One of my favorite features of my first travel nursing assignment in southern Connecticut was its proximity to New York City. One $36 round-trip ticket, two hours on a train, and I was in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. New York City was enchanting. It teemed with life, energy, noise, culture, food, people, architecture, history, everything. Stepping out of the train into Grand Central Station, it always felt like a new beginning, like anything could happen. It was freeing and frightening to be surrounded by an abundance of strangers, to be able to take the subway anywhere, to be small next to all the large buildings.
I loved it. I fell in love with New York City like one falls in love with a person: instantly and slowly. I was captivated by the city as soon as I stepped out of Grand Central Station, and I fell more in love with it each borough, each museum, each landmark I explored. Yet, I could never call New York City my home. Living on my travel nurse friend’s couch for a week on the Upper East side of Manhattan, I knew I could never be at home or completely at peace there. But I love New York City and remember it fondly whenever I see the I ❤ NY magnet on my fridge.
But what is love? Can be fully captured by a button we put on our fridge? Can it be satisfactorily displayed as a stylized sculpture on 6th and 55th? Can it be appropriately worn like a T-shirt? Can it even be adequately described?
If the English language is lacking one thing, it lacks adequate verbiage to describe love. The Eskimo language has 50 words for snow, yet English speakers are given one, all-encompassing word to describe our affection for a city to the love of Christ. St. Paul’s letters to various Christian communities about love have a less meaning and a more hollow feeling when love is thought of to be the same kind of love used to describe a city, food, or even some broken human relationships.
But what is love? If we do not understand what love truly is, we cannot even begin to understand God’s love for us. And if we do not understand God’s love for us, we cannot begin to love others as Christ commanded.
The Greeks use 4 words to describe love:
- Storge, natural affection
- Philia, deep friendship or loyalty
- Eros, intimate love closely associated with sexual passion
- Agape, unconditional empathy
English Christian writer C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves explores these 4 kinds of love: affection, friendship, eros, and charity. He writes of them in their pure, ideal form and how they can each become twisted, depraved, and corrupt enough to not be real love at all.
But both the Greeks and C.S. Lewis describe love as the effect. Based on our actions and natural feelings, we love others with storge, philia, eros, or agape. It still begs the question: how do we love in the first place?
Fulton Sheen in his book Love, Marriage And Children describes 5 ways how humans love one another: with utilitarian, romantic, democratic, humanitarian, or Christian love
- Utilitarian love is based on a mutual usefulness to each other. Each person has something the other finds necessary in some capacity. However, when the practicality is gone, so is the relationship.
- Romantic love is based on the pleasure from the other person. As he wrote, “[People] fall in love with an ecstasy or a thrill, loving the cake only as long as it has frosting on it.” When the experience fails to be exciting or produce the desired pleasure, the relationship fails.
- Democratic love is based on equality and mutual respect. But democratic love comes with a caveat. It expects that contributing to the good of others will return a good for the giver, so it can only function to a point. As soon as the other is considered unworthy of love, the relationship abruptly ends.
- Humanitarian love is based on a love of humanity in general, but its root is buried abstract, in loving at a distance. As he wrote, “…those who have most proclaimed their love of humanity have found it very difficult to love certain human beings.” This love fails in the concrete, in the flawed, annoying human being in front of the person.
- Christian love is based on Christ’s words in John 15:12 “this is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” At a glance, “love one another” is nothing new. Philosopher after ethical teacher after religious leader has taught basic charity, but Christ says “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” The words surrounding “love one another” deserve careful examination:
- “This is my commandment“ Commandments evoke an ideal, like the 10 Commandments of Moses gave a new ideal to the Israelites. They had to chose to change, chose to live by new rules, chose a higher, more divine way of life. By calling love a commandment, Christ explicitly says love is a choice. Love is capable of being commanded, that is it something of the will, a choice rather than a passive effect of labile emotion. As Fulton Sheen wrote “Love, then, is not a gush but a virtue; not a spasmodic enthusiasm, but an abiding relationship of service, affection, and sacrifice.”
- “As I love you” Christ willingly bore a cross, physical pain beyond all comprehension, humiliation beyond all embarrassment, spiritual suffering beyond all persecution in sacrifice for the very people who crucified him, humiliated him, abandoned him, and would do so in the future. Christ loves sinners as they are. So much of love demands change before love is given, but Christ loves without requiring change. Yes, He asked for love with the hope that sinners would change for the better, for their better, but change is not a prerequisite for His love. Christ loves for the sinners’ sake, not His own, and is given without expectation of return.
Looking back on my time in New York City, my love for New York City is not true, pure Christian love. It’s humanitarian love in that I loved the sea of strangers, but I could mumble horrible things about the individuals pushing up next to me. It’s democratic love in that I contributed good (money) to New York City, and it contributed good (excitement, culture, and experiences) to me. It’s romantic love in that I loved the thrill of a large, thriving city. It’s utilitarian love in that it was a useful place to escape from my loneliness and dissatisfaction with my job.
Looking back on my attitude towards my work, my love of nursing at the time was not true, pure Christian love. It was humanitarian love in that I loved the idea of helping others, but I was dissatisfied, angry, and bitter that my individual patients refused to be helped as I expected them to be. It was democratic love in that I treated patients with respect, but I stopped being so respectful when I was shown disrespect. It was romantic love in that I loved the thrill of a code, a change in condition, an abnormal finding, but I loathed when things were boring. It was utilitarian love in that it made me feel useful, but I hated the days I felt useless.
But I’m learning to love my work, my new city with a Christian love. I’m working on loving the individual patients in front of me, choosing to serve them affectionately despite my feelings towards the contrary. I’m working on loving the quirks of my city, the roads that go from one lane to two without rhyme, reason, or proper signage. I’m choosing to love, choosing Christian love. I have a long way to go, but it’s amazing how transformative that self-sacrificing, serving, affectionate love can be.
As Fulton Sheen wrote,
“When anyone does us wrong, we say, “You lost my love; change, and then I will love you.” Our Blessed Lord, on the contrary, says, “Love someone, and then he will change. Let your love be the creation of his betterment.
…Our Blessed Lord gave the test of love when He said, “Love your enemies.” We are not to expect anything in return, but to go one loving even in the midst of hostility and persecution. Love is disineterested when it continues despte hate. By making the love of neighbor an affair of the will, and not a matter of feeing, Our Savior took love out of the narrow circle of self, exiled it from the “I” castle, and set it fully on the side of the other person. He urged that we so efface self that we care for other persons for their sake alone and not for any ulterior purpose.
…One way of knowing whether our love is totally disinterested is to compare it with the love we have for those who are dead. Here is absolutely no possibility of requital, return of friendship, pleasure, or utility. When love persists even without a return of love, then is the affection pure. Nature bids us be mindful of others; Christ bids us to put love where we do not find it, and thus will we find everyone lovable.”
– Fulton Sheen, Love, Marriage And Children