February brings with it Valentine’s Day – the holiday designated to celebrating romantic love.
When I was a child, Valentine’s Day meant swapping cards and heart-shaped candies with my classmates. These “Sweethearts” were stamped with subtle sayings like “Marry me” and “Be mine.” My personal theory was that these “candies” were made in the very same factory that made the chalk we used on the blackboard. They tasted horrible, but I would have eaten my weight in them just to ensure that at the end of the day, I would end up with a handful.
I remember picking through these chalky monstrosities to find just the right heart to give to a girl I had a crush on. I found the perfect one – “True love.” We exchanged our cards with the candies sealed inside, and I excitedly opened the card she had given me, only to be heart-broken and embarrassed when I saw what it said – “Let’s read.” I tried to convince myself that it was some secret code, but if it was, it remains a mystery to this day. At the advanced age of 11, I was sure I would never love again.
And so it was that I grew up, as many of you did, with an awkward, adolescent impression of what love was: flowers, jewelry, and John Cusack holding a boom-box high above his head while it blared “In Your Eyes” outside of his love interest’s window.
As I grew older, I experienced joy in life and faced the challenges that we all commonly face – the birth of younger relatives, marriage, the loss of family and friends, people sacrificing all for others. My view of what love was began to grow and change. These life events helped me recognize and appreciate that there are types of love other than just romantic love; types of love that in some ways are stronger and deeper.
The word I believe encompasses these expressions of true love best would be the Greek word agape, which embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends any selfishness and is expressed regardless of circumstances. Agape is shown through helping your fellow man with no thought of reward and shows a generosity of spirit. It may include an unselfish, empathetic joy that something good has happened, or might happen, to another person. It also may include making painful choices for yourself for the benefit of another.
Expressions of these kinds of agape love – sometimes in the midst of great suffering – have at times brought tears to my eyes, and continue to provide me with the inspiration to face life’s challenges and pursue my work. My career path has led me through places most would not think of as loving environments: prisons, crisis facilities, probation offices, homeless shelters, mental health facilities. Yet, it is in these places that I have witnessed some of the most touching expressions of true love.
I have seen:
• Women expressing true love for their children by escaping with them from their abusers with nothing but the clothes on their backs, realizing their children would be in danger if they did not take action.
• Parents calling the police with tears in their eyes to have their child arrested, knowing their child would die if they did not get help for an addiction.
• Men and women – some old enough to be my grandparents – fearlessly entering correctional facilities, showing unconditional love by teaching and mentoring men and women that others had cast aside.
• A Gold Star father’s eyes shining with love as he placed a challenge coin bearing his son’s image into my palm, proudly describing the good works now being done for others in his son’s honor.
• A young lady lovingly looking at her little dog, weeping tears of gratitude when she found out her dog could stay with her and would not have to stay behind with her abuser to be tortured or killed.
• People who have experienced abuse, grief, war, depression, and homelessness inspiring and helping others by forming support groups, letting them know what it is like to feel included, to feel that they belong, and to feel that they are part of a community where they are known and accepted … and loved.
Author Marianne Williamson said “Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learned here.” This past Christmas, my 3-year-old niece (who has yet to learn fear) was worried that I was the only one at a family get-together who didn’t receive a gift. I had told her it was because I was on “the naughty list,” but this didn’t seem to be a satisfactory answer. A few minutes later, I could see the wheels turning in her head. She grabbed one of the presents she had just received, walked over to me and said, “Here, you can have one of mine since you didn’t get one.” What an awesome expression of the love for others with which we are all born.
So, I’ve come to believe that love is not necessarily about romantic gifts, jewelry, and grandiose public expressions, but is revealed in actions, sometimes never known to others, that nourish and keep our hearts and the hearts of others happy and full. I believe this true love is innate and always around, waiting to be appreciated and acknowledged. This love can be seen in our lives and in the lives of others, as long as we are willing to keep our hearts open to recognizing it, letting it inspire us, and expressing it through what we do.
Just, please … don’t do it with heart-shaped chalk.
by Jim Womack
Jim is the executive director of Family Support Services of Amarillo, a private non-profit agency that serves more than 25,000 area residents each year. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from West Texas A&M University. He currently serves on the Texas Council on Family Violence Board of Directors in Austin. He is a founding board member and Vice-Chair of the Randall County Prisoner Re-Entry and Education Program. He also serves on the Amarillo Continuum of Care Board, Panhandle Area Health Education Center Advisory Committee, has served on many other boards and advisory committees, and volunteers for many non-profit causes.