Learning to Love

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Chalice lighting

As we gather today
People from many ways and places
Each of us has been shaped by our experiences
Moulded by those around us and the unpredictable ways of living
Few of us have been surrounded by a world that makes us feel fully accepted
That makes us feel safe to be ourselves
That leads us to open our hearts
And yet we long for deep connection
We crave the relationships that heal and nurture
The profound connections that lead to growth and joy
By the light of this flame let us see the possibility
Let us know the great potential
Of opening ourselves to love

Reading: The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number 3, by Mary Mackey

It's easy to love through a cold spring when the poles of the willows turn green
pollen falls like a yellow curtain
and the scent of Paper Whites clots the air
but to love for a lifetime takes talent
you have to mix yourself with the strange beauty of someone else
wake each morning for 72,000 mornings in a row so breathed and bound and tangled that you can hardly sort out your arms and legs
you have to find forgiveness in everything even ink stains and broken cups
you have to be willing to move through life together
the way the long grasses move in a field when you careen blindly toward the other side
there's never going to be anything straight or predictable about your path except the flattening and the springing back
you just go on walking for years hand in hand waist deep in the weeds bent slightly forward like two question marks
and all the while it burns my dear
it burns beautifully above you and goes on burning like a relentless sun

Message part 1: by Rev. Andy Pakula

Later this week is a day that you cannot escape. Thursday is Valentine's day!

Named for Christian saints and surrounded by myth and folklore, Valentine's day has become a remarkable cultural phenomenon around the world.

This day likely inspires some feelings in you. It may be joy at yet another opportunity to do something nice for someone you love.

It may be a sense of obligation that you have to go out and buy something that someone probably doesn’t want with money you can’t afford to spend just so you don’t look like an inconsiderate partner for not doing it.

You may feel deep sorrow that romantic love is not currently a reality in your life.

Valentine’s Day may call up the pain of loss for relationships past - love that once warmed and strengthened you.

And you may feel cynical about the whole enterprise of Valentine's day.

Considering that people in this country spend £1.3 billion on gifts and cards for Valentine's Day, there is certainly some cause for cynicism. That’s £25 each on average. And this spending is nothing compared to the US where they spend over $18 billion each year - the equivalent of over £100 each.

It’s all a bit shocking, but it’s also amazing. Something makes us want to spend very freely on this day. Something makes about one in every two of us send a card.

Valentine's Day is not confined to just a few Anglophile countries. It’s celebrated all over the world. People in Singapore seem to spend the most: in a survey, 60% of them said they spend between $100 and $500 for Valentine’s Day. Celebration in some Islamic countries has been banned and is punished. That’s only an action a repressive regime would take if the popularity of the day was growing.

Maybe all this should come as no surprise. Aside from the commercial drive for Valentine’s Day and the pressure on people to come up with the goods in the form of chocolate, flowers, dinners out, cards, and jewellery, we love love.

Love feels good. Love ends our isolation. Love is thrilling. Love shows us our essential oneness. Love builds our confidence.

And yes, love can be a torment when you’re separate from your lover or when love is unrequited or when love is lost. But, it doesn’t seem to reduce our love for love.

But, says Mary Mackey, “to love for a lifetime takes talent.”

The first days and weeks and months of a new love are extraordinary - fireworks, passion, wonder, discovery, the great highs and lows of our emotional lives.

Loving for a lifetime is another thing entirely. I’ve got an issue with Mackey’s maths when she talks about 72,000 mornings in a row - that would be 197 years. But even the 11,000 mornings of a 30 year marriage is a big deal.  After the early, dazzling part of love, most of the enticing mysteries have been revealed. The hormone levels drop. The wonder of being so open with another person is lessened as you realise that they have a tendency to leave their dishes in the sink, spend too long in the shower, that they have the wrong taste in music or films, and that - despite early indications - they are more of a flexitarian than a vegan.

It is then that love stops being something you fall into and something different. It is still immensely valuable - perhaps more so. But now it takes effort, and now that effort is not driven by the ecstasy of early love. Now it’s got to fit in with all the other responsibilities of daily life.

Mary Mackey says talent is required. The great 20th century psychologist, philosopher, and prolific author Erich Fromm called it an art. His classic 1956 book is titled “The Art of Loving”. And like any art, this mature, long-lived kind of love requires both knowledge and practice. Perhaps a lifetime of practice.

