Loving and going over the wall

By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

Last week, sitting next to my friend’s 98-year-old mother at a pre-wedding dinner, I asked teasingly if her sharp mind and good spirits were due to great genetics.  “Partly”, she said (two siblings in their 90’s were also in the room).  “But”, she told me, her personal secret to her alertness and capacity for happiness came from loving people.   I observed, over the weekend, how she was sought out by individuals of all ages.  She looked into their eyes.  She listened.  She responded.  She didn’t talk very much about herself.  A model of loving interaction.

And so I’m riffing on the theme of loving, as a person for whom it’s the source, the Way, the salvation of mere mortals, but who also continues to see through a glass darkly.

Joy provided a dynamic concept in the quest to understand more deeply how to approach our longing to love and be loved.  Highlighting the “fleeting” quality of tangible moments where we know we have connected with another , she points to the tough reality of love experienced.  It can’t be pocketed or held in the hand.  It won’t be controlled.

I think that if we’ve had enough loving connection by the time we’re moving into puberty, we manage quite well with that truth.  But the absence of loving connection in the starting years of life and the missing self-confident core self — that takes for granted that one is lovable — can put the life force askew so that energies are mis-spent, or destructive.  Without self-love, there is so much risk, so much pain, and much less chance of finding stable love.

Infancy and Childhood – Lucky in Love Forms the Core

In childhood, if we’re lucky, we grow in a circle of love.  Consistent personal connection with at least one loving ‘other’ allows the formation of a self, a core of being that propels our capacity to handle the world productively.  If a loving connection never develops (parents or some ‘other’ aren’t available to the child), I think we enter a kind of traumatic state where the seeking for love dominates our intentionality.  Attention seeking, performing for others, continual watchfulness, is visible in kids who aren’t developing a stable core self, and it is often evident that there is no reliable loving person in their lives.  No real connection.  Less capacity to learn, change, grow.  That’s how important I think ‘knowing you’re loved’ is.

You can enter puberty taking love for granted if in those early years you’ve known you’re loved.  Remembering the love between you and some Other is enough – fleeting moments are enough.

Experienced Love as Fleeting

In romantic love, the ‘falling in love’ period can be wonderfully protracted and we feel it acutely.  If we’re lucky (or blessed by the Holy Spirit), a substantial connection can be maintained and become a lifelong treasure.

But in terms of the feeling of love over the long term, the “one and only” moments when we feel precious and special start to come more haphazardly and we slowly become reconciled to the reality that even when love undergirds our lives, experience of the “fleeting moment” is the shape of it.

Love in Action

Yet, personal relationships – the foundation of founding, raising, being a family – provide a template for a broader kind of loving in the world.  The actions that Joy’s sister pointed to as deserving high attention (in her frustration with a TV pitch for loving the disabled, which left out the obvious needs for income, jobs, housing) are indeed essential expressions of a loving concern.  Without a strong identification with those who suffer, on the part of the volunteers, workers, the movers and shakers who provide money, things don’t get done.  That identification, which means that people will be compelled to consider someone else’s needs as equally important to their own, is an essential part of loving.  The great social movements through hundreds of years have, I think, occurred because enough people really cared.  They identified with those in poverty. And so love took form.

Love as I-Thou Relating

What about a personal loving connection with those in grip of poverty?  How important is it?  I don’t know.  But for me it’s the most I can do.  I can’t change personally change lives.  I can share moments when I’m connected to another soul, and I think that may contribute to hope, to comfort, to courage to carry on.  For both of us.  Not having a strong core at one’s centre entering adulthood doesn’t mean one can never grow.  But growing does, I think, require loving connection

But it’s not easy to find opportunities for such loving.  Charities keep us at arm’s length.  We care, we give time and money, but as Joy said, go back to our comfort, untouched. , not touching. What opportunities are there for entering a relationship that has the possibility of opening to moments of loving personal connection?

Opportunities for loving the needy – can we find them?

For me, not trained for social work, it has happened through what I think of as serendipity, good luck – the Holy Spirit at work.  I was initiated by volunteering at drop-ins where meals, or heated rooms, or mats to sleep on are offered to homeless people by others who care enough to get involved.  It can take time to get used to the differences that keep us apart (sights, sounds, smells, habits) but one day I found myself ‘over the wall’, on the other side, seeing people around me as people, not as “the homeless”.  And late one night, I had a long conversation with a native man who had a long tale to tell.  Half of it might have been made up, but sitting alone together in the semi-darkened room was more the point than what he said.  I was able to be fully there.  We are still friendly to this day, 20 years later.  He’s still on the street.  And we don’t have many moments of real connection now that I live far away.  But I was with him at the graveside after his brother died on the streets and worked with Native services to help him get housing.  He called me when his girlfriend died and I was able to help him put together a simple memorial service for her.  He has entered my heart.  And so have a dozen of his buddies, several of whom are now dead.  We both know the boundaries but they are now more elastic than rigid.

A mantra that was comforting when we as volunteers wondered what value there was to our work: we might relieve misery, reduce suffering and restore dignity, a night at a time.

I’ve moved away from working with homeless and poor people.  But I realize there are people to love all around me.  Children, old people living alone, people in hospitals, in jails.  I may again move out of my beloved quietude and spend some time among them.

Others find other ways of going over the wall.   Those who have raised their families at L’Arche in Richmond Hill are among them.  I learn continually from others who have gone further, deeper, more bravely into loving.


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