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On Teaching – and Learning – to Love

A few days ago, after I got home from work, I took my 3-year old (Ransom) and 2-year old (Calvin) outside to the old, wooden swing-set in our backyard, which is, without a doubt, one of their favorite activities. It is also one of the few things they do in near-silence, so it is one of my favorite activities now, too.

It struck me, however, as I pushed them alternately, how unusually quiet they were. The afternoon was cool, and colored leaves periodically fluttered to the ground around us; the only sound was the dull hum of the highway off in the distance and the rhythmic grinding of metal-on-metal. Perhaps it was the smell of autumn on the air, or a siren wailing in the distance, but amid the weariness that has become standard in my life I was suddenly overcome with thankfulness. I am so often caught up in my own frustration, impatience, and exhaustion that I lose sight of what a blessing my children are. My voice, sounding somehow very little like my own, broke the stillness as I gave another push on my son’s small back. “I love you, boys.” The green above us swayed with light and shadow, and there were a few squeaks of the swing as my words hung in the air; Calvin, mesmerized by the swinging, did not respond. Then Ransom, turning his head to look at me as his feet swept up into the air, said, “I love you, Dad.”
When I became a parent I was surprised to discover that children aren’t born knowing how to love. All of the love in a parent-child relationship is, at least initially, decidedly one-sided; children can bring you joy from the moment they are born (even before!) but the ability to show, or even express, love is something that takes some time. Every night as I tuck my children into bed, as I lean down to bury my nose in their hair and kiss them, I whisper those strange words: “I love you. I love you so much.” And, of course, they do not respond in kind, as my wife does when I say those words to her. Ransom has the habit of rubbing my kisses away (or rubbing them in, as he now insists), and Calvin generally is too absorbed in a book to bother with this inscrutable ritual. I had not considered this lopsided sort of relationship before I became a father, and I remember my disappointment when I realized that love–even love–was something that had to be taught, something that had to be learned.
We have been reading portions of The Abolition of Man in my Philosophy/Ethics class at school, and I was struck by this passage:
“Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it–believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt . . .’Can you be righteous,’ asks Traherne, ‘unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.’ St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.”
These ideas are highly counter-cultural.
The older my children get, the more I see how education, in the classical sense, and parenting have much the same goal: to teach our children to love. And here is a great paradox: I am learning to love even as I teach my children to love. As I survey my own failures and shortcomings as a father, I realize that I have learned precious little in the way of loving–that just as my children need to be trained, guided, and taught how to love, so I too must learn that elusive art. It is not something that comes natural to me, not something I was born knowing how to do. And it is a hard, hard lesson to learn. Kallistos Ware’s words concerning repentance might be equally well-applied to the process of learning to love. He says that repentance “is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of life.” In fact, as I write this I wonder if this process of learning to love is simply another way of understanding repentance.

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