Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

A Way of Understanding Love

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Psychospiritual Dialogue, Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy, Summer (2012): 8-11.]

Some time ago, I can’t remember exactly when, I was reading in the pages of this Newsletter a debate about whether it is advisable to love one’s clients. Very good points were made on both sides. I’ve been thinking, wouldn’t it be helpful if we could have an approach to therapy, or actually to love, that would make sense of love without encouraging the complications we justifiably fear, such as uncontrolled countertransference or the transgression of boundaries? What, in a spiritual sense, does love really mean?

Before tackling that tough question I would like to start with a different but related one, which led me to the perspective on spirituality that now guides me and that I have called “Judeochristianity.” That question has two parts:

  1. What is faith?

  2. How can we understand faith if we see Jesus connecting, not separating, Jewish and Christian tradition?

“Why faith?” one might ask. What has faith to do with love? Hasn’t religious faith divided people, resulting in much unloving behavior? Absolutely. But I am not talking about “religious” faith, but about the need to reclaim faith from its association with specific religious belief.

Another good question: Why bother with faith at all? Here’s why:

The years I spent working as music therapist at Cabrini Hospice gave me valuable insights into how people face death. I found repeatedly that, while the specific religious denomination was unimportant, those who faced their death most peacefully and with the least amount of anxiety were those who had faith. When I beheld the faith of these people, I could not help feeling that it touched upon something much deeper than belief. One can believe certain things and still be dominated by fear - and many religious people are. This faith was something different. Those who had it were aware of something. Aware of what?

I remember Joanna. She was young, just 30 and dying of kidney failure. She did not, could not respond verbally, but as I formed a connection with her through music I felt myself changed, aware of a very deep peace, and aware of that peace surrounding Joanna like an aura.

I turned to her mother, who was standing next to me, and I told her, “There is a lot of love in this woman.” She looked astonished. She asked me: “How did you know?” Then she told me how Joanna spent her life volunteering to help others, how she would make sandwiches and bring them to homeless people, regretting only that she didn’t make enough. I felt that love present with Joanna now. Her passing was a deeply peaceful moment not only for her but for those present with her as well.

I remember Muriel. Muriel, who felt so grateful being in that hospital sitting in her wheelchair. “Because right in this chair is where God is” she told me, slapping the chair’s side rails for emphasis. Muriel suffered greatly from her cancer and was prone to fits of vomiting. “What’s a little thing like vomiting,” she told me as I brought the basin to her, “when you feel that God is present?” Once again, this faith was more than belief. Muriel was aware of something. And it was powerful enough to dispel her fears.

Muriel’s daughter filled in some missing details. From the time Muriel was little her mother trained her in love, sending her on her own to feed a neighbor who was too old and sick and frail to feed herself. When she was older, Muriel cooked Thanksgiving dinners and brought them to homeless people in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. And she gave shelter in her own home to immigrants from her native Trinidad who had no place to stay.

I remember the day Muriel died, as her friends gathered round her and we sang a song entitled “There’s a Spirit of Love in This Place.” We felt not only love but peace, sharing the peace Muriel gave to all of us, which carried her through those final moments.

I remember Lillian, who used to be a nurse and who still seemed more like a nurse than a patient when she lived in our hospice, dying of a very rare form of cancer. Lillian would check on the other patients, making them comfortable, reassuring them, attending to details such as finding a blanket to cover one very old woman’s cold feet. On Lillian’s last day she spoke at length about how deeply grateful she was for her life, and especially for that moment. Her manner changed, as though she were speaking not from this world but from another, which only she could see. Then she rose suddenly from her pillow, exclaiming that she saw the face of an angel.

I thought of all the times I get upset about little things, and marveled at these people who could face their pain and even their own deaths with such confidence. If this was true faith, then I wanted to understand it.

“God is love, and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them” (1 John 4:16). That is faith. True faith, the kind that carries one even through the fear of death, comes from love, and from a life lived in love. Such love brings us the awareness of God. And so faith is the awareness of the power of eternity.

And now we come to love. Not every love can serve as the basis of faith. Most love is self-interested, based upon desire and even containing much fear. But there is a different kind of love, accessible to all of us, which takes us out of fear. It is the love Jesus taught. We can call it non-self-interested love: “For if you love [only] those who love you, what reward do you have?” Jesus challenges us (Matthew 5:46). We are called towards a love that takes us beyond ourselves, towards a new appreciation of the other.

This theme runs throughout the Gospels. The Hebrew Bible tells us to “love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Jesus begins with Hebrew prophecy, and his words echo many parallel passages from his spiritual mentor Isaiah. Jesus builds specifically on this teaching, directing us to love others regardless of whether they belong to our group or can give us anything back. But how is this possible? Can we really just love everybody? That would seem to make love meaningless.

It is not meaningless at all if we can learn to think of love differently, not primarily as emotion but as awareness. One story in the Gospels (Luke 19) brings this out more clearly than any other. Zacchaeus was a hated tax collector, a real “bad guy” in the eyes of those he exploited. Yet Jesus saw something in him that others did not, and to the great distress of the crowd he invited himself to the hated man’s house! Having experienced Jesus’s awareness of him, Zacchaeus reformed. While others saw Zacchaeus as a symbol of the oppressive Roman Empire, Jesus saw him as an individual. Jesus loved him, and Zacchaeus was transformed by that love.

