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Image for The Meaning of Love


Clearing Away Obstacles to Love

Lynn Underwood

What attitudes and motivations prevent us from truly giving and receiving love?

Senior Research Scholar, Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University
May 30, 2016

It is wonderful to receive the kind of love that accepts us as we are and wants good things for us, freely given and with the best of motives. But sometimes we sense that someone is giving something to us or doing something for us in order to make themselves feel bigger, or in order to get the upper hand as they look down on us. And sometimes people do things for us in a tit-for-tat kind of way, expecting us to return the favor. These actions just don’t quite hit the spot in terms of making us feel loved.

The Motivation to Love

Motivation and attitude are important. None of us have absolutely pure motives or attitudes, but the more another person’s motivation is truly centered on my flourishing rather than centered on what’s in it for them, the more the love contributes to my well being in important ways.

It takes a certain degree of self awareness to clearly see our own motives as we give to others. In order for us to be able to grow in effective love, we must take a good hard look at what is driving the bus of our motivation.

What Gets in the Way of Loving Others?: Control, Power, and Image Management

When I asked people to describe, in a research project, their experience of expressing compassionate love, I asked them what got in the way of loving others fully, even when ‘doing good’ by acting altruistically towards the other person.1

Of the motives they mentioned, three seem particularly relevant here:

  • control of others through their indebtedness
  • desire to exercise power over others
  • desire to reinforce a positive image of self and feelings of superiority

They said that these motives definitely got in the way of love being fully expressed if they dominated the impulse.

We have a natural tendency to want to feel superior and in control, to “be on top,” or to “have our act together” before others. There is a buzz we can get from having the upper hand. I worked for years as a philanthropist, and these attitudes can really dog people who do that kind of work. But that environment only highlights a tendency we all face.

Love and the Recognition of Our Common Humanity

One thing that can help to clear our motivations and free up our ability to love is to enhance our awareness of our common humanity. Realizing and recalling that we all are vulnerable humans, with weaknesses, some perhaps more visible than others, but there nevertheless. We are all needy of love and needy of connection with others, even if we pretend, even to ourselves, that this is not the case.

Dr. Pearl Oliner studied rescuers in the Holocaust and found that those who felt a sense of common humanity with other people were more likely to rescue Jews, rather than just stand by and allow circumstances to unfold. Rescuers and bystanders included both Protestants and Catholics. She found that the Catholics overall were more likely to have a community sense that extended beyond their own cultural and religious group. This sense of connection with others encouraged care for the others and action on their behalf, even when their own safety was at risk. Although the Protestants in general had less of a sense of common humanity with Jews overall, Protestant rescuers felt this community sense more than those that were bystanders.2 I find myself thinking, how frequently do I feel a connection with those who seem different than I am?


“[W]e are all in this together, have our own vulnerabilities, needs, and weaknesses, and have much to learn from one another.”

This awareness of our connection with others is not just helpful in extreme situations like the Holocaust, but in our choices every day to help others. This sense of connection, of our common humanity, can encourage us to give of ourselves in ways that do not draw on those motives mentioned by the interviewees that get in the way. When we feel part of a common humanity, we are less likely to be motivated primarily by things like wanting to feel superior when we give to others, and we are less likely to be driven by desire for power over others or wanting to control them through indebtedness. We may think we do not ever have any of these detracting motives in our actions, but they can be there nevertheless.

We’re All in This Together

I heard an interview with Fr. Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, an organization that works with former gang members and previously incarcerated people in very creative ways, providing employment, training and counsel. He highlighted that over time, as the organization grew, he came to see more of a need for joining together with those people they were trying to help, rather than seeing a separation between helpers and those helped. Relationship in community helped them be more effective and this approach now plays a crucial role in the success of the work. Of course it is usually better to get some kind of help than to get none. But there is a way that we can give help that does not diminish those who receive the help, but is instead uplifting.

The motives of need for superiority, inculcating indebtedness, and assertion of a power balance need to be cleared out of the way as much as possible. I am tempted to use the word “humility” here, but that word gets such a bad rap, because it can so often be just a pretense, slathered over the top. It can be a useful word if it gets at a true realization that we are all in this together, have our own vulnerabilities, needs, and weaknesses, and have much to learn from one another.

The Polish poet Anna Swir provokes us to reflect on our orientation towards others in her poem, “The Same Inside.”3

The Same Inside

by Anna Swir

Walking to your place for a love feast
I saw at a street corner
an old beggar woman.

I took her hand,
kissed her delicate cheek,
we talked, she was
the same inside as I am,
from the same kind,
I sensed this instantly
as a dog knows by scent
another dog.

I gave her money,
I could not part from her.
After all, one needs
someone who is close.

And then I no longer knew
why I was walking to your place.

The woman in this poem found something in the relationship with the person who was begging that was very important to her, something worth hanging around for. She found that it was more important to enter into that relationship than fill her needs at the “love feast.” Somehow in realizing the common humanity with the old woman, that she was “the same inside,” she filled both her need for love and her desire to give love. She expressed this through giving money, but in the process she also received something precious from the other woman.

We clear away obstacles to love when we realize we are all in this together, we are part of a common human community, and that we are the same inside in so many ways.