In a consumer society, loving means an addition to what the self has already accumulated. One of the manifestations of it is in our entertainment industry when a celebrity marries another celebrity, they would sign a pre-nuptial contract in which each partner has no claim to what the other partner owned prior to the marriage.
But, this is not the only example. In ordinary life, there is a sense that one only commits oneself to a relationship or friendship if the other party is totally submissive to the whims of oneself. For instance, a rich man marries a beautiful woman, showers her with everything, and the woman, on the other hand, is more interested in his money than himself. It is based on the idea that love is like a commodity that can be consumed, a claim to total passivity on the other, to feed only one’s desire.
Relationships like this, ones that are based on submission and passivity and compliance, always end up in disasters or regression. A lot of power relationships operates in this way, actually – especially government or state – in exacting compliance on the people rather than participation in democratic process.
The philosopher Byung-Chul Han (The Agony of Eros), in exploring love relationship, says that “the minimum condition for true love is possessing sufficient courage to accept selfnegation for the sake of discovering the other.” Here, self-negation means tending or serving to negate or deny one’s own wishes, needs, value, or important.
Han postulates that in love relationships, one is drawn towards the other but the other is never reducible to one’s definition. The experience of love then is shot through with powerlessness – the price to be paid for all revelation of the “other.”
In other words, the acceptance of the person I love, who is totally different from me, cannot be reduced to merely fulfilling my own desires and wishes. That is why parents who allow their children to create their own future – of course, with their support and guidance – are life-giving to their children.
I met a Filipino couple in Chicago, and they have two children. Both of the parents both work as nurses. In my few years there, they would invite me to go out with the whole family. The eldest, a daughter, was finishing high school. In one conversation where I was present, the daughter was talking about visiting different universities. She was at the top of her class so getting into a good university was not a problem.
She said, “Mom and Dad, these are the courses that came to my mind, and these are the universities that I am invited to and which ones I like–what do you think?” The parents were more practical. The father would say, “Oh, well, make sure you have decided on the career you really want, and maybe think of a good university that suits you, and also think whether we could afford it.” It becomes a dialogue.
She eventually decided to go to Marquette University, a Jesuit university, because she could also get a scholarship.
That is an example of self-negation through the other, whom one loves. One is not reduced to the whims and desire of one party. The other cannot be controlled but only allowed to flourish.
I believe that is the dialect that was shown in Jesus’ relationship with His disciples. Jesus is proposing to them a life of fullness and they are free to respond to that invitation. In fact, one of them totally negated it and that led to Jesus’ death. Jesus accepted that He had no control and power over the response of people to His invitation but nevertheless offered it to them. There is no threat of punishment or wrath, but simply an invitation to love.
In the Gospel of John Chapter 15:12-13, Jesus says, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In John, the way to the Father (God, who is love) is always by means of His self-giving love on the cross.
If Byung-Chul Han is right that the minimum of loving is self-negation, then self-giving of Jesus through His sacrificing love in death is truly radical and revolutionary.
The French philosopher Alian Badlou says that, “love, the essence of which is fidelity to the meaning I give to this word, demonstrates how eternity can exist with in the span of life itself.” (In Praise of Love.)
May we learn the way of Jesus in the way we live our lives, and the way relate with others. May we continue to respond to His invitation to live life fully so others may also fully live.
Columban Fr. Cireneo “Dodong” Matulac lives and works in the Philippines