Saturday, January 26, 2013

Feeling Love Is Where It's At

Some people have a problem with the phrase “I love you, but [any non-gay-affirming thing].” Not me! This is the third in a series of (probably) four posts that examines why I think that and what I think we should be talking about instead.

Matt here. In the second post, I established that you can’t prove or disprove what a person says they feel. A person’s feelings exist in their self, and there is no guaranteed behavior that correlates either with love or lack of love--and if there were, it would not be saying “I love you, but.”

Now, I’m not particularly Christian these days, but since Clyde thought the words of Christ were pertinent, I’ll point out that in all the words of Christ, he never made a statement about making people feel loved. He never said “Thou shalt make thy neighbor feel loved as thyself,” he simply said “Thou shalt love thy neighbor.” He never said “Make your enemies feel loved,” he just said “Love your enemies.” Things that make us feel loved tend to be associated with people who claim to love us--but the association isn’t intrinsic.“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”; whether they know about it or not, the love is there. Or, dying for your friend might be a sign that you loved them, but it might also be a sign that you felt reeeeeeally guilty for cheating on him with his husband.

Even though Jesus didn’t talk about it, making people feel loved is also important because it’s the measure we use (rightly or wrongly) to assess how much we are loved, and we use that information to make decisions in our day-to-day life. Whether we feel loved influences who we spend our time with, what advice we listen to, and the quality of our life, among other things. Most importantly, feeling loved opens us up and makes it possible to love others and make other people feel loved. In the end, taking people to task for not loving is something only God can do--but imagine a parable of the talents, where the talents are love. I really doubt that God will be happy with a servant who loves, but doesn’t make that love felt and multiplied.

The idea that love and feeling loved are the same can also be problematic because many people, like Misty, put the burden of feeling loved on the feeler. “If you don’t feel loved,” they say, “that’s your fault. The love is there.” That this is a common perspective in Christian populations shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since that’s the way their worldview accounts for the concept of a perfectly loving God and a population that doesn’t feel perfectly loved. Don’t feel loved? You must be doing something wrong. Read your scriptures more. As John Bytheway put it in one of the many, many cassette tape talks I listened to over and over on the annual family roadtrip from California to Utah, “If you don’t feel as close to God today as you did yesterday, who moved?” But this idea can’t function once we acknowledge that the act of loving is itself unfeelable. “I feel loved = I am loved” can be a useful shorthand, but it’s not necessarily true.

In reality, when we feel loved, it’s because for whatever reason (and sometimes no reason at all) we believe, really believe, heart and mind, that someone loves us. It might be enough for them to say “I love you.” It might be enough for them to take us out to dinner, or play videogames with us, or hold us when we need to be held. There are a million modes of making people feel loved, but none of them work if we don’t believe they’re sincere. We can’t believe they’re sincere unless we trust them.

Partly, that’s on us; if we are self-centered, uncharitable, or generally slow to trust, we’ll probably miss or disregard sincere efforts to make us feel loved. Partly, though, that’s on the lover. Words and actions can easily undermine our willingness to trust and thus our ability to feel loved. It takes a massively unrealistic amount of openness, vulnerability, and depending on the circumstances naivete to feel loved while at dinner with the guy who slept with your husband last week (though it’s still possible). If you betray my trust, you can’t very well fault me for not trusting you.

There’s a third aspect, too:  Feeling loved by someone who has no idea who we are doesn’t mean much compared to the love of someone who knows us well. In other words, we have to trust that the lover is qualified to honestly love us before we can really feel loved by them. If they don’t know us, don’t know what’s important to us or why, what we think about or how, how can we believe they know who we are? If they don’t know who we are, how can we feel loved by them?

In my comment on her post, I allowed that perhaps Misty did, in fact, love me, but I also pointed out that I didn’t feel that love. I was open to feeling love, and I could even see how, from her perspective, her perspective was the best, most love-packed response possible. What I couldn’t see was how she was qualified to say she loved me. She obviously doesn’t know me (though I was disheartened to see a lady from my parents' ward among her commenters), her knowledge about homosexuality and AIDS is tiny and selective, and her post in general was hugely, hubristically patronizing. She said she loved gay people, but is it any wonder that that wasn’t enough, in the face of everything else, to make me feel loved?

So, to wrap up: Loving still doesn’t equal feeling loved; according to the New Testament, the important thing is loving; even so, making people feel loved is important too because that’s how love spreads; we don’t feel loved unless we are open to feeling love, we experience words or actions that we interpret as signs of love, and we trust that the lover is qualified to love us.

Next week, I want to talk about why any of this matters.

Tangential and wonderful: Mouthwatering phrases of Neruda + cats.

Tangential and Star Trek: Picard gets sassy.


  1. My active Mormon family and friends who are the most happy that I am dating a man fall in two catagories:

    1. Those who have more education, particularly in medicine;
    2. Those who have experienced less "perfection," that is, have either themselves been less active at one time or have family members who are or were inactive.

    These people seem to be able to love me without judging me against current church policy. They want to know about the guy I am dating. They want to know about our lives.

    Those who "feel love for me" want to know about everything except the guy I am dating and our joint lives. That is the current difference I see between those who love me and the ones who feel love for me.

    1. Hi Dean!

      I don't mean to belittle your perspective, but this series up to now has been establishing why (_I_ think, anyway) you can't really say who loves you and who doesn't--you can only say who makes you feel loved and who doesn't. Maybe to you it just seems like a question of terms, but I think the distinction is real and important.

      I've noted a similar distinction in my acquaintances, that those who are educated, traveled, and/or have experienced less 'perfection' have a greater ability to make me feel loved than those with less education, more insularity, and generally vanilla lives.

  2. Wow! This series keeps building up better and better. Fascinating observations on New Testament love. I can't wait to hear your perspective of "why... this matters"; it's certainly give me a lot to think about for a while.

    In a way, feeling love is an act of faith. We can not feel love when it's there and even feel love when it's not there. Huh...

    1. You're such a flatterer. Don't stop.

      "Feeling love is an act of faith." I like that a lot.