A conversation about what it really means to love

Awhile back, I saw a quote on Instagram that gave me pause. It showed the words, “Don’t cross oceans for people who wouldn’t cross a puddle for you.” But those words were crossed out with a big X, and below that it read: “No. Do it. Do cross oceans for people. Love people, all people. No conditions attached, no wondering whether or not they are worthy. Cross oceans, climb mountains. Life and love, isn’t about what you gain, it’s about what you give.”

I struggled when I read this. Partly because the grammar and punctuation are off, but mostly because I desperately wanted to agree. In principle, I do agree. Or at least I think I do. I’m re-examining what I believe about compassion and generosity, and I think that’s why this quote gave me such pause. 

This belief—or at least a version of it—has gotten me in trouble. It’s caused me pain. It’s been one of my excuses for causing pain to those close to me. And I know I can’t blame this belief exclusively, but the idea of giving with no holds barred has contributed to loss of self-esteem, sanity, peace, possessions, and finances.

So, when I read this quote on Instagram, my gut wanted to agree with it. But as I was getting ready to hit the little heart in the lower left corner, my mind said, “Hold on a second. Can you really love that quote? Doesn’t that go against the narrative you’re learning to live? The one where you have boundaries and don’t let yourself get taken advantage of?”

I’ve spent some time thinking about this now. Trying to reconcile my beliefs about loving others the way Jesus would with my beliefs about setting boundaries and practicing self-care. And while, as always, I’ve left room for my understanding to evolve, here’s what’s helping me now:

In essence, the quote hits on a core belief of Christianity that I agree with 100 percent: Love everyone, no matter what—even if the subject of conversation is a disrespectful coworker or Ted Bundy.

The thing I believe is missing from the quote is context—and maybe a disclaimer or two. What we need to keep in mind is that loving Bundy looks very different than loving the single mom next door, which looks different than loving the homeless man outside the gas station, which looks different from loving your brother or sister.

A wise woman who has done the work on her own codependency told me, “Sometimes love means letting people hit rock bottom.” It might not look, or even feel, like love, but that’s the point of this conversation.

Maybe some people can hear quotes like the one I shared and automatically understand the different contexts. I’m analytical, so I had to pick it apart—spell it out.

I was taught to love; to share; to give. And it’s in my nature to want to help when there is a need in front of me—be it financial, physical, spiritual, or emotional. I like taking action, and I have a hard time not doing something if I know there is something that could, or possibly should, be done.

This type of thinking leads me to interpret quotes like the one shared here as basically saying:

“Paddle your ass across the ocean for someone who may not care that you’re doing so. Heck, swim across the ocean naked in icy cold water if you need to. Fight off sharks if that’s what it’s goanna take. Climb the mountain to get to them no matter what—even if your energy and food supply are low. Climb the mountain or die trying. Don’t stop to evaluate what you’ll lose or the price you’ll pay. Don’t stop to evaluate whether or not the person wants to be rescued. They can’t make it without you and you’re somehow responsible.”

Of course, written down like that, it sounds a bit extreme. But I operated with a mindset like this one for the first 30ish years of my life. And I have a feeling I’m not the only one.

After all, it was Jesus who said, “greater love hath no man than this, that he laid down his life for his friend.” And then, he demonstrated this.

When we look at the whole of Jesus life, we don’t see someone who was consistently climbing up mountains for people who didn’t want help. We don’t see someone who made himself responsible to immediately fix every single problem for every person he interacted with.

Instead, we see someone who was able to hold the dichotomy of being the Savior of the world, while also not forcing salvation on anyone.

Jesus died for Judas too, but he didn’t try to chase him down and keep him from committing suicide. He forgave Peter for denying him, but he didn’t coddle him or pretend like it was okay.

Dismissing Peter’s actions or forcing Judas to accept forgiveness would be codependent. Thankfully, Jesus isn’t codependent. And because of this, we can learn from him. We can take notes from how he interacted and apply that to our relationships with others.

Jesus healed people who came to him, but we don’t see him barging into houses and saying, “I’m here to fix you.” When Pharisees like Nicodemus asked for help understanding, he was honest and offered hope. But he didn’t try to shove that same message down the throats of Pharisees who weren’t ready to receive it.

Going back to the oceans and mountain metaphor, Jesus didn’t swim and climb to the point of exhaustion. He also set boundaries. He withdrew from crowds. He spent time with God, his father. When he needed food on the Sabbath, he picked grain and ate. He put Peter in check when his words were not beneficial. He didn’t let all disciples join him for every adventure.

Jesus knew that boundaries were essential, and he understood that love is contextual. The quote from Jesus is “greater love hath no man…” and so to understand that quote, we must also understand love.

If Jesus is the greatest example of love and even he set boundaries, then love leaves room for boundaries. In fact, I’d argue that it necessitates them. Boundaries are what will keep our love from becoming codependent.

If we go back to the quote that bothered me—the one about mountains and oceans—it also mentioned love. And I think that’s the key. When I read this quote with a broken understanding of love, I think it’s compelling me to give until I have nothing left. To take on other people’s problems—even if they don’t yet recognize them as problems or want help. Even if I’m not  currently equipped to assist them.  

What I think we as humans often fail to understand is that sometimes, love means not climbing the mountain. Sometimes, love means letting the other person nearly drown and hoping that in the struggle, they’ll learn to swim. Sometimes love means waiting for them to ask for help or telling them they’ll have to wait while you put on a life preserver and get some fuel. Sometimes, it means recognizing I don’t have the solution or the resources to fix things, but maybe I can just listen. 

It sounds harsh to say we might need to let someone nearly drown, but that’s why it’s critical we recognize that love is contextual. Jesus didn’t respond the exact same way to every person he came across, and as I mentioned earlier, he also didn’t force anyone to accept his help.

Like I said at the beginning, this is one I’ve been struggling with. Struggling because I’ve done it wrong and I want to learn to do it well. I’ve called codependency love. I’ve tried to fix people’s problems without setting boundaries to protect myself. I’ve been so frightened at the thought of someone drowning that I’ve haphazardly thrown life preservers their way. The preservers may have kept them floating, but my actions didn’t teach them to swim—or help them reach the shore. 

For me, learning how to love well is a daily process, but I do believe that the most loving thing we can do is to stop before we respond to any situation and ask God what is actually needed. He understands the context, and he’s the author of love.

Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash