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The Work of Love

Love is a form of work or courage directed towards the nurture of our own or another's spiritual growth. The principal form of the work is attention. Attention requires that we make the effort to set aside our existing preoccupations and actively shift our consciousness.


The most common and important way in which we can exercise our attention is by listening. Listening well is hard work. It is because we do not realise this or are not willing to do the work that most of us do not listen well.

An essential part of true listening is the discipline of balancing, the temporary giving up or setting aside of one's own prejudices, frames of reference and desires so as to experience the speaker's world from where they are. This unification of speaker and listener is actually an extension and enlargement of ourselves and new knowledge is always gained from this. It temporarily involves the total acceptance of the other. Sensing this acceptance, the speaker will feel less vulnerable and more inclined to open up the inner recesses of their mind to the listener. There is mutual appreciation; the duet dance of love has begun. The energy required for setting oneself aside and focusing with total attention is so great that it can only be accomplished with love, by the will to extend oneself for mutual growth. Most of the time we lack this energy.

Since true love is love in action it is most appropriate in marriage. Yet most couples never truly listen to each other. The energy and discipline involved is more than they are willing to expand or submit themselves to. True listening can only occur when time is set aside for it and conditions are supportive of it. It cannot occur when people are driving, cooking, or are tired and anxious to sleep, easily interrupted or in a hurry.


Any genuine lover behaves with self-discipline and any genuinely loving relationship is a disciplined relationship. If I truly love another, I will obviously order my behaviour in such a way as to contribute the utmost to his or her spiritual growth.

Passion is a feeling of great depth. The fact that it may be uncontrolled is not to say that it is any deeper whatsoever than when that same feeling is disciplined. We must not assume that someone whose feelings are modulated and controlled is not a passionate person.

The proper management of our feelings clearly lies along a complex, balanced path, requiring constant judgement and continuing adjustment. This is neither simple nor easy. This is the path of healthy self-discipline.

The feeling of love must be disciplined. This is not genuine love, but the feeling associated with cathexis. If it is allowed to run wild, the result will not be genuine love but confusion and unproductiveness. Because genuine love involves an extension of oneself, vast amounts of energy are required, and the store of our energy is limited. We simply cannot love everyone. True, we may have a feeling of love for mankind and this feeling may also be useful in providing us with enough energy to love a few specific individuals. However, genuine love for a few individuals is all that is within our power. To attempt to exceed the limits of our energy is to offer more than we can deliver. There is a point of no return beyond which an attempt to love all comers becomes fraudulent and harmful to the very ones we desire to assist. Consequently, if we are fortunate enough to be in a position in which many people ask for our attention, we must choose those among them who we are actually to love. This choice is not easy. Many factors need to be considered, primarily the capacity of a prospective recipient of our love to respond to that love with spiritual growth.

There are many whose spirits are so locked in behind impenetrable armour that even the greatest efforts to nurture the growth of these spirits are doomed to almost certain failure. To attempt to love someone who cannot benefit from your love with spiritual growth is to waste your energy. Genuine love is precious. Those who are capable of genuine love know that their loving must be focused as productively as possible through self-discipline.

It is possible for some people to love more than one person at the same time, to simultaneously maintain a number of genuinely loving relationships. This itself is a problem for several reasons: One is the western myth of "romantic love" that suggests that certain people are "meant for each other"; hence, not for anyone else. The myth therefore prescribes exclusivity for loving relationships, most particularly sexual exclusivity. For these people, the myth of exclusivity is not only patently false but also represents an unnecessary limitation on their capacity to give themselves to others outside their family. However, very few of us have self-discipline great enough to maintain genuinely loving, constructive relationships both inside and outside the family.

Genuine love, with all the discipline that it requires, is the only path in this life to substantial joy. Other paths may bring rare moments of ecstatic joy, but they will be fleeting and progressively more elusive. When I genuinely love, I am extending myself, and when I am extending myself I am growing. The more I love, the longer I love, the larger I become. Genuine love is self-replenishing. The more I nurture the spiritual growth of others, the more my own spiritual growth is nurtured. I am a totally selfish person. I never do something for somebody else but that I do it for myself. As I grow through love, so my joy grows, ever more present, ever more constant.


Although the act of nurturing another's spiritual growth has the effect of nurturing our own, a characteristic of genuine love is that the distinction between ourselves and others is always maintained and preserved.

The genuine lover always perceives the beloved as someone who has a totally separate identity. Moreover, the genuine lover always respects and even encourages this separateness and the unique individuality of the beloved. Failure to see and respect this separateness is extremely common, however, and the cause of a lot of mental illness and much unnecessary suffering.

In its most extreme form the failure to see the separateness of others is called narcissism. Basically, narcissistic individuals are unable to see their spouses, children or friends and being separate from themselves on an emotional level. Since they see others as only extensions of themselves, narcissistic individuals lack the capacity for empathy - the capacity to feel what another is feeling. Lacking empathy, narcissistic parents usually respond inappropriately to their children on an emotional level and fail to offer any recognition or verification of their children's feelings. It is no wonder, then, that such children grow up with grave difficulties in recognising, accepting and managing their own feelings.

The difficulty that we so generally seem to have in fully appreciating the separateness of those we are close to interferes not only with parenting, but with all our intimate relationships, including marriage. It is the separateness of the partners in a marriage that enriches the union. Great marriages cannot be constructed by individuals who are terrified by their basic aloneness, as so commonly is the case, and seek a merging in marriage. Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other but actually seeks to cultivate it, even at the risk of separation or loss. The ultimate goal of life remains the spiritual growth of the individual.

Exploration and Discussion

1. How much time do you spend in really listening to others?

2. What is the "duet dance of love" in respect of listening?

3. What gets in the way of your really listening to others?

4. Are you a "passionate" person?

5. Can you be passionate and still control your feelings of love?

6. How many people can you genuinely love?

7. How are you growing as you are loving?

8. Who has, or is, truly loving you? In what specific ways did, or do, they show their love?

9. Take time to reflect on a significant present relationship. How is separateness recognised and honoured? What are your feelings about it? Could there be room for more separateness?

10. "The ultimate goal in life remains the spiritual growth of the individual." Discuss.