What Keeps Me from Loving Others as Christ Does?
(Part I of II)
Dear Fr. Bartunek, thank you for this most relevant reflection. In the last paragraph, the question, “What is keeping me from loving others with [Christ’s] kind of energy, constancy, and creativity?”, has been playing in my mind repeatedly for months. I have been blessed beyond belief over the past year and a half; yet, I cannot bring myself to love everyone with this same generosity. Most recently, I have allowed a woman into my home temporarily who is culturally very different from myself. Though she is a very kind-hearted individual, I feel like a hypocrite because I have such difficulty accepting her. This is not how Christ treats me. This is not an isolated concern. I can meet someone for the first time and immediately have a disdain for that person. I know we are to pray for all the people we dislike or disagree with, as is the situation with all the cultural unrest going on in our country; but our Lord did not seem to have this problem. He loved everyone and asks us to do the same. Any thoughts on how to get beyond this stumbling block of loving others as Christ loves me are greatly appreciated.
Thank you for this honest and insightful question. I assure you that you are not the only person who experiences this difficulty! I will give a brief answer with some advice about attitude and action.
Regards attitude, we cannot underestimate the importance of distinguishing between unwilled feelings – emotional reactions – and willed decisions. Because of our fallen human nature, our feelings are not always obedient to our faith. We can feel an emotional repugnance to prayer, for example, even though we firmly believe in the importance and value of prayer. Just so, we can feel an emotional disconnect or distaste towards another person, even though we firmly believe that that person is created in God’s image, loved by God unconditionally, redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and called to eternal communion with God in heaven.
Those spontaneous feelings can be sparked by passing subjective factors, like tiredness or a bad mood. They can also stem from subconscious factors – some intangible quality of the person, for example, may trigger a reaction linked to some emotional patterns that were formed before we were even self-conscious. These same subconscious factors can be at play as regards our natural affections and likes – we feel more affinity towards Person A simply because their personality somehow harmonizes well with the emotional needs that have been seared in the substrata of our own personality. So, just as feelings of affection can be completely unwilled, feelings of repugnance towards someone also may be completely unwilled under such circumstances. They are not sinful.
And yet, they can be valuable for our own growth in self-knowledge. They are giving us information, and we may grow significantly in self-knowledge through reflecting on their origins and the wounds they reveal in our souls. Sometimes they are linked to deep wounds that may need some psychological treatment. Often they are linked simply to normal wounds that can become fruitful catalysts for spiritual growth when we identify them and integrate them into our prayer life. When you identify emotional patterns in this regard, it is good to bring them up in spiritual direction to try to process them with the help of an objective observer.
Of course, Jesus would not have experienced that kind of disconnect between his emotional world and his intentional world, because he did not suffer from the interior brokenness resulting from original sin.
On the other hand, negative emotions towards other people can also be caused by objective factors. If another person habitually makes self-centered decisions and becomes a burden for those around them, this will more or less quickly become a source of tension and perhaps even anger. We see Jesus, for instance, becoming angry with the Pharisees when they simply refuse to listen to him, consistently closing their eyes to his saving message.
These emotional reactions are objectively linked to damaging actions of other people, and they are valuable as sources of information. They are telling us something about the relationship – something is wrong, something is unjust, something needs to be dealt with or changed in order to reorient the relationship and make it healthy again (or for the first time). These emotional reactions are not willfully chosen, so they too cannot be sinful. They just are.
In the case of the woman staying in your home, I imagine that both factors may be in play. Subjectively, the cultural differences may be triggering some difficult emotional patterns for you. Objectively, some of her habits grate with your habits.
And so, you can see that your attitude towards these emotional experiences has to start with humble acceptance. The emotions are there. They are linked to who you are. They are giving you information. They are not evil in themselves and so they are nothing to be ashamed of or frustrated about. Accept them. Understand them.
So much for attitude.
Editor’s Note: In Part II, we will examine what kind of actions we can take to help remedy this situation.
Art: Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino (c. 1572-1645), undated, PD-US; I Don’t Know what to Call This, tm Lies Through a Lens…, 16 October 2010, CCA; both Wikimedia Commons. Jesus Clears Temple, Corbert Gauthier, copyright 2008, used with permission.