Like many, I am a huge fan of the show This is Us. More often than I could say, a line from the show causes me to pause, to think, to reflect, to wonder. Last night’s finale was no different. But before this turns into a blog about a TV show, let me shift my focus to the line that prompted this blog. One character to another said, “Next time you tell me that you love me, make sure it’s not out of habit.”
People who love me have heard me ask, “Why do you love me?” I don’t ask that question because I want to hear a list of things someone else admires in me. Nor do I want to hear the person go on and on about the qualities they see in me that make me outstanding to them in some way. Rather, I ask the question for the very reason the line in the show was stated. That is, because I believe it is important to know why you love someone. After all, if love is an active verb (as I’ve often written it is), shouldn’t we be actively aware of what it is in a person that makes us love them?
I have to wonder how many people are in relationships where the cause of their love is somehow lost. Certainly, as people grow and change, some of the qualities we fall in love with in the beginning of a relationship may also change – in both good and bad ways. Therefore, instead of simply getting in the habit of routinely saying “I love you,” day after day, month after month, year after year, I think it is important to reflect on our love for another person from time to time. I believe that reflection is an act of love in itself. It gives us a much greater awareness of why we love someone well beyond the reasons we fell for them in the first place. And then, when we say “I love you,” it is a confident statement rooted in the present, instead of something buried in habit and obligation for which the cause may no longer even be known.
Lots of people stay together or even get back together because they share a history. And certainly, those shared experiences bond us to another person in a meaningful way. But like the character on the show, I don’t want someone to stick around because times were once good or because they once saw something in me worth loving. Love simply cannot be that complacent. Moreover and perhaps even more importantly, I believe that active reflection about love leads to gratitude. And so when I feel annoyed because he forgot to call, or because he left a spoon in the sink, my active reflection about why I love him reminds me that the spoon wasn’t that important after all.
Three words said casually between people who’ve been together for a while can often feel routine. We get in the habit of saying them almost mindlessly. But I’d argue that the words “I love you” probably make us more vulnerable than anything we say to another person. When we say them, I believe they should be said with intention and without doubt that love is an action, promoted by something we can identify and appreciate. So tell people you love them. But once in a while tell them why. That why is a celebration not only of the love that exists, but also of the people who make it come alive.
In the book of Jeremiah, we are asked, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” Modern day interpretation of the question leaves us with the more widely known phrase: “A leopard can never change his spots.” And perhaps the implied question is the same: Can we, in fact, change who we fundamentally are?
This week, as I listened to the Passion of Christ being read aloud in church, I wept. I was overwhelmed by humanity’s cowardice; by the ease in which we follow the popular opinion; by the power of our fear and the intensity of our anger; and by the limits of our closed-mindedness. I reflected on those same qualities in myself. And now, in light of the passage from Jeremiah, I am led to question the spots I bear on my own coat.
This reflection was also strengthened by an interaction I had with another leopard. His spots are well known to me. He’s been showing them for years. And despite my naïve hope that his spotted coat will someday turn into a more majestic demonstration of character, that remains to be seen.
I don’t think it’s true that people can’t change. In fact, I think they change all the time. But I do think it is a choice. And that choice – or free will – is a gift to us from God. To say, “This is just who I am,” is a cop out. Only when we abandon the excuses we make for our spots can we make new discoveries about what lies within us.
Changing and staying the same are choices. As the season of Lent comes to a close, I am looking at my spots. While they make me human, I also know that God will help me to change them. I just have to choose.