The book To Love and to be Loved by Desmond O’Donnell is an in-depth reflection on the deeper meaning of love. Of course the term love is much used and more significantly misused, but the central question here is how do we recognise authentic love?
The author is a registered psychologist and an Oblate priest. He draws on a wealth of experience from his research, lectures, writings and counselling to explore this basic human issue which concerns us all. Love is, after all, essential for full human living. The book is a Dominican publication and the apt epigram is from Robert Browning…
‘Take away love, and the earth becomes a tomb.’
The developed world has greatly changed and in his Forward Fr. O’Donnell notes how we have moved from a culture of authority to a culture of choice. The twenty-two chapters which follow are very easy to read, but the writer’s skill is such that we are enabled to gain very deep insights without being encumbered by complicated language. He also makes use of a variety of wise words from the famous and the not so famous to illustrate his findings. People quoted range from Augustine to Sheila Cassidy taking in Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Primo Levi, Teilhard de Chardin ,Karl Rahner, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Fromm, F. Scott Peck, Charles Curran, and Nellie McLaughlin, to name but a few along the way. He talks about his personal encounters with Victor Frankl, a Buddhist monk and a Japanese Shinto monk, a named Chinese girl and an unnamed Catholic priest.
Each chapter can be read on its own merits and out of sequence. The title of Chapter 2 which is Parental Love would probably be of particular interest to mothers and fathers but there are nuggets of wisdom about every aspect of living e.g. ‘Encouragement is the most powerful motivation in helping a child to grow; sarcasm is the most harmful’ (p.104). The author addresses the child’s experience of love, response to love and the role of the parent. The advice given to the adults not only follows naturally from his description of the child, but is developed in a non-intrusive, almost gentle way.
The Meaning of To Love
The writer devotes seven chapters to looking at what exactly To Love means and his conclusions are developed under the headings of – Feel With; Accept; Encourage; Help; Forgive; Celebrate and Sacrifice. He challenges us to think about what we mean when we say “I Know how you feel” and what does real people-skill mean? We need to differentiate between real interpersonal communication and social noise. True love allows another to be and gives them the invitation to change when necessary without condemnation, criticism or manipulation. One can help without loving but one cannot truly love without helping. We must, always keep in mind the danger that we might be responding to our own needs. The nature of the writing is such that each time you reread a chapter, and you will want to, you will find something else to ponder upon. Fr O’Donnell is the master of the pithy sentence, full of substance and layers of meaning which are accessible even when briefly considered.
He sustains the reader’s interest by references to case studies and the experiences of others like Albert Schweitzer (p. 127). He provides us with a little exercise at the end of Chapter 4 as well as some questions he suggest we ask ourselves at the end of pages 74 and 121. These are exercises designed to enable us to measure the level and the sincerity of our capacity to forgive, and reveal any addictive tendencies we may be harbouring in our friendships with other people. All of this points towards the importance of reflection in our understanding of behaviour and our concepts of love.
Loving the Other
In other parts of the book he asks us to distinguish between our needs and desires in a world where anxiety levels have shot up in every developed country and loneliness and alienation are paradoxically on the increase, despite the fact that ‘communication’ has never been easier.
The breakdown of emphasis on directives and authority means we have to make the choice to love. The writer notes that this may well be more authentic but could also be more difficult. The answer to the question about the nature of love is always about the ‘other’ despite the tension between self-protection and self-gift. The greatest challenge would seem to be how to care for the needs of people we have never seen, when the personal inconvenience involved in loving those we do is often too great a price to pay. If this is true how we will ever love the people who are unlovable, not to mention our shared home Planet Earth? We have of course the example of Jesus Christ and in Chapter 18 Fr O’Donnell also looks at the six Hebrew words which describe God’s love for us. This is very layered, informative and rich in meaning. My own personal favourite chapter is Chapter 15 which differentiates between Love and Enjoyment.
In the past, the writer points out that people did not examine these issues as much, There is a tension between how some people back then remained together without love, because they feared the rules of the Church and the reaction of their peers, and how now ‘for some people sexual intercourse seems to have taken on a life of its own and become a pleasurable pastime, disconnected from any commitment to a permanent relationship’(p. 13). If the solution lies, as most things do, in a balance, then a book like Fr O’Donnell’s is an ideal place to begin.
To Love and to be Loved is available from Dominican Publications
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Written by Marie – Therese Cryan