How Are We To Be Here In Love?

We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them.
– I John 4:16
But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.
– Vincent van Gogh
Love is saying yes to belonging.
– David Steindl-Rast

Love has inspired great deeds and great arguments throughout human history. Many people have written opinions, songs, poems, and plays about it. Yet, still we hardly understand it. Each of us, it seems, must work out what love means for us in our own lives. There is no doubt, however, that love has a claim on us from our very beginnings, both as individuals and as a species.

Mary Oliver (2008) has written a poem about her dog “who loved flowers…her wet nose touching the face of every one.” In the poem, Oliver reflects on how her dog “adored every blossom, not in the serious, careful way we love or don’t love” and she expresses her longing to be “that happy in the heaven of earth – that wild, that loving. (“Luke,” Redbird, pp. 2-3).

“That loving” may be the longing we each hold, but unfortunately for us, we live in a reality where roses have thorns. Loving with abandon can lead to painful wounds.

How might our emerging Universe Story help us to love better and more wisely? For me, the story of our evolving, expanding Universe first of all helps me to place myself within the source of love; helps me, as the Christian Gospel writer John suggests, “to abide” there in the mystery of belonging to which Steindl-Rast alludes in his definition of love.

Many of the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible are about learning to trust in the abiding presence of the God who is love. As the psalmist wrote, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or when can I flee from you presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there;…For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139: 7-8, 13).

Secondly, coming at love from the perspective of the unfolding Universe helps me to grasp the need to know more about our own unfolding as humans. Some people ask, “How can there be a God who is love when there is so much suffering in the world?” Perhaps it is not that the love which holds us all is not to be trusted, but rather that we have stopped being attentive to how to nurture consciousness of what it means to be loved and to love in our young; we have robbed them of the capacity to grow toward maturity in ways that are psychologically healthy and lead to each person being able to “abide in love” with others.

Recently, a work colleague introduced me to the book by Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams. The book, published in 2000, explores the stages of human psychosocial development, the questions of meaning and belonging that arise within those stages, and our Western society’s failure to adequately mentor our young people in negotiating the process of growth toward the full potential offered by adulthood. Daloz Parks writes:

[H]uman becoming absolutely depends upon the quality of interaction between the person and his or her social world…We “interlive” with many others. Just as the infant depends upon a network of others for confirmation of a universe of care and promise, even so everyone throughout life is dependent upon a tangible “network of belonging” (p. 89).

Daloz Parks goes on to say that each of us throughout our lives needs “a psychological home,” made up not of physical walls but of  “the intricate patterns of connection and interaction” that exist between and among us and the people we trust.  

In another poem, Oliver sees this world in which we live as one of “hope and risk” (p. 67).  How we negotiate our way through it seems to rest, as Dalos Parks suggests, in how well the community to which we belong has helped to shape our ability to harbor hope and to negotiate risk. Daloz Parks explains this process in more detail using the research of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson.  In Erikson’s view, our human unfolding occurs through eight biological ages. Each age, or stage of life, has a series of tasks associated with it. The stages and their challenges listed briefly are:

  1. Infancy: trust vs. mistrust
  2. Toddlerhood: autonomy vs. shame
  3. Early school age: industry vs. inferiority
  4. Later school age: initiative vs. guilt
  5. Adolescence: identity vs. role confusion
  6. Young adulthood: intimacy vs. isolation
  7. Adulthood: generativity vs. stagnation
  8. Later adulthood: ego integrity vs. despair.

Daloz Parks notes that the tasks in our unfolding as humans seem repeatedly to deal with negotiating trust and power. Successful negotiation of the tasks at each stage aligns with the words on the left: trust, autonomy, industry, etc. If the task at each stage is taken up and successfully achieved, we are able to live in the world in the blessed knowledge “that one is held well and that one can affect one’s world.”  In this case, we not only do, but as John wrote, come to know that we do abide in God’s love.

If the tasks of each life stage are not taken up and negotiated successfully, and we must recall here that our initial experience is one of total dependence on our caregivers in the early years for much of this work, then the result is a life approached through a fundamental stance of mistrust, shame, guilt, and feelings of inferiority.

As Daloz Parks observes, to resolve these life tasks in the positive way that leads to such key experiences as trust, autonomy, identity, intimacy, generativity, and ego identity “honors the potential of human life.” Unfortunately, however, particularly in our Western culture, we have lost sight of how necessary human nurturing through relationship is to an infant’s ability to develop the fundamental capacity to trust. My life experience has shown me over and over that failure in this crucial step leaves an individual incapable of entering and being in relationship. A person whose orientation to life is marked by mistrust, shame, guilt, and a sense of inferiority cannot hope in nor run the risk of relationship beyond self; he or she cannot experience a sense of belonging, cannot abide in love.

Ancient, nature-based human communities knew and know still even today that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Today, in many industrialized Western homes, parents let televisions do it. And then we wonder, “Why is there so little love in the world?”

Capra, F. and Steindl-Rast, D. (1991). Belonging to the universe, San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco. [Opening quote p. 57]

Daloz Parks, S. (2000). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. [1st edition] Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Oliver, M. (2008) Red bird. Boston, MA: Beacon.

Van Gogh, V. Cited Oliver, M. (2008) Red bird. Boston, MA: Beacon.

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