Sometimes my son and I play a little word game. I will start with “I love you as high as the sky” and he will say “I love you as far as outer space.” That’s fairly standard mom-child fare, but then we see how weird we can get.
I love you as deep as the Mariana Trench.
I love you as loud as a rock band.
I love you as green as grass.
I love you as slimy as a banana slug.
I love you as quiet as silence.
I love you, inevitably, as smelly as a fart.
Our little game is about adjectives and nouns, of course. But it’s also about the ineffability of love. We measure EVERYTHING (thanks enlightenment). Why not love? How much. How big. How deep. The volume or area or mass of love of course cannot be measured. But what can we measure? How do we describe the experience of something we can give, receive, or long for in different ways, in varying degrees and textures?
Generativity: measuring love by our mutual thriving
What my little game with my son reveals is that love is measured by how close it is to our essence. The height of the sky, the greenness of grass, the quietness of silence—without those attributes, the entities would not be what they are. What I’m trying to tell my son is this: my love for you has made me me, and everything my being adds to this world is saturated in love for you.
To be made of love, at our core, is to have a place where the line disappears between giving and receiving, desire and sacrifice, you and me. It is participating in the unity of all things where loving you feeds me, heals me, nurtures me, because I am made of this stuff, and to fill you fills me. To touch you touches me. I am grass getting greener. I am a rock band rocking. There has to be a Source, of course, I cannot generate this kind of love from nowhere, but Source is inherent. It is freely given, and sometimes it flows back to you through others as well. Sometimes.
Like my love for my son defines me as a mother, our commitment to the next generation, our willingness to sacrifice and grow and rise to the occasion for them defines us as a species. Our love is measured by how our children thrive. Not just my children. Their classmates. The children of drought and famine. The children of Gaza. This love is intimate, because there’s a thriving unique to my, Bekah’s, place in the lives of my people, particularly my children. But it is global, because that love can blow you open to the role you play as part of humanity.
The wounds and scarcities of life might limit the ways I can show my love to my flesh and blood people in this oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen world. As bell hooks famously pointed out, love and care are not exactly the same. Care is how we show love, it can be fueled by love. It can put a measurement on love. You could say I love my children thousands of meals’ worth. But that’s not the essence of my love for them. The obligations and duties I take on as a mother wear me out. My insecurities make me draw back from friends when I should reach out. We all experience compassion fatigue. I get tired and cranky because energy, unlike love, is exhaustible. But love expands how far I can go, how many snacks I can make, how many nights I can stay awake. The love is that deep commitment to their thriving, to the eternal generative question: how can I nurture you best?
Growth: measuring love by its pervasiveness
My daughter recently asked me if I loved her more every day. “Of course!” I said.
“Does that mean you loved me less when I was a newborn?” she asked, like the tiny lawyer she is.
“I loved you minutes, then I loved you hours, then I loved you days, and now I love you years,” I said. “I’ve always loved you the most I could in that moment and as I’ve had more time, as you’ve gotten bigger, as we’ve both learned more, the love has grown with it.”
We’ve always used this logic to explain God’s love as well. God loves us totally, and since God’s totality is larger than our totality, God love us “more” than we could possibly love each other. But we grow in our connection to that infinite love, and that makes the love for each other bigger too. It makes us more patient, kinder, more confident, more content. It increases the number of things we can bear, believe, hope and endure. But even when those things are less in number or intensity, it’s still love taking us to the end of our capacity. This is why, when looking at our flawed loved ones, many times, we say “they’re doing the best they can.” The choice is up to us how to accept the love or put a boundary around the pain of a love so severely limited by unhealed wounds.
This whole equation depends, of course, on not withholding. It means not thinking of love primarily as a set of obligations to be met or desires to be fulfilled, checking boxes and going home. I think so much of our wobbly understanding of love comes from our desire to define the container we put love in (friend, parents, sibling, partner) rather than letting the love grow and leak into new dimensions. When we believe that nurture must come from biological parents, or intimacy only from a spouse. When we think that everything a person is to you has been settled by the label on the relationship. We end up casting a play wherein everyone must say their lines and hit their marks. We fire those who drop their lines, and limit what we will say and do for those who have not been cast for more.
But love that overflows those roles does so when all this unruly growth carries the love into and equally expanding spread of canopy and root. The love below expands to fuel the growth and blossoming above. The nutrients of companionship, admiration, camaraderie, desire, enlivenment, challenge, forgiveness, shelter, safety, affirmation, celebration, of seeing and being seen nurture different people in different ways, but the growth is undeniable. It could be a parent who we support as a friend. It could be the spouse who we let off the hook from being our most intimate confidant, without resentment. The question becomes: How should I expand to fuel your expansion?
Generosity: measuring love by its abundance
It was really tempting to use the word sacrifice here. Because in a world of scarcity, where there aren’t enough minutes or resources to meet every desire (sometimes even every need), someone is usually having to sacrifice for the good of someone else. But I think that when we frame it this way, we tend to think of what I lost as more significant than what you gained.
I might be wrong about this. How much it cost me to give you what you needed may be a better measure of the love I carry for you. But when I find myself in the philosophers quandary over “is there any truly selfless act” I wonder if I have missed the point. When I find myself thinking that love is only pure if it costs everything and gains nothing…I wonder why it’s so puny. Surely love, or Love in its godhood, has woven all our needs, desires, gifts together with more creativity than that. Can’t erotic love be a gift to the desired as well? Do my children feel the glow from the sense of pride I have in seeing them healthy and thriving? Do my friends feel nurtured by my delight in them? Biologically we know there’s a purpose to those good feelings that accompany the relationships necessary for the continuance of the species. What if our ethical, spiritual connections are just as mutual, but for the all too regular interruption of scarcity, the great opposer of Love?
I want that to be the case. I want to believe that our willingness to sacrifice is but one aspect of a love that is actually driven by mutual flourishing, and that rather than simply choosing to sacrifice because that’s what we’ve been told life is all about, we can get creative and find a way to let flourishing break through. Probably not all the time. I’ve got an entire book coming out about the cross-bearing this world requires. But in the places where we are not so far gone (that book is about our most intractable conflicts), I wonder if there’s a place to model the kind of love that, from its very strength generates life, healing, and shalom. Not because of its asceticism or its dutifulness, but because of its potency in asking: what can we delight to do for each other?