“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them” Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island
I read an article by Connor Friedersdorf in Atlantic that put things in a way I wish I could. The piece is: “When ‘Do Unto Others’ Meets the Hook-up Culture.” It’s a piece about sex on campus, traversing traditional Christianity’s teaching on pre-marital sex and unpacking some of the issues around it. The best part is a talk he wished a traditional Christian minister would give on a college campus:
“Christianity prohibits certain things, like murder and stealing and adultery. But I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.
The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them…”
Putting the focus on the other is what Christ calls us to, however there’s a trap within that: putting the focus on what we think the other should be. It’s not just a traditionalist trap, it’s a trap from any perspective as we think ourselves as normal and that others should be like us (the infamous “Typical Mind Fallacy”.) This isn’t just assuming another is going to welcome our advances even if they say “no” but also that as friends or co-workers they’re going to want to live up to our expectations of them.
Pope Francis provides a picture of what he calls “accompaniment” in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel):
“One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel. Our personal experience of being accompanied and assisted, and of openness to those who accompany us, will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow.”
This kind of accompaniment has something to offer us in all of our relationships, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say romantic relationships should be included. It’s our tendency to divorce romance and sex from friendship completely, as if finding a sexual partner is like finding a tennis or workout partner. It seems to be a mistake to separate passion from compassion this way, and this split enables some sexual relationships to become abusive. Every relationship we have should help us become a better person, and everyone we are close to, in whichever way, should help us become our better selves. The reverse is true as well: if we’re not helping people become better, more fully themselves (and not what we want them to be), then we’re the dysfunction in a dysfunctional relationship. If we can’t help someone and they aren’t helping us, then we need to restrict their access to our inner confidence. (I’m not a fan of writing off anyone completely, although I do it as much as anyone else.) Trust is the bedrock for every right relationship, and lack of it a sign that any relationship has problems.
Being who we are is almost common sense (whatever common sense is), for who else are we going to be? Being who we are isn’t a license to project our goals or standards on others, or expect others to pay the price for achieving them. Being who we are isn’t about making our good the Common Good, but the opposite, and being comfortable with whatever unpredictable direction it may take us. In all of our relationships with others, we are called to our best selves for them, and reverence and respect them as completely as we would reverence Christ in the Eucharist.
A frequent mantra is “go with your feelings” and you should absolutely pay attention to your feelings. Feelings are important, and can tell you when things are wrong when they look right, and vice versa. The trouble is feelings can be myopic, short-sighted, and make tons of assumptions about what others want or need. Feelings can tell us wants are equal to needs, and wants have inalienable rights. Feelings should be examined, suspected, doubted, questioned, re-examined all the time. They can go away and sometimes they should without being acted upon. It’s only in within a basic reference of wanting the good for everyone, passionately wanting do to what is just and right, wanting all our relationships to be healthy and outwardly focused, that like Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star, that we can switch off the targeting computer and follow our feelings. If we are passionately committed to Faith and Justice, committed to loving the other as they truly are and want their Good above all else, then we can trust our feelings and follow them, and it will lead us to the best relationships with all we know.