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What is the meaning of the word 'love'? 17 February 2019

Dr Susan Pawlby, clinical developmental psychologist and couple counsellor and a longstanding member of the congregation at St Alfege Church

Grant, O Lord, that the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.

My text this morning is taken from St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 22, verses 37 and 38.

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This the great and first Commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

What is the meaning of the word ‘love’?

The Greek language has at least six different words for ‘love’. 
1. Philia: companionable love, the relationship between two people, usually equals, where both their happiness is paramount.
2. Eros: intimate love, sexual passion.
3. Agape: self-less love, gentle, caring, unconditional love, the love of God for man and man for God.
4. Storge: affection, especially between parents and children and family relationships.
5. Pragma: long-standing love, often seen in people who have been married for a long time.
6. Philautia: self-love – in its healthy form this empowers the individual, giving self-esteem; but in its unhealthy form can lead to selfishness that wants pleasure, fame, and wealth beyond what one needs. 

I want to spend a moment looking at this last form of love, ‘philautia’.

As Christians we are often taught that we should be loving and caring, putting others before ourselves – Agape.

But I would argue that it is difficult to love others if we don’t love ourselves. This does not mean that we should see ourselves as all-important, verging on the narcissistic, but rather that the love of ourselves, our belief in ourselves, empowers each one of us, as an individual, making us confident members of society.

One of the most disturbing discussions in today’s media is of young people ending their own lives. They have been driven to the depths of despair, alone, with feelings that they are unworthy of love from others or of self-love.

Only when we have this confidence in ourselves, can we begin to have love for our neighbour and begin to fulfil the 2nd Commandment: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

I should like to take this opportunity, around Valentine’s Day, of sharing with you why this 2nd Commandment is of such vital importance. 

Why does love matter?

Many of you will know that I am a developmental psychologist and that my particular interest is in the foetus and the new born. In fact several of you have come with your new born babies to participate in my lectures. 

Over the last decades we have learned that we cannot ignore the impact of emotions on our development. As we have sought improvements in the quality of our lives, in terms of comfort, literacy, entertainment, mass communication and longevity, we have neglected ‘human feeling’.

I myself was reminded of this three decades ago when our daughter, Lucy, then aged 4, having completed her first week of school, said something about crying. Wanting to show her that I was listening, I said, “So, did you want to cry?”. She replied, “Don’t be silly, mummy, I didn’t want to cry, I just feeled crying”. She did not yet know the past tense of the verb ‘to feel’, but she already knew the difference between ‘to want’ and ‘to feel’.

And so, to start at the very beginning of life…. The Greek love, ‘storge’.

Babies share in their parents’ emotional lives both before and after birth. The kind of brain that each baby develops is the brain that comes out of his or her particular experiences with people. Each new baby is moulded to the environmental niche in which he finds himself, both as a foetus and as a new born. When a baby looks at his mother’s or father’s face and sees a smile, his own nervous system, in the same way as that of his mother or father,  is pleasurably aroused and his heart rate goes up. This triggers a chemical response (endorphins and dopamine) that helps the social brain to grow.

This poem by Dorothy Law Nolte summarises the importance of love.

Children Learn What They Live
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

Copyright © 1972 by Dorothy Law Nolte

Our earliest relationships with our own primary caregivers set the stage for our future emotional life

But fortunately we do not just need to rely on our parents and caregivers. God is also there at the very beginning, and God saw that his Creation was GOOD, indeed VERY GOOD (Genesis chapter1).

As Desmond Tutu writes in his book, ‘Made for Goodness’, goodness changes the way that we see the world, the way that we see others, and most importantly the way we see ourselves. This affects our relationships with one another and how we treat people. Each kindness enhances the quality of life. Each cruelty diminishes it. 

Let us then go out into the world following Jesus’ new commandment; St John’s Gospel, chapter 13, verses 34 and 35.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you love one another. By this, all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Dr Susan Pawlby, 18/02/2019
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