How do I love thee and not count the ways?

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace."

-- from Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

When someone you love asks, "Why do you love me?" what is an acceptable answer?

 

This question was posed to me in a philosophy of mind course I took this summer in Chicago. It was during one of those wonderful moments after the class session had concluded for the day, and those who were not in a hurry would hang around and continue to engage the professor in conversation.

 

The issue at hand was the philosophical problem of personal identity. What makes you 'you' or someone else 'them'? The "reasons for love question" that the professor used was an interesting way of approaching this. Briefly, it goes something like this: If someone you love asks, "Why do you love me?" the obvious response would be to name qualities of the person you find endearing or attractive. You might say that they are beautiful or smart or fun to be around. Suppose when you say this, your beloved gets upset, saying, "So I'm just a list of qualities to you? If someone else had the same qualities you love in me, would you love them just as much?" Trying to save yourself, you might quickly object that you love them for all the meaningful experiences you shared together. Still this is not enough. If someone with the same qualities shared the same experiences with you, would you love them just as much?" And so you're apparently stuck! Who is this person you love and what makes them who they are? It seems our language fails.

 

At some point in the conversation, I interjected a spontaneous, somewhat flippant comment: "I would say to them, 'I love you just because I choose to...because I will it!'" To this, someone replied that while my response might be technically accurate, it wouldn't get you far in a relationship. We all laughed and soon departed.

 

During my hour long commute by the Chicago "L" back to the priory where I was staying, I continued to muse on this question. I wasn't thinking specifically, though, about the philosophical question of personal identity. I was wanting to prove to myself that I was right! Why isn't my comment--I love you because I choose to--an edifying answer? After all, I thought, isn't this the way that God loves us? God does not love us because of any special quality or act that we do. God loves us because He is good and loving and chooses to pour out His love on us! We all like to think we're special, or we sometimes think that we have to earn or compete for God's attention and love (Pelagian alert!). But no, it's pure gift. God chooses to love us. Although we don't deserve it, are not entitled to it, we are God's beloved. We are honored to be the objects of God's love. And the more I reflect on this amazing reality, the more I am in awe.

 

So, in those grace-filled circumstances when I reflect in some measure this Godly love in my human relationships, what a marvelous thing that is. I can turn to a friend, family member, or anyone I'm close to and say: "I love you. It's not because of the way you look, or the contents of your mind, or some aspect of your personality. While these are endearing things, they are passing, changing, and even if I could count them all, the sum of them still wouldn't be you. I love you because I choose to. I have chosen to give myself to you, I have committed my love to you. Others have taken a chance on me and continued to love me even when I was barely lovable or was undeserving of their love. Just so, I take chance on you, because you're worth it. You are worth choosing." Is this not the sort of stuff that makes the tears flow at marriage proposals and in Hallmark movies? Yet, I don't think this is romantic fluff. This is the love we first experience from God--who is Love--and which we mirror in our relationships with one another. This is what the children of the King of Love do.

 

"See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are."

-- 1 John 3:1