So we may define love, in this spiritual sense, as awareness of the individuality of the other.

That might not sound like much. But awareness is a powerful thing. As we have just seen, it has the power to transform completely another’s experience. It also changes the one who is aware, the one who loves. Often we insulate ourselves from others. We assign people to categories: that’s the one I report to at work, that’s the one who drives the bus to get me there, and that’s the one who nearly bumped into me on a crowded street. We do not usually perceive the whole individual. Love changes our perception, revealing to us a complete human being rather than some shadowy figure whose only purpose is to play some specific role in our lives.

And with that change in perception comes a change in who we are. Our awareness of another’s full individuality brings with it feelings of warmth, benevolence, a desire for that person’s well being. By these signs we can identify this awareness as love. It makes us loving, which not only benefits the other but heals us as well.

One might object: “Isn’t it true that in many cases, the more aware we become of someone, the more annoyed we feel, especially if that person really is annoying? After all, ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’”

If after getting to know someone better one feels annoyance rather than good will, one might be experiencing overexposure, but it isn’t awareness. This was Jesus’s great insight: the very people whom society thought it knew well enough to reject - lepers, prostitutes, disabled people, tax collectors - cannot help drawing our love if we spend the time and make the effort to get to know them truly on a deep level. Jesus drew resentment from onlookers who thought, “How can you possibly love these people?” “What good are they to anybody else?” Yet in the presence of Jesus’s love many of them were healed. That is the true miracle, which the Gospels describe using a language of symbols.

I have been blessed to have experienced this many times with the people with whom I work. Since I left private practice I have been working with people on the margin: people at the point of death, or the very poor in city hospitals and nursing homes. I doubted whether I could handle it at first. But the experience has changed me deeply.

I’ll give just one example. The woman’s name was Eleanor. She had been a client of mine in a chronic-care hospital, and she attended my music therapy groups. She was overweight and severely diabetic, and because of poor circulation had one leg amputated. She was depressed, and sometimes expressed it with angry outbursts that could make her hard to handle.

One day as I was walking the halls of the hospital I heard furious screams coming from the lobby. It was Eleanor. She was waiting to be picked up for dialysis, and her transportation was late. She blamed the security guard and screamed at him, calling him a liar and a son of a bitch. He shouted at her that she’d lost her privileges and would have to wait upstairs in her room. He grabbed her wheelchair roughly and began to take her back when I interrupted him, told him that I knew her and that I would take her myself.

We sat together in Eleanor’s musty room, whose absence of light seemed to match her mood perfectly. We just sat there, and she opened up, about how she knew her mind and body were failing her, and about how she thoroughly despised herself. I pulled out my guitar and started to play. She cracked a smile and even started singing with me. We sang about friendship, we sang about faith, we sang about trust, about troubled times. It made her feel good, she said.

Looking at Eleanor, I felt a deep love. I don’t think it shames me as a therapist to admit that. This love came from an awareness of Eleanor’s full being, not just the angry appearance she presented to the world. I am sure this love transformed both of us.

Eleanor died the next day, and I felt happy that at least just before her death she had experienced acceptance.

This definition of love, as the awareness of another’s individuality, works for me. Awareness also includes a respect for boundaries, seeing the separateness of the other as well as the projections we tend to form that we call “countertransference.” So I believe this love works not only in one’s personal life but also in the therapeutic context. It even works with clients one may dislike, who may not touch our hearts as Eleanor touched mine. Love does not always need to feel good. We can practice this deep awareness even of those we find disagreeable, discovering that it changes our perceptions of them. Often it can make the difference in how beneficial we are. Our clients know when they are loved, even when they believe they deserve to be hated.

And so I find this love an invaluable asset in my current work as a resident advocate defending patients’ rights in a tough nursing home and hospital facility. There we have some of the poorest clients in the city, many with criminal backgrounds and attitudes to match. Antagonism between patients and staff is extremely common. It’s not unusual to see patients screaming and cursing and even threatening the staff, and to hear staff members speak of them with disdain. Without an understanding of this kind of love to guide me, I would be totally lost. I may not feel good about every patient. But I do treat each one with respect and dignity, and above all, with the effort to become fully aware of that person’s world, perceptions, and individuality. As a result I have often been able to serve as liaison between patient and staff when communication has broken down between them.

And now, having explored the meaning of this love, we can finally understand faith. Both are rooted in awareness. While love is awareness of the individual, faith is awareness of the eternal. Love is our presence with others. Faith is God’s presence with us.

Genuine faith grows out of love. Through a practice of deep awareness we can learn to become a loving presence with others. As we do so, love itself becomes a presence with us. It becomes real to us. It takes us beyond ourselves, beyond the limitations of our egoism and self-interest. This particular kind of love thus becomes a conscious participation in something greater than us. A love that is greater than us, drawing us beyond ourselves, uniting us with others including even the stranger - that’s a pretty good description of God. “God is love, and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them.”

It is liberating to have a faith that does not depend on the acceptance of any specific religious doctrine. The symbols of religion can support faith, but true faith does not originate in those symbols. It originates in love; otherwise those symbols become ends in themselves, rendering them powerless or even demonic. The beauty of this love is its simplicity. Just by practicing the awareness of others, we can come closer to God.

And not least of all, through the practice of this love I may say that as a therapist I can love my clients, with no need to apologize.