Risk-Taking and Love

Love is not a feeling. Love is an action, an activity. Genuine love implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. True love is an act of will that often transcends the ephemeral feelings of love or cathexis, it is correct to say ‘Love is as love does.’

M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

These words confront us with a rather harsh truth: there is not much love in our society or in our own lives. We do not often truly extend ourselves for other people, even those who we most cherish. Most of the time, instead, we are looking for, or at least subtly expecting a quid pro quo. Even then we are rarely giving of ourselves with the object of another person’s growth at the fore. We want to feel appreciated, we want the gratification of another person’s gratitude, but when it comes to extending ourselves beyond our own levels of comfort into the realm of risk-taking, where we indeed have something to lose, this sort of action is of virtual non-existence in our world.

In our process of becoming, we are either growing or decaying, and there are few other conditions in our lives that drive us to growth than true love: both for ourselves and for others.  Indeed, love is a necessary precondition for growth even when it is not the primary driver. But this has been discussed already, and we shall leave it at that for the time being. Instead, our present discussion will revolve around the nature and pragmatics of love, as Peck defines it, and especially the need to take risks for the sake of others (we have covered risk-taking for the self in Discernment and Risk-Taking).

We shall begin be looking at love for others in the context of risk-taking by examining the archetype of love, the Christ. Vladimir Lossky, the Orthodox theologian, writes “The perfection of the person consists in self-abandonment: the person expresses itself most truly in that it renounces to exist for itself. It is the self-emptying of the Person of the Son, the Divine.” Continuing, Lossky quotes St Cyril of Alexandria, “The entire mystery of economy {that is, the divine economy} consists in the self-emptying and abasement of the Son of God.”

With the image of Christ as our aspiration, we must then consider how void we are of the will to abase and empty ourselves. Being created in the image of God, we do not lack the capacity to act in such a manner, but separated from the Divine by sin, that is by the aversion of our will toward the Divine, we do not practice the activity of love by nature, habit, or instinct. Self-emptying requires us to overcome the Ego (here we use this term in the true psychological sense and not the colloquial sense). But we cannot conquer the Ego, which means that each act of love, each act of self-abasement for the sake of another requires us to overcome the Ego anew.

Hence, Peck insists that love implies commitment. The Ego is resilient, and in fact it exists for our own survival. A healthy Ego is necessary for a healthy, functional adult human being. Yet even the healthy Ego must be overcome in order to love. In many ways, this causes human love to mirror divine love. God must, in a sense, continually overcome his nature of perfection in order to love the imperfect creation. We must continually overcome our nature, putting aside our survival instinct (the primary purpose of the Ego) in order to love another person who is in some way competing with us for survival. This means that if we do love somebody, we are committed to continually engaging in this process of extending ourselves for them, in spite of the risks, and that we will not just disappear when it becomes difficult.

Consequently, all love requires taking this chronic risk. As Christ took the chronic risk of separation from the other Persons of the Godhead, with whom he had been in perpetual communion from all of Eternity, so we must take the chronic risk against our survival instinct.

In each particular act of love, though, we must also take acute risks, the ramifications of which might involve extraordinary and lasting pain to ourselves. But Christ also faced numerous acute risks in the extension of himself on behalf of all humanity. Certainly the pain of his torture, the betrayal of his friends, the agony of his mother, the mockery and scorn, the uncertainty of being passed back and forth between the Romans and Herod, the humiliation of hanging naked on the Cross were not at all insignificant parts of Christ’s experience of human suffering, which he endured for the sake of others.

Here we must pause and consider a rather vital distinction, lest we become dangerously confused. Not all suffering is an act of love. Not all sacrifice is an act of self-emptying for another’s spiritual growth. Indeed, society is filled with masochists who derive bizarre gratification of the Ego out of the pretense of martyrdom. This sick selfishness is a wholly unhealthy form of behavior that parades itself as the paragon of piety, unleashing emotional and spiritual destruction on many a well-meaning person and often also enabling (through codependency) sociopaths and narcissists the world over. Thus, it is imperative that we look at self-abasement from a teleological perspective, that is, to what end is our self-emptying set? It must, unequivocally, be toward the spiritual/psychological growth of another person, not merely the fulfillment of his wants and desires. This distinction shall serve as the starting point for a future discussion, but is sufficient for our present purposes.

Returning to our legitimate self-emptying, we most consider the particulars of each circumstance in which we have opportunity to extend ourselves for the growth of another person. The risks we face can include:

  1. Being perceived as disappointing somebody
  2. Causing immediate pain to another person that they need in order to grow (perhaps by pointing out a painful fact about them, by giving ‘tough love’ that they perceive to be abandonment or betrayal, etc)
  3. The loss to ourselves of cathexis or friendship with the person we are trying to help grow, either because their reaction to our act of extension is deeply negative or because we are perhaps trying to break off an unhealthy form of codependency
  4. The loss of social standing
  5. Exposure of our own weaknesses, shortcomings, and misdoings
  6. Financial/material loss
  7. Alienation from family and friends who may not even be directly involved in the particular situation
  8. The non-realization of our own wants and desires, the shattering of our own dreams

The last risk is perhaps the most frightening for us because it is difficult to quantify. Most mature adults are able to bear losses of known impact, such as financial loss or the loss of a relationship. Though we may not relish such losses, we are equipped to deal with them, to cope, adjust, and recover. But when we consider our wants and desires, those emotions that motivate us in our core, to think risking that they may not come to fruition due to our intentional actions, this can become a risk we consider to great to take on another’s behalf, and yet these are the risks most rewarding to take, that will propel the other person to the most growth, and undoubtedly, cause ourselves to grow too. Most importantly, though, this risk-taking love is central to our vocation and to our imitation of Christ.

Peck also notes the importance of wisdom in our love. Sometimes it may be easy to perceive something we are doing (or refraining from doing) as loving, even if it is not. We must devote a significant amount of our energies to discerning whether our actions are genuinely to help the other person to grow or if we are merely doing it for our own selfish reasons. Since life is full of “win win” scenarios, it can be difficult to ascertain our own motives in many cases. It is vital, then, that we parse out the details of our proposed actions, carefully discerning our motives, the possible outcomes, and the risks involved. This act of careful consideration is itself an act of love, because we are devoting our precious time to prepare our actions.

Shakespeare perhaps does this subject the greatest service in his Sonnet 116,

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.