What Love Isn't (Violent)
Marisa Guerin, PhD – August 18, 2021
One of the chapters in the book I am co-writing with Br. Joseph Schmidt explores what Therese of Lisieux learned about what love is, and what love is not. Perhaps unexpectedly, this exploration leads us to a reflection on violence and nonviolence.
The writing of St. Paul was especially helpful to Thérèse in understanding love. In one of the most-quoted passages from the Christian scriptures St. Paul said this about love:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, love is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (NABRE 1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
Therese took from St. Paul that if she was clear about what she did not want to do – like not being rude, spiteful, arrogant, mean, self-centered, prickly, moody, or pompous – then she might be able to act in spontaneous and creative ways to be kind and loving. St. Paul confirmed for Therese that there isn’t really a prescription for how exactly to be loving. She would have to discover it, in the specific and unpredictable circumstances of her own life. What she could be sure of was that loving is kind, and it is patient; it is never violent to her own spirit or that of others.
Love without violence is basic to the vision and practice of the good, meaningful and productive life that Thérèse taught. But to take this insight into our own lives, we may have to expand our usual understanding of “violence.”
Normally, the word “violence” tends to make us think of the glaring, awful physical violation of murder, lynching, mass shootings, terrorism, rape, domestic abuse, or wars. Violence is a word usually applied to bloody, heart-rending and fearsome tragedies. If we witness it, we are left heart-sick and traumatized.
But what about the more hidden violence of angry feelings, harsh thoughts and brutal words? The malice that rises up before the blood flows? Blatant violence feeds on such shadows of violence. And further, what about the unintended violence – the personal violation we experience – if we are innocently over-looked or thoughtlessly deprived?
Yes, the word “violence” is a hard word to read, to think about. And yet, violence in one form or another – blatant, shadowy or unintended – entangles the human experience of everyone. We don’t need much help to notice the first type: the obvious, blatant violence in human conflicts. What Therese helps us to see are the other, less glaring, more hidden forms of violence that are mixed in with acts of love, including even the unintended violence others feel when they are the victims of thoughtless neglect.
Thérèse understood first-hand from her own experience that we all suffer some violence in our life, and that some of it is done to us by people who may intend the complete opposite. Her traumatic childhood experiences of mother-loss showed up in Therese as a feeling of being inadequately treasured. This unintended violation of her most basic sense of security and safety wounded her, and left her vulnerable to neediness and hypersensitivity. For Thérèse, this weakness led her to beat up on herself as she strove to meet her needs – a form of subtle violence against herself. For other people, the inevitable hurts of childhood might give rise to feelings of bitterness or resentment, leading to actions that are disrespectful, vengeful, or coercive – subtle violence against others that is rooted in wounded hearts.
Recognizing the potential for violence in every wounded human heart, Thérèse invites us to walk the path of love without violence – including being patient with ourselves, since we can’t do this perfectly. Even living with the mantra, “Be patient, be kind,” we will surely mess up at times. But our patient willingness to get back on the path of love is worth it.
If we remember in the nick of time to take a breath and extend our patience after a stressful day, we may manage to eke out a bit more tolerance and a genuinely kind word or smile – even if we are perilously close to the frayed end of our patience with our children or partner or parent. Loving warmth softens the tension in us, in them, and makes it possible to find a way through the stress without meanness.
In our own hearts, there will be times when we shake our heads in frustration at an unwitting mistake, or our disappointment with how our latest project turned out. Instead of berating ourselves with “I can’t believe I did that” self-talk, we might try taking a deep breath and exhaling, letting the angry feeling seep out. In its place, we might breathe in an accepting, forgiving patience with the imperfect person we really are.
For Thérèse, nonviolence was the essence of love. Trusting that she herself was loved, Thérèse did her best to cultivate kindness and patient love for others in her heart, and to teach others to do the same. She did so with simplicity, without making a fuss. From the outside, Thérèse’s simplicity may appear wimpish, but from the inside, kindness is heroic.
Love is patient, love is kind.