Strength Comes When I Love You For Your Sake (Not Because There's Something In It For Me)
I almost started that title with the word "happiness" instead of "strength," but an example in real life immediately came to mind that ruled "happiness" out. That's right, when we love others for their sake and not our own, it gives us strength -- powerful, enduring, marvelous strength that we didn't know was possible.
But it doesn't always give us happiness -- at least not in the normal, self-satisfied, earthly sense. (Though it can certainly give us deep spiritual joy -- i.e. the "blessed are you" that Jesus described in the Beautitudes).
But sometimes it's downright miserable.
This "example in real life" that came to mind -- the thing that proved that the title should read "strength" not "happiness" -- is that precarious situation when the deepest romantic love -- the most intense form of "Eros" in all its glory -- is denied access and expression toward the beloved. It is denied not because the beloved, the object of your affection, has rejected you, but because circumstances of life -- war, famine, family/cultural strife (i.e. the Capulet family vs. the Montague family in Romeo and Juliet) or other unforeseen disasters/problems -- cause long-term or permanent separation.
Ok, So What Does It Mean to Love Someone For Their Sake (and Not Our Own)?
It's a simple truth really: we can choose to love someone out of self-centered motives -- sort of the way we love a really good product as long as it gives us some kind of benefit -- or we can choose to love someone for their sake alone, whether or not we get anything out of it.
Modern vernacular sometimes calls this "unconditional love." Ancient thinkers called it "agape" love. Not long ago they called it "charity."
It's a kind of love that is wholly focused on the well-being of the recipient, and it is forgetful of self -- sort of like an absent-minded professor who forgets to eat dinner, tie his shoes, and check for traffic before crossing the street because his mind is so preoccupied with the well-being of someone else who happens to be in the hospital. He's wondering how she is doing, is checking his messages, and is generally just contemplating her so thoroughly that any practical concerns for himself fade into the background. And that kind of love isn't just limited to romantic love. We can do it when we're concerned about our parents or caring for a sick child or helping a homeless person at a shelter -- the list goes on and on. The common thread through all of them is simple: unconditional love is, in a way, always self-destructive and always self-forgetful.
Yet, if you can believe it, it's a good kind of self-destructive.
To be clear, other loves -- especially romantic love -- can also be self-destructive (i.e. when Romeo and Juliet commit suicide), but agape love is the only "self-destruction" that actually improves the state of your soul.
The Bad Kind of Self-Destructive Love (Because It's Self-Obsessed)
Let's look at a specific example of the bad kind of self-destruction.
I'll stick with Shakespeare for this example. The much-romanticized "love suicide" in Romeo and Juliet is, at its core, self-centered and self-obsessed, not altruistically others-focused. Because Romeo and Juliet couldn't be together, they chose to end their lives. They chose to deprive the world of the gifts, talents, and acts of goodwill and service they had to offer. When Juliet, for example, woke from her sleeping potion and found Romeo dead (because he killed himself after mistakenly thinking that she had died), she stabbed herself to death. But what if she had chosen to live? She could've mourned Romeo for the rest of her life, but (as cheesy as it sounds) instead of killing herself she could have re-purposed her pain into a life of helping others.
Sure that would have diminished the power of the story and fought against Shakespeare's theme of tragedy that he was working hard to paint, but, I have to say, G.K. Chesterton was right when he said that killing yourself is like killing the whole world.
A Strength That Can Be Priceless
I'm not really wagging my finger at people who have Romeo and Juliet tendencies. Why? Because this is coming from one of those people -- someone who has, from an early age, committed the idolatrous mistake of worshiping at the altar of Eros. Even as early as my childhood I used to think that the romantic love found in stories like Romeo and Juliet was the ideal -- the highest, holiest love. I was (and still am, to a more restrained degree) a hopeless romantic.
But I've stumbled upon something profound. When we genuinely love someone for their sake -- without a shred of a thought about what we could get out of it -- the ceilings vanishes and the whole sky opens above you.
There is a larger-than-life liberation that happens.
It may not be the "happily ever after" kind of liberation where we go skipping away into the sunset because we got everything we wanted in a neat Hollywood ending. It is the kind of liberation that breathes a second wind into your stride just when you think you've run out of all energy to run the race.
It's not rocket science either. It works very simply: you're so invested in their happiness (not obsessed with your own) that the mere thought of their well-being is enough to change your attitude. Their well-being becomes an Absolute Idea that exists whether or not you benefit from it. It exists independently from your mind just as the mountain on the horizon or the ocean that roars night and day whether you hear it or not. And the mere knowledge of their well-being -- especially if your suffering/sacrifices/hardship, etc. somehow contributes to it -- may not fill you with some magical fairy tale happiness that safeguards you from heartbreak.
But it will fill you with new strength.