Learning to love, like any other noble virtue, requires patience and a little more understanding.
When we purchased our first home, our son was three years old. His inquisitive mind immediately wanted to know who these people were that lived next door. I told him they were our neighbors and we would meet them soon. The word neighbor stuck, and he would refer to them as “neighbor” long after we knew their names. I can still hear his gruff little voice calling out to them “Hi neighbor!”
The night before we moved away they came to deliver a going away gift to our son, a copy of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, with a personalized note: “Grow big and wise! Love, ‘Neighbor.’”
The Giving Tree tells the story of unconditional love as a tree gives all: her apples, branches, and trunk to a growing boy who is in search of happiness. This book has held a special place in our hearts not only because of its message but because of the kind, and thoughtful act of this neighbor. As I’ve watched each of our children grow up and leave home, my heart has ached like the giving tree as the boy venture off into the world.
Recently I read a review of The Giving Tree and felt sad at the negative connotations associated with such a timeless and beautiful story. Instead of seeing the love and joy of giving to help the boy be happy, the writer focused on its polar opposite – the selfishness of the boy.
Located at the root of giving and serving others, love was the powerful motivator behind the tree giving so selflessly. We all have a natural desire to be loved and accepted. Sometimes we do seemingly selfish things in our quest to fill those deeply rooted desires. And sometimes we’re misguided in our quests.
It is true – we must love ourselves before we can love others, but our search for happiness and joy will never be found chasing after our selfish desires.
Love is not only a feeling but an action word with the power to change our motives. It is a level of dedication, placing someone or something before ourselves. We give, serve, sacrifice, and change all in the name of love. Learning to love can be the driving force behind doing whatever is required.
Learning to Love
Most of us remember either hearing our mother tell us “It’s not about you,” or have told our kids this very thing. Learning to put others’ needs before our own is sometimes painful in a world that teaches self-indulgence.
“It’s not about you. Kierkegaard, Socrates, and Levinas all believed love is fundamentally directed toward something outside oneself. An over-focus on yourself keeps you stuck in your head and worried about your own feelings, rather than out in the world doing good.” – Benjamin Hardy
On a trip to Europe, I was shocked at how selfie-obsessed people were. This was not just taking a picture with a great view behind you – this was missing out on the view and focusing on all the different angles, poses, and coy looks they could make. Selfie is a fairly new term to the English language (adopted into the Oxford Dictionary in 2013), I wonder if this new fascination with self is steering us in the wrong direction.
Doing good in the world can be somewhat daunting. I love the story Gordon B. Hinckley tells of his time serving as a young missionary in England. He was sick and discouraged when he wrote home stating he felt he was wasting his family’s money and his time. His father’s reply was simple and direct: “Forget yourself and go to work.”
We learn what love is all about when we stop focusing on what we want and learn to help others. Being self-absorbed or self-centered will only keep us from reaching our full potential. Rather than worrying about you, invest yourself in something you believe in.
Long before any of our children were born, I wrote a college research paper about love. I was fascinated with understanding what real love was. Finding the old paper tucked away in my filing cabinet, one line still rings true to me today:
Love is something that grows stronger everyday from simple acts of giving and receiving.
Cultivate your love like you would a garden. Defined as improving growth by labor and attention, cultivation is a process of learning, growing, and giving. Continue to practice and look for opportunities to give and serve someone or something you believe in.
Each time the giving tree sacrificed something for the little boy, she felt happy. She had cultivated the seeds of love for the boy and allowed them to continue to grow. To give unconditionally and love with all we have brings joy. Not because of how the receiver reacts, but because of the way it makes us feel inside.
My understanding and definition of love have surpassed the twitterpated feelings of a 20-year-old. It has evolved into the maturely rooted foundation of my relationships today. It was not a piece of knowledge magically appearing after researching for a paper in college but the wisdom I’ve gained as I’ve lived much like the Giving Tree – serving, sacrificing, changing, and giving all in the name of love.
How do you find ways to love others?