On Morality & Love
There’s a story of a man named Simeon in the Bible (see Luke 2:25-35) who was described as being “righteous and devout”.
What does it mean exactly, to be righteous and devout? I’ve got my personal stereotypes and caricatures that portray someone who is “holy”, meaning a bit emotionally cold or stoic, conditionally approachable, not very down-to-earth or relatable, probably intelligent, sophisticated, and rather arrogant. That’s the best description of the image I find that initially emerges into conscious awareness.
Well according to how Jesus answered a teacher of the law, the highest form of morality can be boiled down to love (see Mark 12:29-31). Sequentially and specifically; loving God with your whole inner and integrated being. And then Jesus adds an addendum that seems inseparable to the first command (and that’s much easier to measure) – ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
So, I think it’s safe to presume that being righteous and devout means loving an external, metaphysical, ethereal, abstract Being with YOUR whole internal, metaphysical, ethereal, abstract being – measured by an empirically validated and evidenced way – how you treat “your neighbor” as well as yourself.
It’s so simple that we don’t buy it and we often find ourselves adding on a multitude of “morality measurements” with countless other morality clauses than what Jesus added. Just love your neighbors as yourself, that’s hard enough. And your “neighbor” is something else to contemplate in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, which I won’t go into in this post.
So, the question I’m pondering here is this: How is mental health and development, factored into this command – to love so integratively in a way that it manifests with congruency with other people?
By all appearances and experiences of mine thus far I’m quite sure of this: being loving is not an inborn human trait. Being loving isn’t innately and independently present in human infants. I’ve given birth to and am raising 3 human souls, and I’ve watched them closely.
Now to be clear— being IN NEED of love, at birth and onward is inborn and innate. And when you form a secure attachment and nurture and protect your babies they coo, smile, and affectionately bond with you right back. It’s a beautiful circle of love. But it didn’t begin with the baby first loving me. It started with a baby who needed to be loved and cared for, FIRST.
The nature of the intimate dyad of human caregiving determines (although not exclusively) a great deal in how “loving” a person will eventually be, influenced by how much they themselves felt loved, or more specifically – securely attached.
“Loving” is not to be confused with merely how “nice”, “polite”, socially acceptable, or virtuous they appear in public. This is about way more than mere etiquette. Rather, it’s far more about how much they’ll be able to enjoy consensual and reciprocal vulnerability, authenticity, and work through the inevitable interpersonal conflicts with a selected few. In other words: healthy interpersonal relationships.
In an ideal world, humans would produce loving human beings – generation after generation. It doesn’t take much to see that we don’t live in an ideal world. Far from it.
So if children grow without enough of this kind of emotional secure attachment created within their earliest and formative interpersonal relationships, how can we expect them to give what they don’t have? For so many who didn’t, are we screwed? No. There is a path of healing and inner recovery. God is sensitively attuned to the broken-hearted, who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Just meditate on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.
I believe humans are biologically wired to be moral creatures. When we are immoral, we suffer and often find ways to escape or find relief from suffering. To be clear again: We are innately moral creatures which means our biology is wired for thriving when we’re morally strong. And I hope I’ve made it clear enough by now that when I say “moral” I mean we’re biologically created to be loved and loving – this is how we’re morally biologically wired – for love, aka to need to give and receive secure emotional attachments. Possessing a familiarity of attachment styles in both childhood and adulthood is helpful to understanding where I’m coming from. Hopefully if you’re making a living within the mental health field or personal development arena, you’re more than a little familiar with the scientific literature on attachment styles and neurobiology. Hopefully.
I digress. Getting back to morality and love…
“We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19
So, to those who perceive themselves as morally righteous, and therefore loving as described above – What is your detailed and coherent, autobiographical narrative that’s made sense of your adulthood in light of your childhood?
In all transparency, this is somewhat of a trick question. I’ve heard people saying they grew up with love and support from their parents, yet these same people are often times some of the quickest to criticize or judge others and are also some of the most emotionally cold or shallow people I know. To be sure, they are often very “nice”, “polite”, socially acceptable, and fluent in practicing social graces/etiquette. Yet, there seems to be a gaping hole, a sense of wtf-ness that’s hard to explain and even harder to convince them of.
Now of course, I could very well be totally off myself here. But the disjointed feeling I get in this wtf-ness experience is because I hear they consider themselves as lucky for growing up the way they did, and therefore they don’t “morally” struggle much. Yet at the same time, I observe that they find it very difficult, unvaluable, and unnecessary (if they even notice) to be emotionally vulnerable, authentic, and show capacity to work through interpersonal conflicts with their loved ones. It’s a head-scratcher for me.
This is the best I can come up with to try and explain the dissonance between morality and love, profoundly the kind of love from God, that pours out interpersonally. Unless you experience it yourself with God, it’s hard to explain to others.
There was a woman who was described in Luke 7:37 as “a woman in that town who lived a sinful life”. She wept on Jesus’ feet (portrays her as probably crawling on the floor in approaching and being next to Jesus) kissed his feet, then wiped his feet with her hair, and poured perfume from an alabaster jar.
To be loved and to love.
I think she gets it.
Her story might help shed light on this gaping hole for those who need an explanation. Jesus saw that Simon the Pharisee didn’t get it either.
“Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”Luke 7:44-47
How well you understand the love of God for yourself has much to do with how much you’ve experienced forgiveness from God. And if in your own self-estimation, you don’t have much to be forgiven for, you’ll find it hard to love others who do.
It boils down to compassion. If you don’t have much need for compassion from others, you won’t feel much compassion for others either.
If you’ve never felt much need for love from others, you likely won’t feel much love for others.