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Reflections on love, the ultimate virtue

Love is the all-encompassing virtue. Yet in our culture it is corrupted, distorted, and debased. Emphasis is placed on the self rather than the other. Self-absorption and self-seeking replace the essential generosity or selflessness that are so much a part of what love really means.

For love is giving not taking, caring not being cared for, sacrifice not selfishness, and forgiveness not anger. It knows when to overlook, ignore, and understand things that offend.

It places the happiness of others ahead of our own. It is the sacrifice of parents caring for a disabled child or the joy of a family gathering.

Love is more readily manifested in the helping professions: doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, firefighters, EMTs, police officers, and members of the Coast Guard, jobs where people help those in need.

It is less apparent in a culture consumed by consumption; where developing and selling new things are the measures of economic success. Advertisers promote the accumulation of stuff as principal signs of success and a measure of self-esteem.

The greed upon which capitalism is based demands production to fuel consumption, and generating profits to repeat a cycle that goes far beyond what is necessary or beneficial. Advertising is the nervous system of capitalism, stimulating desire and creating a need for more and more stuff.

Love of things, a form of self-love, replaces love of others. We are a society consumed with the love of what is new, high tech, pleasurable and attractive, regardless of how shallow, unfulfilling, and harmful they may be.

It is a celebrity culture where often those who represent the fulfillment of our worst impulses are treated as icons, false idols in a world where the glorification of self is sold as an ideal. It’s what you have and how you look that truly matters.

Love is tolerance, understanding, and sacrifice. In politics it is a commitment to the common good rather than the promotion of special interests, including that most common of special interests – one’s own self interest. The temptation to confuse self interest with the common good contributes to political dysfunction.

The common good requires a keen awareness of the easily overlooked: the poor, sick, disabled, and homeless. How we treat the vulnerable is an important measure of our love. Love is not something you earn; it is a gift, and all the more precious when given to those who need it rather than deserve it.

Slavery was an example of the absence of love among those who professed Christian virtues. The need for cheap labor – what they would have termed economic necessity – prompted the southern gentry to ignore a fundamental teaching of their religion: “Love thy neighbor.” They did so by dehumanizing an entire race.

In the absence of love, there’s a void, with indifference at one extreme and hate at the other. While most of us are able to recognize and avoid hate, it is easy to slide into indifference. Hate is more intense and may lead to violence, but indifference can have the same effect because it says: “I don’t care.”

It is easy to love those we respect and admire. But what of those we do not respect, or even like? First, you look for some quality that is worthy of respect; most have at least one or more redeeming virtues. Absent that, you love them for your shared humanity with all its flaws. Love is obviously a matter of degree – you love some more than others.

As a verb, love is often hard work, so much more than the romance, glamor and sex that seem to define it in our culture. Given that context, the use of the word may make people uncomfortable and inclined to restrict it to home, family, and friends.

Perhaps it is easier to think of it as caring for others. There doesn’t appear to be enough of that around these days. Care is misplaced by those principally charged with protecting the common good who are more interested in the special interests of the few than in the well-being of the many.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law at Dolan Connly.