Reading: When My Mind is Still, by Paul Beattie [adapted]

When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I remember things too easily forgotten:
The purity of early love,
The maturity of unselfish love that asks --
desires -- nothing but another's good,
The idealism that has persisted through all the tempest of life.
When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I can find a quiet assurance, an inner peace, in the core of my being.
It can face the doubt, the loneliness, the anxiety,
Can accept these harsh realities and can even grow
Because of these challenges to my essential being.
When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I can sense my basic humanity,
And then I know that all [people] are my [siblings].
Nothing but my own fear and distrust can separate me from the love of friends.
If I can trust others, accept them, enjoy them,
Then my life shall surely be richer and more full.
If I can accept others, this will help them to be more truly themselves,
And they will be more able to accept me.
When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart,
I know how much life has given me:
The history of the race, friends and family,
The opportunity to work, the chance to build myself.
Then wells within me the urge to live more abundantly,
With greater trust and joy,
With more profound seriousness and earnest service,
And yet more calmly at the heart of life.

Message part 2: by Rev. Andy Pakula

I remember, as a teenager, filled with angst and insecurity hearing the advice “you can’t love anyone else until you love yourself.”

And I thought “I hope that’s not true” because I knew I couldn’t love myself. I knew I was so flawed, so unacceptable. I was certain that I could love just about anyone else more than I could love myself.

It took a long time to understand. This wasn’t just another piece of the kind of junk wisdom that was floating about at the time in magazines, as part of the folk-wisdom we shared with each other, or on one of the four TV channels we had back then. (Remember - no cable, no internet, no smart-phones.)

And as depressing as that phrase seemed to me then, it was right.

Love is not just that immediate delight and month or two of intensity. That ends and if you think that is what love is, then you jump from one person to the next, reveling in that passionate time until you decide this is not the one – again and again and again.

Love is more than this. The real magic of love is not the joy we get from being loved but the ability to gain joy from loving others.

As sci-fi author Robert Heinlein put it: “Love is a condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”

This couldn’t be more different from the images of love we see in most films or learn from the “married and lived happily ever after” genre of children’s literature - the stories that set us up to search for the perfect person who will make us happy.

This kind of love is not one we can grasp for. Like a timid bird, it will only come close when we are not seeking it. Only when we are not working for our own happiness can we find the happiness that love brings.

At the beginning of Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving,” he warns the reader about what to expect. He will not lay out a set of steps to the art of love. He can’t any more than we can learn from a listicle or YouTube video on how to be a virtuoso violinist. We can learn the basics and then we need to go off and practice for 10,000 hours - or a lifetime, maybe.

The basic instruction comes back to love of self. If we do not love ourselves - have confidence in ourselves - know that we are enough, then in everything we do and in every relationship we enter, we can think only about how it affects us. We desperately seek for affirmation and praise, success, winning.

When we become able to step away from this focus on our own needs, we are free to turn our gaze toward the needs of the other - to enter into the relationship of love that leads to satisfaction and happiness.

This calm and caring orientation toward others feels like what Paul Beattie describes in his poem “When My Mind Is Still”.

And what a wonderful poem it is. As I read it again and again, I saw the depth of the wisdom Beattie expressed. I had to find out who this person is or was. Guess what - he was a North American Unitarian Universalist minister - a US citizen born in Canada. He was a leader of UU humanist thought in the 20th century. He had a very broad mind, studying Greek philosophy, English literature, psychology, and the wisdom of many of the world’s greatest religious leaders. His appreciation of psychology and of the Buddha’s teachings is evident just below the surface of his poem.

“When my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart, I can find a quiet assurance, an inner peace, in the core of my being. It can face the doubt, the loneliness, the anxiety, can accept these harsh realities and can even grow because of these challenges to my essential being.”

Beattie is describing what it is to become increasingly mindful and aware of our own thoughts and emotions - what it is to be accepting of ourselves and able to move beyond the pain and sense of inadequacy that are so much a part of human existence.

And when we do this - when we can move beyond a self-focus that blocks out the rest of humanity - then we can love.  Says Beattie, then: “I know that all [people] are my [siblings]. Nothing but my own fear and distrust can separate me from the love of friends.”

The art of love is not something we are born with. It is rarely, if ever, something that we gain in our early years from our families and playmates. It is an ongoing work of practice to become self-loving and therefore not self-centred people - to become people who are learning and practicing the art of loving.

A world of people who have learned to love is vastly different world than the one we live in today. It is not simply a world of fairness - a world without injustice - but a world of active caring for each person and their happiness.

This is the world we seek. Let us grow in love.

Closing words

As we celebrate the central role of love in our lives
Let us remember that love is not something we find but something we do
Our isolation is secured by our own fear
Our lack of love for ourselves robs us of what matters most:
The ability to love that ensures life’s richness
That fosters hope
And that creates the possibility of justice
Find your inner peace that lets hardship be a source of growth
Open your tender heart
Love awaits you.