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