“Slowly I Turned”: How to Recognize Love from a Very Long Distance


“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Fair enough. How? What does it look like? For instance:

  • How do you love a chronic (not to say, terminal) whiner?
  • How do you love an adolescent soul in a middle-aged body, whose habit of leeching off of anyone and everyone with demands of incessant validation leads to the utter loss of everyone’s respect?
  • How do you love a champion grudge-holder who lives as though cheap vengeance is THE path to happiness?
  • How do you love the “tolerant” person who yet regards everyone else with much the same look as you might give to the traces of the dog’s latest deposit clinging to the sole of your shoe?
  • How do you love the human locomotive who splatters everyone else on the tracks en route, with no more reaction than a deafening toot on the whistle?
  • How do you love a five-story-building’s worth of neglected, violent-tempered, entitled, and/or conceited teenage children—half-baked adults forever leaping out of the oven before the timer goes off?
  • How do you love someone you may only meet once, someone who has effectively destroyed his/her own child’s life without regret through his/her own severe personal deficits?

I’ll tell you why these aren’t rhetorical questions. I have been on vacation for a few days, but very soon I must return to my day job. I work with all the people described above, ranging from elite crowned heads of Petty Martyrdom to some genuinely needy and yet just as genuinely unlikeable souls. These questions hover just behind my eyes and just inside my ears every day at work, and I can’t say I can answer them. I’m thinking out loud here. (In print, then. Nitpicker. You know what I meant.)

I think another bullet list is in order here. I’ll title it “Things I Know,” and lay it out as follows:

  • First: love is not an emotion. Affection is an emotion; camaraderie is a reciprocal response to others’ actions; lust is a chemical reaction run amok. Love is something else—a decision.
  • The second is a logical offshoot: it must be possible to decide to love someone for whom one does not actually feel affection or any other natural inclination. I know it must be possible, because I am instructed to do exactly this. (Review the opening quotation from Luke 6, if you have forgotten so easily during the interim.)

It is forced to my attention that this list is much shorter than the last one. Therein lies my quandary. One can hold the theory of a thing easily enough without possessing a specific strategy for proving that theory. All this to say, what should this sort of love look like?

As a writer, it doesn’t surprise me that I also find this question pressing on me in my work. I have a character who cannot forgive the considerable offenses of his parents. He hates them, and he has good reasons to do so. He is surrounded by people who are determined to bring about a reconciliation, for the good of his psyche if for no other reason. But only love can forgive and mean it. Any writer knows that a resolution cannot be forced. The whole story goes cockeyed if you force it to do what it isn’t prepared to do. So the matter comes back around to love as a choice, undeserved and in some cases unwanted. What does it look like, loving someone who is intrinsically unlikeable and yet convinced of his/her own merit? In the case of a rancorous spirit, what must love look like in order to encourage forgiveness and not merely bow to the desire for payback?

Oh, I suppose there’s another item I could add to the “Things I Know” list:

  • Love is gentle and kind, yes, but also truthful… which may cause spontaneous combustion.

People generally don’t like facing the truth, I find. They want to hear what they want to hear, and nothing else, on pain of death. What does love look like when the truth is declared out of bounds, yet the essence of love is truth?

I still have all these questions. It reminds me of a comment that the professor made on my senior paper on the epistle to the Romans: You bring up a lot of good questions. Maybe, in ten years or so, you will have found some answers. Come to think about it, it has been more than ten years since then. I taught Romans to my Sunday morning study group a few months ago, and I was the one answering the questions. (Good call, Brother Bowland.)

I hope the same is true of these questions I’ve trotted out for your benefit here. I suppose this is another of those things that can’t be reasoned into submission—it must be lived to be understood.



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