Have you ever found it difficult to love someone? Because let’s face it, some people are hard to love. And while we’re being honest, let’s confess that for as many people we find hard to love, we too are unlovable creatures in equal measure. (Yes it’s true, not everybody loves you and that’s ok…deep breaths).
It’s a human dilemma, I suppose. Sometimes love comes naturally and uncontrollably, and other times it’s a choice: will I choose to love this person even though my first instinct is to reject him or her? The choice itself is difficult; and if we choose rightly, the follow-through can be a real challenge.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus makes the imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves the greatest commandment—it runs contrary to our human tendency to love only those whom we find pleasing.
The Greek word for love used in this context is agape, which C.S. Lewis defined as charity in his book The Four Loves. Agape is the kind of unconditional love God has for humankind, despite our occasional unlovable-ness, and is the same kind of love we’re commanded to offer one another.
Lewis said that this kind of love is less about emotion, and more a matter of the will (if emotion follows, then even better). That’s not to say that agape is inauthentic or forced love; instead this kind of love is about willing ourselves to see the image of God in others as a reminder they are unconditionally loved just as we are.
Sometimes the most unlovable people are those who have never experienced agape, and their behavior is an outward reflection of the denial of love. If I choose not to love them, I am no better than complicit in their poor behavior. (Just to be clear though, choosing to love someone doesn’t mean that we must accept or dismiss abusive behavior. People must be accountable for their actions). We practice agape when we consider their story—not as an excuse but as an explanation for their behavior.
A few years ago, I came across an arresting poem that speaks to this point. It traces the story of David Ricardo from an unloved child, to an unlovable classmate, and finally to a revenge-filled adult driven to a horrendous crime.
by Mary Karr
Before David Ricardo stabbed his daddy
sixteen times with a fork—Once
for every year of my fuckwad life—he’d long
showed signs of being bent.
In school, he got no Valentine nor birthday
cake embellished with his name
On Halloween, a towel tied around his neck
was all he had to be a hero with.
He spat in the punchbowl and smelled like a foot.
His forehead was a ledge
he leered beneath. When I was sent to tutor him
in geometry, so he might leave
(at last) ninth grade, he sat running pencil lead
beneath his nails.
If radiance shone from those mudhole eyes,
I missed it. Thanks, David
for your fine slang. You called my postulates
post holes; your mom endured
ferocious of the liver. Plus you ignored—
when I saw you wave at lunch—
my flinch. Maybe by now you’re ectoplasm,
or the zillionth winner of the Texas
death penalty sweepstakes. Or you occupy
a locked room with a small
round window held fast by rivets, through which
you are watched. But I hope
some organism drew your care—orchid
or cockroach even, some inmate
in a wheelchair whose steak you had to cut
since he lacked hands.
In this way, the unbudgeable stone
that plugged the tomb hole
in your chest could roll back, and in your sad
slit eyes could blaze
that star adored by its maker.
The truth is that we all know a David Ricardo, or someone we chose not to love. Mine was Susan Browning. She wet her pants in second grade and claimed I was her distant relative. She had a peculiar smell; a mix of sour and sweet, masked by stale secondhand smoke. Like my classmates, I distanced myself, returning her eager wave with a forced smile that I hoped went unnoticed—by her even, because maybe then she’d give up on me. And my conscience could rest easy knowing that at least I tried.
I had long since forgotten about Susan, but a few years ago I heard that she died, possibly by suicide or maybe it was an unintentional drug overdose. Perhaps her children had drawn her care, and I hoped that in the act of loving those vulnerable creatures, she somehow understood that she too was loved, even if no one ever showed it to her. It was an audacious, guilty hope; for in failing to recognize the image of God in Susan, I forgot the greatest commandment.
Sometimes it’s hard to love people. And sometimes, we’re hard to love. But when we offer agape to one another as we’re commanded to do, life’s narrative changes. We’ll continue to fail, and tragedies like David Ricardo’s or Susan Browning’s will persist. But the choice to love is ours. Imagine the tales that we could weave when we choose see the image of God in each other. Maybe then “the unbudgeable stone that plugs the tomb hole in our chests could roll back and in our eyes could blaze the star adored by our maker.”