Love, the One Thing Necessary?

We have positive psychology to thank for bringing the concept of virtue back into psychological discussions. Representatives of the movement define virtue as “a disposition to act, desire, and feel that involves the exercise of judgment and leads to a recognizable human excellence” (Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2009, p. 26).
Love, as a virtue, is an ideal for which one can strive. It is something capable of directing one’s life and giving it meaning. It has the character of an ultimate destination, of a quality that cannot be checked off on a to-do list. The mindset that would say, “Love my children… ok, done!” doesn’t seem like authentic love.
It is the nature of ideals to be ever unattained and yet capable of being sought in daily, concrete actions. Love itself is such an ideal. If one considers the impact it makes on one’s self-understanding, the effect is immense. What kind of worker do you want to be? Bring love into the mix, and new vistas arise. What kind of spouse, or parent, or friend? Again, all these areas are united in one common necessity, love. Love is the parent of the other virtues: it produces kindness, compassion, understanding, patience, and so on, all the ideals that have acted as guides for our behavior from time immemorial, across every culture.
When one thinks of a force that allows us to act no matter how we may feel at the moment, what is a clearer example than love? The self-sacrificing love of a parent staying up through the night with a sick child is an icon of how love causes one to forget oneself when necessary. The parent has desires for his or her own well being that are entirely legitimate; and with love, these needs are willingly set aside. Love produces a freedom from one’s own needs and desires for oneself.
While loving is a goal and destination for our behavior, it is unique in that it is both a passive response – i.e. to the good in another person or thing – and an active one. It is something one experiences and something one does.
Mindfulness practitioners have long used an exercise called “loving-kindness” to make contact with this passive and active nature of love. In this practice, described well in The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety (p. 204-5), one allows the feeling of loving-kindness to be aroused by the sight of the sufferings of a person – perhaps a person one knows, or a person one has seen on TV. One brings to mind clearly the person and their suffering, and allows the heart to respond with love. Next, one tries to extend this love from one’s heart to the person, as imagined, so that they are no longer suffering alone. One stays with them, actively communicating, as it were, the love to them. In both East and West, this practice has been around for millennia. For example, it is the precise method used by Christian mystics to meditate on the passion of Christ.
Love has two movements, the positive psychologists of old (Francis de Sales, for instance) used to say: one of acceptance, and one of benevolence. Love-as-acceptance embraces things as they are, as a whole, and responds to the good in them; love-as-benevolence seeks to serve in whatever ways one can. Love orients a person to service, and is not content until it has descended into concrete actions. It also orients a person to being mindfully present to others, able to savor and appreciate them in their entirety. Love keeps a person in the present moment, for that is the only place where one can savor or serve.
Regardless of what issue one is facing, I would say with certainty that if one can make love a motive force for addressing it, both the ends and the means will become clear. Getting over panic attacks, or OCD, just to be without panic or obsessions is a negative strategy, for the implied goal – to have no more anxiety – has no positive content to it, and does not constitute an end-in-itself. Instead, if one views it from the viewpoint of what love is asking, of what love for others is urging, we can always find concrete behaviors that emotional avoidance is leading us to omit. Doing these actions for the sake of love, no matter how one feels, is the essence of what we call commitment. Learning at the same time to have compassion on oneself, and on the difficult emotions one is having, is the form of love called acceptance. Practiced together, they make for psychological health; and, more importantly, they make us free to truly savor and serve the good that surrounding us.