Bob Van Oosterhout

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Love in Spirituality

Bob Van Oosterhout

August 23, 2009

Love at the Core

I believe that love is at the core of spirituality. It is a central message in the writings of every major religion. It is also ultimately what works best over the long term in every situation we face. Spirituality without love is an empty shell that may be smooth and attractive on the surface but easily cracks and collapses into fragments under the pressure and distractions of daily life.

Love is our Nature

I believe love is our true nature. We often hear the comment "That’s just human nature" to describe weakness, frailty, greed, or impulsiveness. These are common human responses, but they are greatly influenced by culture and perception as well as the belief that human nature is essentially flawed. It’s like saying that the nature of an oak tree is to be stunted and spindly based on seeing one growing on the north side of a dry, rocky slope with little sun or moisture. The true nature of an oak tree (when it receives proper nourishment) is to send roots deep into the earth so it can develop a solid trunk that forms a strong foundation for arching branches that reach for and absorb the warming rays of the sun.

It makes sense that the most effective approach to resolving human conflict would also put us in touch with our true nature. Providing counseling to families, couples, and individuals struggling with relationships for over thirty-three years has taught me that simply removing obstacles to love is sufficient to restore a sense of peace and fulfillment to any relationship. (Although the process is simple, it is not necessarily easy.) Research clearly documents that people who are involved in committed, loving relationships and/or volunteer to serve others, live longer, are physically and emotionally healthier, and report greater life satisfaction than those who don’t. Love works because it is our nature.

Love is our Purpose

If our nature is to love, then the purpose of life is to deepen our capacity to love. One could argue that our world is well suited to challenge us in this endeavor. Love must be freely chosen. Many aspects of our world pressure and entice us to choose against love. This creates risk and causes pain. Choosing to love in spite of risk and pain increases our capacity to love. Love wins either way (when we choose it). Our capacity to love deepens when love is reciprocated, it deepens even more when we continue to love when it is not.

What is Love?

Simply put, love is a commitment to the fulfillment of others. It is a process of repeatedly choosing to act in ways that serve the best long-term interest of others to enable them to realize their gifts and potential. This is, of course, very different from doing what others want or makes them feel good in the short term.

There are many levels of commitment in love. We commit most deeply to our partner and children. But love that stops there can become self-serving which is actually the opposite of love. Our love for someone cannot be true if it undermines our own or other’s best long-term interests or fulfillment. The nature of love is to grow and expand, much like the oak tree described above.

Erich Fromm wrote "Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude. ...Because one does not see that love is an activity, a power of the soul, one believes that all that is necessary to find is the right object - and that everything goes by itself afterward. This attitude can be compared to that of a man who wants to paint but who, instead of learning the art, claims that he has just to wait for the right object, and that he will paint beautifully when he finds it. If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life." (Fromm, Erich The Art of Loving, Harper and Row, 1956, p 38-39)

Love is more powerful even than death. We can continue to love others and feel loved by them after they have left this life.


Obstacles to Love:

The opposite of love is self-centeredness. It is impossible to find a truly loving action that serves our own needs and desires at the expense of another. We are incapable of love to the extent that we focus exclusively on our own needs. Living in a world that emphases safety and short-term self-satisfaction creates obstacles that are often hidden or disguised to look like love. Being clear about the long-term effects of these choices makes it easier to love.

Challenges to Love:

Many of us struggle with situations and conditions that present very challenging opportunities to deepen our capacity to love. Pain, anxiety and fear pull our focus and attention inward, whereas love draws us outward. Our tendency when hurting, anxious, or afraid is to pull back and protect ourselves. There are situations where our survival may be dependent on this. However, when pain, anxiety or fear become chronic, they narrow our focus so that personal safety and comfort begin to dominate our vision.

Pain, anxiety and fear become chronic when we resist them. We tense our muscles in attempt to suppress fear, control anxiety and resist pain. This tension actually increases fear, anxiety, and pain by focusing our thoughts on our suffering as we diminish our body’s ability to recover from it. Fear, anxiety, and pain are also part of our nature. They diminish and become manageable as we accept them without resistance.

Choosing to Love:

Love involves choosing how we view others as well as ourselves, our situations and our conditions. Choosing love allows us to transcend fear, anxiety, and pain and move them into the background. This can be a very challenging and difficult process. But with practice and commitment, even the most complicated and painful situations can lead to greater fulfillment.

A good friend of mine died from lung cancer a number of years ago. I remember talking to him on the phone in the last week of his life. He was telling me how blessed he felt because so many people were expressing their love for him. The visiting nurse interrupted our conversation to ask him his pain level on a ten-point scale. He paused for a moment, then said to the nurse "ten." After another brief pause, he returned to our conversation saying, "I am so blessed."

Spirituality of Love:

Spirituality takes us beyond ourselves and connects us with the universe. Love is the vehicle that brings about this unity. Living a spirituality of love day-to-day involves a process of becoming totally and fully ourselves, no matter where we are or what condition we are in. This becomes easier when we realized that each one of us, and all of us as a whole were created from love so that we may love.

The most important thing in life is to realize that we are fully and completely loved at every moment and that love seeks to move through us to others. When we practice choosing to perceive and act through eyes of love, we begin to realize that love is the most powerful force in the universe and that life presents each one of us a continuing opportunity to unite with that love.