Most baby boomers will remember the famous line from the movie “Love Story” in the 70s: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. Like so many popular catchphrases it sounded really great on the surface. If you love someone you will never hurt them and hence, never need to apologize. But as we contemplate that more deeply, it’s a line and an attitude that, in my humble opinion, has actually been rather damaging.
The expectation that we will never hurt someone we love is rooted in idealism, fantasy, and a pathetic misunderstanding of fallen human nature. Expecting such perfection can lead to extreme disillusionment and the severing of relationships that, in many cases, could have been salvaged. One can see how this attitude and the divorce mentality that took root in the 60s and 70s are related.
Now, don’t get me wrong, not hurting the ones we love is a laudable goal for which we should strive with great effort. But expecting such perfection is something we should not. We’re flawed creatures working out our salvation through our mistakes and challenges. Each fall can call us up higher and closer to our ultimate goal of sanctity. Marriage and family life is the stage upon which we grow through those very faults, misunderstandings and, most importantly, forgiveness.
Today we have a permissive generation that seems to believe that love means applauding every choice we make, no matter how destructive or dysfunctional it may be. Disagreeing implies intolerance or, even worse, bigotry.
I remember a conversation with a divorced friend years ago. He was a very nice person who loved his children and was a good friend to me and many others. He went to Mass regularly and was trying to be a better person. His marriage had ended because of his infidelity which he very candidly admitted. When he later got involved with a woman and told me he was moving in with her, I was silent. He knew where I stood on the issue so there was really nothing for me to say. But my silence hit a nerve and he accused me of being judgmental. His oldest daughter had been deeply hurt by the divorce (as children invariably are) and had some big problems in relationships as a result. Since he clearly wanted me to reply, this is what I said: “You think you’re a good driver. Maybe you are. But I see you headed for a tree with your kids unbuckled in the front seat. Your daughter has already been through the windshield once. I don’t think what you’re doing is a good idea and I fear how the example you’re setting for your kids will affect them.“
Now you may wonder if we remained friends. We did. Sure, he was mad for a little while. But the truth was he knew I really cared about him. I did…too much to just act like what he was doing was a good thing. That relationship finally ended after quite a few years of unhappiness and counseling attempts that could not solve a problem whose very root was the real issue. The woman he lived with was by then in her mid 40’s, child bearing years behind her, and devastated. And yes, the kids were affected…
Loving someone means telling them the truth…with love and compassion. Making a judgment about what’s right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, profitable or risky is different from “being judgmental”. As followers of Christ, we’re called to love- in spirit and in truth. What we say, and more importantly how we say it, can make a big difference for someone. Sometimes we should remain silent. They may not be ready to hear the truth. In those cases we pray, love and wait patiently. But when we do voice our disagreement, it doesn’t mean we sever our ties. Far from it. They may be angry. They may rebel. They may put distance between you. But, if you spoke the truth lovingly, they’ll know you care and will eventually realize they can, like the prodigal son, return to your embrace if, and when, they “come to their senses.” We’re called to love. Sometimes that means letting the prodigals go, but always continuing to pray unceasingly for them.
We need to understand, and help others to understand, that “sin” is a simple way of classifying what is not ultimately good for the human person or for humanity. Too many people think the Church came up with a bunch of arbitrary rules and regulations, which, like flaming hoops, they expect us to jump through to prove our blind loyalty and obedience to an out of touch, patriarchal institution. It’s an adolescent view of authority that, sadly, many people have not outgrown. We live now in an increasingly fatherless culture rebelling against the fathers who may have failed or abandoned them, while at the same time clamoring for big daddy government to provide for their every need, and agree with and indulge all of their desires.
The very essence of love is truth. Love means telling the truth and not feeling compelled to agree out of fear of rejection or ridicule. In the end that’s not being loving but selfish, protecting your relationship out of your own fear of rejection or abandonment. Real love means never having to say “I agree with you” but lovingly telling the truth. As the Emperor parades naked through the streets, applauding his outfit does him no favors. Telling him he’s naked does.
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