“How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
-Anne Frank, from her wartime diary The Diary of a Young Girl
Back in the 1960s when folk masses were in vogue, William Flanders wrote a folk hymn entitled Love Is A Verb. I recalled Flanders’ song when I started writing this post because I thought what the song said was pertinent to what I wanted to say in this post. Here are the relevant words of Flanders’ folk hymn:
Don’t count on love to come flying in your window.
Don’t count on love to mysteriously appear,
Born from above as an answer to your troubles,
Filling your heart with intentions most sincere.
Love isn’t there, some possession bought or found.
Love is no thing, nothing good to have around.
Yet people, at times, can be loving in their actions.
Love is a verb, not a noun.
Love as a noun may be kind and may be patient,
But love as a noun always tends to be unreal.
When love becomes loving, then real things start to happen,
And love is received as a fact, not an ideal.
Love is a verb, not a noun. Love is not a thing; love is what one does. Love is action.
What an interesting and profound thought!
To mention the word “love” is to immediately conjure up a whole gamut of emotions and I do not want to be misunderstood as to what kind of love that I am talking about here.
To begin with, when I say “love” I am not talking about erotic sexual desire. I hate to disappoint anyone reading this, but if that is what you think this post is about, you will need to look elsewhere. I can recall very early in my professional life preaching a sermon at an institution for “delinquent girls” (whatever that means). I was young and very much an inexperienced preacher. I used as my text that day the thirteenth chapter of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the same passage that Bill Flanders used in his folk hymn quoted earlier, a passage that speaks about love – not eros (intimate love), but agapē (selfless love). Well, these “delinquent girls” were all in their late teens and early twenties and probably with raging hormones and love meant only one thing to them – passionate sexual craving. Of course, that was not what I was talking about, but that was what they heard and I should have known better than to use a text such as I did. But as I said, I was young and inexperienced. At any rate, as I looked out on my “flock” that day, some of the girls on the front row were winking at me and making some suggestive gestures with their hands. That day I learned not only to choose my preaching texts more carefully and appropriately, but also to define my terms sufficiently and adequately. So, let us understand one another right from the beginning. This post is not a sex manual. The post is not about sex at all. It is about love. Love and sex are NOT the same thing. Love is an action. Sex, on the other hand, is a biological event. Do not get me wrong. I do not mean to sound so clinical about this. I am all in favor of sex and sexual desire, and the “biological event” is a wonderful experience; it just is not the subject of this post. Someone else will have to write that post.
No. What I am talking about when I say “love” is the kind of love that is dispassionate, self-giving, detached, and is usually given without any thought of return from the person or persons to whom it is given. I have a friend who displays this kind of love. For purposes of illustration, I have changed his name to protect the guilty. My friend is “Charlie” and he goes to church every Sunday. At worship, Charlie disagrees with much, if not most, of what he hears preached from the pulpit. He stands with the congregation for the creed, but does not say those ancient words because he just does not believe in the concepts contained in the historic creedal statements of the church. It is important for Hank to maintain his intellectual integrity – and he does. At the prayers, Charlie’s mind wanders because he cannot conceive of an intervening God who answers people’s petitions. Furthermore, Charlie has a big problem with an intervening God who could/would permit the extermination of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis, or the God who would/could stand idly by while at least ten thousand children are killed in a war in Syria. Where was the loving God of the Bible and of traditional Christianity in those situations, he wails! Hank has yet to hear a satisfactory answer to that probing question.
I asked Charlie one day why he went to church on Sunday if it all was so meaningless and repugnant to him. His answer was that going to church is meaningful to his wife and he loves his wife. He does it for her, not for him. And then he added, almost parenthetically: “And besides, there are some people there that I like, and the food at the fellowship hour is pretty damn good.”
If anything, Charlie is honest. But that is not the reason that I write of my friend Charlie. I write of Charlie because this man volunteers three times a week at a local hospice and sits at the bedside of persons dying of all kinds of cancer. It is a difficult task, one that most people cannot do, and one that can only have a singular kind of an ending – death. Knowing that Charlie is not motivated by any religious impulse, I asked him why he volunteers to do such an arduous undertaking. He answered me: “I do it because I have been so blessed in my life. I have a fantastic wife and three wonderful children. I have just about everything that a person could ever want. Doing this volunteering is my way of giving back some of the good that has come my way.” In other words, for Charlie “love is a verb.” He does it voluntarily and the world that Charlie knows is a better place because of Charlie and what he does. It is people like Charlie who selflessly demonstrate the human capacity to love.
I believe that the most important dimension of love is to see “love as a verb,” to see that love is action. Only action can sow the seeds to reap the harvest of love. One does not have to be a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu to do some love. One does not have to be a theistic person at all to practice love. Humans of all sorts and conditions have the capacity to make love a verb.
I like what Albert Camus wrote when he penned these words: “If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page, I should write: ‘I recognize one duty, and that is to love.’”
I may be wrong, but if we really want the world to look differently the next time we step outside, we need to make love a verb, not a noun and do some love.