The woman in front of me is taking too long. A feeling of irritation starts at the base of my neck and spreads across my shoulders as she searches her wallet for a credit card and then struggles to operate the card reader. I recognize this irritation because it is the same emotion I feel when my neighbor makes petty requests about the fence that runs between our yards, or when I see a courage-deficient politician making excuses on TV. This irritation is not an obstacle to love, it is a call to love, a signal of some sticking point in me.
When I first encountered the phrase love wastefully in the writing of Bishop John Shelby Spong, I was struck. “To love” is a common injunction, but to love “wastefully” implies we might ordinarily be stingy with our love, constantly assessing the correct measure and avoiding any spillage. Spong’s elegant two-word challenge inspires me to open and let my loving overflow the cup, a challenge that seems at once utterly impossible, whole necessary, and worthy of my highest effort.
How do I love wastefully in a world filled with difficult people and impossible circumstances? To love wastefully seems daunting and potentially exhausting. But my hesitancy to accept this challenge comes from a misguided fear that love is a limited resource that I generate myself, an emotional energy I manufacture and distribute through my personal effort.
This fear evaporates if I see love as coming from a source beyond me, if I can view love as an immense river that is always flowing by that I can tap at any time without expending effort. In fact, when I dip my cup into the river and offer it to others, I increase the energy for all. We are not diminished, we are renewed.
Don’t be intimidated by the audacity of this challenge. You can’t drink a river all at once, but only a cup at a time. And so loving wastefully means to extend care and concern, respect and appreciation, one moment at a time. Each interaction with another is a chance to love wastefully in just this moment. Another chance arises in the next moment, and the next. Spong’s challenge is not to love for eternity, but to love right now. If I momentarily fall out of loving, in anger or inattention, it does not matter. The next moment follows promptly and will serve just as well. Don’t dismiss the power of these accumulating moments, building over time, filling a reservoir of good will and heart-felt connection cup by cup.
To extend this mental picture one step farther, imagine yourself in the river instead of beside it. You are not dipping a cup, you are bathing in the waters. In your relations with others, the river is flowing between and around the two of you, a constant wellspring you both can tap. The care and respect you manifest is simply a recognition of the river that is always there, holding you both. Even during difficult conversations (or perhaps especially so), seeing yourself as drawing from the natural body of love that surrounds you can help you express concern, acceptance and love regardless of the circumstances.
I find this imagery useful because it raises our focus above the level of self-concern to include concern for others as well. When we take a stance of sincere openness and care toward others, they can feel it. We all share a common social ability to read below the surface and sense unstated intentions. If we approach each moment with the aim of extending care and well wishes, our intentions can resonate in others, creating a mutual connection that fosters positive outcomes.
Just who, exactly, is deserving of this wasteful overflow of love? How much good will am I obliged to extend? Aren’t there natural limits to what can reasonably be expected of me?
If you accept the challenge to love wastefully, then the answer is no. The challenge is an aspiration that extends without end. That is why each irritation we notice, each rising desire not to love, is a signal of where we have found the limits to loving in ourselves. This is not a disappointment, it is an acknowledgment that growth is a never-ending journey where each step is revealed by the steps we have taken. We don’t love because we are already perfect, we love as a continual process of perfecting.
So the answer to the question of, “who is deserving of love,” is now obvious: it is everyone and everything.
Even Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot? Well, maybe we should start with the slow lady in the grocery line and work our way up from there. Whenever I feel irritation, whether in the check-out line or in squabbles with my neighbor or with politicians in the headlines, the question of who to love becomes an ever-deepening practice – can I work with whoever is in front of me right now to extend care and concern without stopping to evaluate whether they are deserving?
How much love am I expected to extend? Here too we know the answer: all of it.
If we find the imagery of the river useful, then we are not giving away something that is owned or limited by any of us alone. Instead, we see ourselves as a collection of countless small gates working to expand the reach of the river and bring water to a parched landscape. Each caring word, each felt sentiment, each open-hearted gesture expands the reach of love and makes the challenge to love wastefully less daunting and more manifest.
About the Author
Steve Sphar is a seasoned leadership consultant with over 25 years experience partnering with executives and managers to create sustained positive change. He was a practicing attorney for 12 years before turning his law and business experience to the field of leadership consulting. He helps managers and executives develop their leadership potential though one-on-one coaching, leadership training and facilitation of executive retreats. Read more about Steve.