naval Academy, Gregg and I made strange bedfellows: