10 Acts of Love: In the living and the dying of our lives

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14 September 2014 - 1:41pm -- charles
“Generosity may end with actions, but it begins with an attitude of the heart. When we generously give our whole selves, we show others how much we value them.”
Gary Chapman, Love as a way of Life

The subject of Love has always been a topic of interest for me having been inspired by many sources including the still small voice of my spirit and conscience, the people in my life, novelists such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and above all the stories and teachings of the Bible. In this particular instance I have felt inspired to write this piece following the passing of my Mother, Sithandiwe Washoma (Nee Nyaningwe), after her battle with cancer in the past year. Her name, Sithandiwe, meant/means ‘we are/have been loved’ and she did make many of us feel that way by the attention she gave to family and friends throughout her life. She also had this effect and caring towards patients throughout her nursing career. She would often receive thank-you letters with flowers and or chocolates from relatives of the people she cared for at Mater Dei Hospital where she worked for many years. In the trying period of her illness I spent the final two months of her life with her in order to be there and to support her through that time. After she passed away I then had occasion to pause and reflect on my 40 years of being her Son and during which I had the joy, and at times the heartache, of being loved by her and loving her in return. More specifically I reflected on the two months I spent with her preceding her passing. Reflecting on all the things we said and did, I identified ten things that I consider important acts of love and that I believe we should all share with our loved ones not only in the face of death but throughout life. I hope that these acts of love will be a blessing to you but before touching on them I’d like us to briefly look at the importance of relationships and what love means to that experience.

Life & Relationships
Relationship is at the core of our experience of life. At the center of that experience is love. It takes love to reach out and to connect. Our association and connection to others occurs for many reasons including family ties, friendships, and common interests. In relationship we can’t take on a winner-loser perspective as both or all the people involved need to win in order for it to work. There is a giving and a getting that must take place. For this to occur there has to be a level of caring that can only be inspired by love. Acts of love help us to go beyond the surface of clichés in our relationships to a deeper more intimate and meaningful level of connection.

The Hebrew word for love, ahava, means “I give”. It is a verb and is therefore concerned with action. I always find it worthwhile referencing a very wise and inspired definition of love, quoted below:

“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
1 Corinthians 1:4-7

Love may be experienced in the presence of our own solitude, in the company of others, and when praying or reflecting on God. It is important to always remember that Love is ever present, it cannot be taken from you, and it is the one thing we can ‘take’ with us to the realms of eternity. Love neither increases nor diminishes however it is our contact and experience of it that ebbs and flows depending on a number of factors including our circumstances, thoughts and emotions. The most important influence in our experience of love is choice. Relationships are an opportunity for intimacy that should always allow us to be ourselves and that should also bring out the best in/of us. These relationships are a celebration of life itself and who we are in this life experience. Other than by the Creator we are only ever truly known by those people that we are in relationship with. The expression of love involves being intimate in the various forms and dimensions of our being that is: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical.
Love and Relationships
Sadly popular culture has tended to distort our understanding and experience of love. Firstly modern culture often teaches us that to be successful you have to go out there and get what you want, often at all cost. This is often what it is to be considered a winner and is carried by many into their relationships with people both at work and at home. Love requires that both get and not that one wins and one loses. Secondly, most references to intimacy in current times tend to focus on sex. Whilst sexual contact, lovemaking, between couples is an act of intimacy which entails more than a physical act I am not necessarily talking about sex when speaking of intimacy. It is not the primary purpose of love and is unfortunately often engaged without the presence of genuine love. What we want to consider is the act of simply connecting, caring, empathizing, and doing so without expectation, condemnation or judgment. The idea of unconditional and pure love that is not centered on our own delights and pleasures is well stated in a poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning, Sonnet 14, which states “If thou must love me, let it be for nought Except for love’s sake only. Do not say “I love her for her smile – her look – her way Of speaking gently”….For these things in themselves, Beloved, may Be changed, or change for thee – and love, so wrought, May be unwrought so….But love me for love’s sake, that evermore Thou mayest love on, through love’s eternity. ”

To truly love is a great risk. We come into relationships and situations with both our strengths and weaknesses but sadly we often hide our imperfections for fear of ridicule or rejection. Yet the intention of true relationship is to support and bolster us up not to put us down. We need to accept ourselves and others in order to be free to love and to receive love. Choice gives us the power to love and be loved even through hurt, anger, resentment, and failure. The notion of ‘falling’ or being ‘in love’ whilst appealing requires no effort on our part and renders us powerless and prey to the elements. On the other hand the choice to love and be love opens up endless possibilities for us to bless and to be blessed, for us to grow and to also empower others.

Acts of Love
As mentioned above I have identified ten acts of love I believe are significant to our expression and experience of love and these are as follows:

  1. Laughter – A smiling happy face is attractive and appealing. Laughter is both a product and producer of joy and happiness. It is well documented that laugher increases endorphins and immune cells in the body. It helps us to relax and adds zest to life and also reduces stress. Laughing is fun; it’s easy, and in most instances doesn’t cost a cent. To illustrate just how much people want to laugh the UK currently has a problem with people getting ‘high’ on laughing gas which apparently has side effects including potential death. I am sure you will agree it is far better to derive laughter from relationships and the joy of life than for us to turn to illicit and dangerous drugs. Through the pain and anguish of my Mother’s battle with cancer we found many light moments to talk of fond memories and to even joke. These were moments of shared joy as laughter uplifted our spirits. Through laughter our joy was increased and our sorrow reduced. Laughter in addition to joy helps us cope with difficult painful situations. It helps not to be so self-conscious and to learn to laugh even at ourselves. It is very liberating. Our laughter should therefore be for joy and not done at the expense of other people’s feelings.
  2. Crying – Facing our feelings helps us to come to terms with our emotions and difficulties, it helps us to move on, releasing the burden of all those feelings also releases toxins from the body. When we are open to cry in the presence of our loved ones we are open to receive their comfort and love. It may appear weak to some, especially men, but it takes strength to cry whether privately or in public. Pent-up emotions can lead to or increase levels of depression. I remember holding my mother in my arms and crying as I once did in my childhood not wanting her to go but to always be there to laugh with me, to comfort, and to even scold me when and if I took a wrong turn. She also shed a tear but admittedly was far stronger than I was. When all our emotions had been poured out there was an acceptance of our reality and a sense of freedom to share and talk at an even deeper level.
  3. Talking – Speech is one of the most powerful attributes that we posses and communication is important to relationships. It is an act of self-expression and an inclusion of other people; it helps us to process our thoughts and gives us opportunity to hear back from others. It helps us to let others know how we view the world, our interests, thoughts, feelings, and expectations. As such it helps us to be understood, make friends, and even in re-solving arguments. Many of us have heard it said that “In the tongue lies the power of life and death”. Our words should therefore be positive and life giving. We need to communicate in a way that is open, honest, and caring. Our conversations should be acts of sharing that reveal the essence of who we are. To develop close relationships we need to move past the clichés and basic chit-chat towards more intimate personal exchange where we enquire earnestly about others and their wellbeing. We obviously risk disagreement and other consequences in expressing our opinions but the great rewards of love are well worth it. We’re all searching for truth and clarity or increased knowledge on our beliefs as we journey through life and as such it’s important to accept people where they are because none of us are perfect and we’re all uniquely different. Discussion is therefore a key part of any relationship and needs to be done while keeping the core purpose of our relationships in mind, which is to help each other become the best of ourselves while embracing the life journey together. This helps to build agreement and gives us an ability to gracefully disagree in areas of difference. I often received calls from my siblings, extended family, and church family which allowed me to talk through and process what was happening in the final days of my mothers’ illness. Other than frequent visits to the doctors and dealing with a regimen of prescriptions the one thing my Mother and I did much of was talking. We spoke honestly and with love about things that troubled us presently and in the past. We shared our hearts. In the face of death our raging carnality, with its ego, takes a backbench. We have nothing to defend, to judge, or to assert. Our core essence, the spirit, comes screaming out to be heard because when death comes to the flesh we suddenly realize that, at the core, we are truly living spiritual beings. The state of our spirit becomes paramount in such instances whether we are the ones dying or whether it is a close friend or family member, and at times strangers for that matter. Some of the issues we talked through were regarding our Christian faith and areas that my Mother felt disillusioned with. God according to His wisdom made it possible for me to be there with her, and to be where I am in my own walk and faith, at that time such that we were able to talk through and to reconcile some of those issues. Those conversations were so crucial and opened a great door that allowed my mother to pass on in peace.
  4. Embracing – Hugging is an act of giving and receiving. It helps us to feel safe and secure in the reassuring touch of another as well as to give that assurance ourselves. In embrace we feel protected and stress free. The connection, intimacy, and trust generated by embracing others help dispel loneliness and isolation. As we embrace we accept and are accepted by others which help to promote honest communication. These positive effects also increase our self-esteem. A few of days before her passing my Mother, who was now completely bedridden, needed her position changed so that she could lie more comfortably on her back in a sitting up position. As everyone (relatives and nurses) gathered around and rallied to her aid she said “wait” insisting “I want Charles to do it”. I was naturally happy to oblige and stepped closer while everyone else moved back.  As I held her ready to hoist her up she put her arms around me, placing her head on my shoulder and just rested there with no effort to move. At that moment I realized that what she wanted was for me to do nothing but just for me to hold her in my arms. As I held and embraced my mother I can honestly say I caught a glimpse of eternity. In that moment of stillness and silence everything and everyone disappeared. Even we, my mother and I, disappeared. I could not see or hear anything or anyone else. There was complete acceptance and surrender. There was no question, or hesitation, or words to be spoken, only acceptance. As we held each other, in that moment, all that remained was love. That moment was exactly that, a brief moment, but it felt like an eternity. It felt like a peek into Heaven. In that moment I felt and saw the essence of Heaven through the eyes of my heart. I didn’t know it at the time but that was the last time I would hug and embrace my Mother.
  5. Singing – Throughout history humanity has been singing for many reasons including praise and worship, and to mark special occasions such as birthdays and weddings. Singing uplifts the spirit and like laughter it evokes positive emotions, improves breathing, releases endorphins, removes toxins, and increases immune cells in the body.  As evidenced even at funerals we sing to reassert our faith, values and beliefs for comfort and the furtherance of our lives in the face of death. My Mother was very fond of her hymn book which if I recall correctly she had been given by her mother, my grandmother. One day I decided to pull out the hymn book and read her favourite hymns to her which she warmly welcomed. I first read the hymns, rather than singing them, as I felt self conscience and didn’t want to sing out of tune however as I read more I felt the desire not only to sing but to worship. As I sang she began to also sing and we worshiped together. Her favourit English hymns were ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’, and ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’. It was a joyous and uplifting experience for us both one that I will always remember.
  6. Reading – My upbringing as a child did not involve being read to by my parents or any other elders for that matter as the tradition was based more on simply being told stories whether fiction or fact. However with the advent of moving from the rural areas to the city, going to school, and the introduction of television into our home I do recall enjoying it class teachers read stories as well  enjoying television programs that included someone reading children’s stories. I recall this did capture my imagination. In fact although in later years I developed a strong desire for reading I did much prefer hearing a story to reading it. Exposure to reading is a wonderful vehicle of adventure and exploration that gives mental stimulation, knowledge, and that also reduces stress and worry. I now love to read to such an extent that not a single day passes without my reading. While my mother was sick and bedridden the situation provided an opportunity for me to do what I love to do whilst undertaking an enriching act of love by reading to her. I read her verses from the Bible, newspaper articles, and interesting pieces and excerpts from books I was reading at the time. I did this sitting up with her in the day and at times through the night. Whilst the information and stories read may be of interest and inspiring, hearing the voice of a loved one that we care for and that we know loves and cares for us may be of greater value and also gives comfort and healing to the soul.
  7. Prayer – A core function of relationship is helping each other to become the best of ourselves and this includes growing in our faith. To pray with and or for others is a wonderful gift and act of love and affection. It is an opportunity to bestow blessings and to be blessed by others. The experience encourages all those involved and gives hope for life and the future. This is a very deep connection that involves sharing our spirituality and relationship with God. As I prayed with and for my Mother we both drew strength and encouragement. We prayed earnestly to the one in whom we have put our trust taking comfort in scripture: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 It is amazing how uplifting the prayers of others can be. I very much appreciated prayers from my Brothers and Sisters in the church. Knowing what was happening they could pray, specifically, for us as we confronted our challenges. We also had an aunty who would faithfully pass by our home on her way to church early on Sunday mornings offering her prayers and encouragement. According to the seven day account of creation after God created the Heavens and the Earth he declared "Let us make man in our image" (Genesis 1:26). This shows that God was already in community. He enjoys being in community with us and it is in our very nature to desire not only to be in community (with each other) but to be in community with Him, a void that only he can fill. Prayer is a powerful way of establishing, maintaining, and growing that connection. Let’s share in this wonderful privilege.
  8. Giving – We give the essence of ourselves when we are truly in relationship. This is how love thrives. There are many ways in which we can give; we can give of our time, our wisdom, our wealth, and ultimately of our love. As we give we show appreciation not only for those we love but to anyone that our hearts are open to bless whether it’s with a material gift or simple words of affirmation. Giving blesses both the giver and the recipient. In addition to the positive effects it has on those to whom we give it gives us a sense of meaning, gratification, and joy to know we have been of use and help to others. These positive emotions also promote better health and reduced stress in our lives. From a young age I remember how gladly and freely my mother gave of her time as well as material possessions. We didn’t have much at home but she always taught us, through her actions, the importance of sharing as she would make provisions for relatives who were not as fortunate as we were. She was also good in giving her time and energy to see to relatives, far and wide, who were either sick or bereaved. Perhaps this partly explains my own desire to love and to give freely. At the age of ten, while on a school trip, I used my pocket money to buy a gift for mother. The gift was a plaque with a beautiful poem titled “Mother”. I still remember how she lit up when I gave it to her. She was a bit concerned that I had not spent the money on myself and told me that in future I shouldn’t worry to get her anything but to have fun and spend the money on myself. That said all concern seemed to melt away as she glowed with the happiness of receiving that gift from me. She immediately placed it above the mantel piece in the lounge. From then on she always found somewhere prominent to place the plaque if and whenever we moved house. Thirty years later, at the time of her passing, in 2013 she still had the gift proudly displayed in the living room at home. I was deeply touched at how she kept and treasured the gift, my sign of love and affection, all those years spanning three decades. She kept it in the same way she kept my siblings and me, with so much love and caring. This is how we should all treasure our loved ones and the experience of love in our lives. I am also reminded of and touched by the generosity of family and friends who gave materially and of their time and love through the trying time of my mother’s illness and passing. Love is the great gift of life!
  9. Gratitude – It is important to appreciate the people in our lives whether it is family at home or friends at work. This appreciation can be through words of gratitude as well as other actions that expressly show our appreciation. One way that I actively showed gratitude to my mother was by simply saying ‘I love you’ words I heard her telling me so many times in my childhood and adult life.
  10. Cooking – I often tell people that when I was at school I could always smell my Mother’s cooking from the school gates at home time despite our house being a few kilometers from the school. That’s how much I loved my Mother’s cooking! The mere thought of it was so strong I could smell and taste it on my pallet. It was always a great motivation to get home once the final school bell rang. Well, that and an afternoon of cartoons and mucking around with my siblings of course.  My mother loved to cook and that always came out in the finished product. However in her final days she was dependent on others to cook for her. Given her condition we all had to get creative in preparing her food. Whilst the primary objective was to nurse her back to health our aim was not only that she would be able to eat it but that she would also find it enjoyable. She was not slow to express her appreciation when she liked the food we prepared which in turn gave us joy too. I myself enjoy cooking and am sure my mother had something to do with that. When asked by one of my younger sisters why I love to cook so much I responded to the effect that “I think cooking is a ministry” because “It is an opportunity to minister to others”. I honestly believe that and cooking should be done with all of one’s heart. It is one of the primary ingredients of any meal!

When we lose a loved one what is it that we miss? We miss their presence. We miss seeing them. We miss embracing them. We miss talking to them. We miss laughing, singing, and dancing with them. So why then do we hold back in living and experiencing love? We all yearn for intimacy and yet we retreat from it. We hide away because we are scared. We don’t want to expose ourselves, to be hurt, to give and not get. Love really is a choice; it’s a verb, an act of the will. Love is the essence of life and we should make every effort to experience and share it in every aspect of life.
Matthew Kelly the author of ‘The Seven Levels of Intimacy – The Art of Loving and the joy of being loved’ defines intimacy as ‘knowing and being known’ and defines the purpose of love as ‘for people to help each other become the best version of themselves’. I have realized, through my faith as a Christian that the core purpose of our love and relationships is to bring out the character and love of Christ in each other. This is how the best in us can truly manifest. Jesus, even though He was Lord, washed the feet of His disciples and ultimately gave His life as an expression of love for His friends and all humanity. Always remember that love is a verb. It’s about doing and not just thinking and feeling at the emotional level. Gary Chapman is well known for his famous book “The five love languages”.  In his book he identifies five love languages as: words of affirmation, receiving gifts, quality time, acts of service, and physical touch. The action of love requires us to show initiative and not simply being reactive and subject to situations. Our circumstances should never be a hindrance to our love but should instead better help to inform us of the needs of those around us and how we can better connect and take actions that help us to better express our love and also receive love from others. Sometimes the action of love is entailed through the expression of these three simple words: “I love you”. Evidently, love should not just be a set of actions but a heartfelt and inspired way of life in relationships: our marriages, parenting, work, and in the community at large.

I have shared this article as an act of love and pray that you have been blessed by it. I think it fairly apt that I have chosen to write this article based on my relationship with my mother, given that she is the first person that I came into relationship with and upon whom I relied for love, reinforcement, and support from birth. Most of us are inclined to first experience love from our mothers and within our immediate families. As we grow our circle of love then expands from our parents to the rest of our family, then friends, and eventually spouses, children, grandchildren and so forth. Turning once again to the example of Christ He loved without discrimination loving even those who did not him back. In a world filled with so much anger, hate, violence, suffering, death and destruction I challenge you to commit daily to express your love and affection towards friends, family, and all humanity through simple acts of love like a phone call, a smile, a hug, the giving of time, or sharing of material possessions. May you be richly blessed and may your life filled with the abundance of God’s love.