I teach Theology at a Catholic high school. The next question I usually get when I confess this strange truth is, “Soooo, what exactly do you teach?” If that’s what you’re thinking, the answer is that, essentially, I am charged with explaining God to eighth, ninth, and twelfth graders. More specifically, I try to explain what the Catholic Church believes about God, and therefore about life, our existence, and how we should interact with God and with each other. That is what I do all day, five days a week. It’s impossible, and I love it.
This job forces me to spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy thinking about the idea of love (love being very central to all the above-mentioned theological topics). But here’s the thing: how, exactly, does one explain and teach about love? That’s one of the greatest challenges of this particular subject, because, of course, you can only go so far in explaining love. Love has to be shown, lived, experienced.
As I’m trying to figure out how to both show and teach about love, I am also preparing for my wedding. That means that I am practicing loving my fiancé, Chris, and am experiencing the many, varied, and often-surprising ways that he loves me. We are deciding how best to show and celebrate what we believe about love in our wedding ceremony. We are trying to respond to the love we receive from one another by pouring out that abundant joy in our relationships with others. I am learning a lot about love right now, and completely expect (and hope!) that I will keep learning for the rest of my life.
Still, even with this growth in understanding, trying to teach about love—about what love truly is—continues to be one of the biggest challenges of this job. My students have a lot of others sources telling them what love is, and most of it is misleading at best, and seriously dangerous at worst. So many of the movies, and books, and TV shows, and music, and whatever else shapes their understanding, portray love as a feeling. They show that love is perhaps rooted in someone making me happy, or is an emotional response to someone I perceive to be good (good looking, smart, kind, wealthy—the kind of “good” varies). My small voice is competing with a lot of input on the subject.
Without fail, my students are shocked when I tell them I don’t think love is a feeling. While our positive emotions can make it easier to love, I think love, true love, is choice, is commitment, is action. It is the choice to choose the good of a person. It is the commitment to work for the good of every person I encounter, including Chris (who I encounter more than most anyone else), with my words and with my actions.
When it comes to this particular relationship, sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means telling him I think he’s wrong. Sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means responding with kindness and gentleness when he messes up. Sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means wrapping him up in all the affection and tenderness that I can pour out on him. Sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means making him dinner and cleaning up after we eat. Sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means letting him make me dinner and clean up too, because I believe that my good and his good are intimately bound up together.
While Chris does make me happy a lot of the time, I hope to love him even when he’s driving me up a wall. I hope to love him when I don’t feel great. I hope to love him even when I don’t like him very much. (I usually like him a whole lot, but still.)
I also hope to love other people when I don’t particularly feel loving toward them. I want to love people I can’t see any good in. I want to love people by seeing the good I believe is ours just because we’re human, not because we’ve done (or not done) anything. This one often applies to the way I view myself. I sometimes struggle to love myself when I can’t see much that’s good about me.
I work, every day, to try to teach a different understanding of love, an understanding of love that is not about physical attraction, or about how nice or smart or athletic a person is, or about a person’s merit in general. I work to help my students understand, experience, and live love that is based on one basic belief: every human being is precious, valuable, and needs to be treated with love. But, the best way I can teach them this very important truth is by loving my students, loving Chris, and loving myself well. Only in loving and being loved can I hope to teach what love is.