Reflections on love and service


Photo credit: Julia Poage

With the new year quickly approaching, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the past year. As many of you can probably relate to, I feel as if being in college has lent itself to self-growth and maturation, often in ways that are wholly unexpected.

Along with this evolution of self, I believe, comes more awareness of the world around us and how the choices we make affect others. Many today look to avoid buying products produced by sweatshop labor, going vegetarian or vegan and being “green” in their consumer choices to bring about positive change. Alternatively, many of us will choose volunteering — whether it be at a homeless shelter, animal rescue or even with a political campaign which we feel will advance our values — to also make the world a more moral place.

I think these things are good and should be heartily encouraged. However, I worry that many of us (myself included) are quick to look out to the world to effect change but will often forget that the real difference can be made in our own backyards. Our own families, friends, peers and neighbors can also be recipients of our service. And yes, even the ones we don’t particularly like. Especially them.

The word for this is simple, yet overused constantly by our society in all the wrong ways: love. We must love the people around us, even when it is difficult. Loving in this case does not mean falling in love, having warm fuzzy feelings or even being friends, as love is not an emotion, but a choice. It is a conscious choice we must make; we are to wish the goodwill of another, even when that other person is someone we disagree with or even find completely immoral and repulsive.

This is not an easy task, and none of us do it perfectly. In today’s fast-paced world, we are inundated with messages of dropping people who are toxic, putting ourselves above all others and loving only when it is convenient or easy. Although it is important to defend oneself against physical or emotional abuse and similarly important to keep up one’s mental health, I fear that the pendulum has swung too far into the realm of self-absorption. Our call-out culture makes it easy for us to label those who are with us or against us, and we rush to give kindness only to those who agree with us and are willing to love us back.

But is this really loving others, if it is easy? If I am only loving those who give me joy, who never force me to examine my own conscience, am I truly loving? Or, rather, am I simply making the effortless choice to only love when my emotions tell me to?

I believe this is the position where many — if not all — of us are. We are willing to serve a hot plate of food to a homeless man or woman whom we have never met but are reluctant to forgive old friends who have done us wrong or show compassion to peers who don’t see eye to eye with us. These choices are much harder and force us to give up a piece of our pride in favor of humbling ourselves before those to whom we may not want to show weakness.

This kind of love is the most rewarding of all, however. It is not necessary to become best friends with everyone; this is neither ideal nor even possible. Making the choice to love someone will not always mean you must even speak to them — it may just mean you need to let go of the anger in your heart, or decline to speak badly about them when everyone else is doing just that. Love takes all sorts of forms, but will always need to be deliberately chosen.

So as we enter into the last month of the year, I would urge each and every one of you to reflect on how you treat others in your words, actions and thoughts — and I will be doing the same. Love is not an easy choice to make in our world, but this just makes it all the more necessary.