Is It Better to Love or Be Loved?

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Is it better to love or be loved? It is a simple question, but it can change the way you orient your whole life. Wouldn’t being loved by more people mean that you are a better person? Wouldn’t it feel better to be loved by lots of people? Wouldn’t it bring you greater honor? Isn’t honor a good thing? Wouldn’t being loved by more people inspire you to love more people in return? What good is there in loving if you are unloved?

St. Thomas began his discussion of the “act” of charity with these questions, and he comes down firmly on the side of giving love as the principal act of charity. (Summa theologiae, II-II, Q. 27) He does so, first, for obvious semantic reasons. If all you do is sit there and be loved, then you are not acting. To act in charity, you have to, well, act. The principal act of charity is, therefore, to love.

There is more to the answer than semantics though. Aristotle noticed a most primal and beautiful act of human love, and St. Thomas, of course, cited the one he called The Philosopher. A mother, whose “love is the greatest,” seeks to love rather than be loved by her child. No mother stares at her newborn and asks, “But do you love me?” A mother knows she cannot expect a child to love her in return when he is a baby, and she knows she has no guarantee the infant staring at her because she is his whole world will love her when he is grown. She does not give her love to her son under any condition of being loved back. Rather, she gives it freely. Her love is born of her sacrifice. Her love is unconditional. Her love is an act of charity.

This basic orientation—thinking of love as something you give more than receive—seems to be at the root of the confusion in secular culture today. People are afraid to love without being loved in return. Think about it. What breaks a friendship when one person hurts the other? Fear of not being loved. What drives a woman to abort her own pregnancy and kill her own child? Fear of not being loved. What drives a woman to allow a man to impregnate her without the commitment of matrimony in the first place? Fear of not being loved. What causes men to seek power instead of humble influence? Fear of not being loved. What shatters families and leaves people in lonely despair? Fear of not being loved.

Maybe I’m projecting, but looking back that fear was certainly behind my worst choices as a nonreligious young woman trying to navigate the secular message of our time. St. Thomas’ teaching reminds me of something my father once told me. He was a man raised on cowboy wisdom looking at an anxiety-ridden, control-freaked feminist daughter. (Anxiety and control go hand in hand, you know.) He told me that I needed to stop trying to control what other people do because I cannot. He advised me to instead control the thing I can control—myself. That reorientation unchained me. I no longer had to spend myself worrying what other people would do. I learned, eventually and through the grace of conversion, to let it be, to see other people as they are, to accept them and love them objectively, expecting nothing in exchange. My father taught me that it is better to love than be loved through his love for me. He never asked for anything except to know I was happy, and he taught me a most important truth. When you realize the power of giving love unconditionally, you are suddenly free to love abundantly without fear.

The fact is, like infants, we are loved, every one of us by Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who became man, was born, lived, taught, was crucified, died, rose again, and ascended into Heaven. Christ’s sacrifice was born of love for us. We were loved before we were formed in our mother’s womb.

Sure, it is appealing to imagine that someday those near to me would inscribe on my grave: “Here lies a beloved woman.” Every day I labor, I give, and I don’t often get as much appreciation or praise for it in return. But “love” is not some fluffy, feel-good magicalness that guards you from ever suffering, is it? Per the teaching of St. Thomas and my dear father, what I hope is true of my life even if no one is left to put a stone on my grave at all, what I hope I live up to is this: “She was a woman who loved.” That is definitely better.

I may have powers of prophecy, no secret hidden from me, no knowledge too deep for me; I may have utter faith, so that I can move mountains; yet if I lack charity, I count for nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2

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About the Author

Stacy Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She worked as a chemist for DuPont in the Lycra® and Teflon® businesses.

She teaches Chemistry and Physics for Kolbe Academy Online and Homeschool Program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She is teaching a set of summer mini-workshops titled "Science in the Light of Faith" for students, parents, other educators, or any Christian interested in the nuts and bolts of navigating science.

Similarly, she is teaching a "Reading Science in the Light of Faith" at Holy Apostles College & Seminary next Fall (2016). The course is funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant through John Carroll University for teaching science in seminaries. She is on the Board of Directors for ITEST (the Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology) where the essays from the course will be shared with the public.

Also in the Fall of 2016, she will teach a "Theological History of Science" course at Seton Hall University, where her mentor, the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki was a distinguished professor. She is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science is forthcoming with Ave Maria Press...

She teaches, researches, and writes from her family's 100-year old restored mountain lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband and children (and two German Shepherds) remain her favorite priorities. Here is her website.

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3 Comments

  1. The only thing I would comment on Stacy’s articles, is the fallacy that we/one must be Happy, as a condition for this life. And that is not so. The objective in life of a parent or of oneself is to Love God above all, Serve God above all. Thus the goal of a parent should always be the salvation of your children’s souls. Joy is promised, even in suffering, but Happiness? Never! Happiness and its focus is a byproduct of this so very fallen age. Self gratification, happiness, never should be the objective in life of a true believer. Other than that,

  2. I would argue that it is better to be loved — in order to be able to give love. The Virgin Mary had to be open to receive of God’s tremendous love of her before he could fill her with Life — the Life that she would bring forth and lavish with love. Had she not been open to receive — to be loved — where we would be?

  3. Thanks Stacy! I could completely identify with what you wrote here. I thought this was a great post, it really blessed me!

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