Loving with risk

Loving with risk. That’s where I’m finding my challenge these days. Like never before, I can see God stretching my heart muscle in its capacity to truly, deeply, profoundly love.

When you’re a naturally loving person, (ahem…which yes, I most humbly admit, at times I’ve been told that I am) it’s actually pretty easy to do the basics–to meet the obvious needs, check those small acts of service off my list, be empathetic in the moment, serve a little here, help a little there, pray a little, call a little, and perhaps even pat myself on the back a little for what a caring, compassionate person I am. Certainly, for the most part, I love adequately enough. My love is satisfactory. It’s acceptable. It’s usually capable of fulfilling what’s needed in the moment. However, odd as it sounds, I’m beginning to realize how I often love in a way that doesn’t line up with my highest core values–doing things with excellence, with passion, with overwhelming commitment and intentionality. These last few months, I’ve been noticing this intense longing I have to grow my love capacity. I want to be better at this crazy little thing called love–to love in a way that takes chances and wholehearted risks. ( And no…not teeny weeny baby step risks either. Really. Enough of that already! As a professional life coach, I get a little bored with hearing others in my profession saying, “Let’s just take baby steps.” I refuse to use that phrase with my clients anymore. It just seems so belittling to our human capacity for growth.) No more baby steps for me. I want to experience gargantuan, heart pounding, soul-stretching risks. I want my acts of love to be solid and strong. I want to be able to risk expressing honest, raw vulnerability. I want the choices I make and the actions I take to leave me (and perhaps others) breathless. Gladly, of late, my capacity to love has been stretching.

In college, I remember working out to the ever popular Jane Fonda aerobics videos. (And yes, I know this little tidbit of information dates me.) When the workout would intensify~especially during the abdominal crunches~Jane would say, “Make it burn! Make it burn!” WIth sweat dripping down my face, and my cheeks as red as tomatoes, I’d think, “Yea, right, Jane! Are you kidding me?!” You know what I did? Confession time. I simply went through the “motions” of pretending to make my muscles burn. (Um..sorry, Jane. Truly I am.) Certainly, my workout partners were most likely convinced I was giving it my all. After all, I sweat like a pig, I grimaced and even let out a few appropriately timed workout grunts. But over and over again, I avoided “the burn”. I purposely chose to let myself off the hook. I didn’t want to feel the pain. Week after week, I was satisfied enough with just completing the workout rather then stretching my capacity, pushing through the pain, and feeling the satisfaction of strengthening my muscles. Unfortunately, all too often, I love in the same way. I go through the motions of loving but I avoid “the burn”.

With all honesty, I can tell you that these past 4 1/2 months have stretched my capacity to love beyond what I would have imagined possible. My youngest brother. Jeremy, has been diagnosed with Blastic Mantle Cell Lymphomia. I have painfully sobbed so deeply and frequently. I’ve been there with Jeremy a few times when he was in such critical condition that we almost lost him. In fact, often when I leave him in the ICU, I wonder if that will be my last time with my brother this side of heaven. I’ve pushed myself to be at the hospital which has required huge sacrifice and juggling. (Last week alone Doug and I together spent over 60 combined hours driving to and from and covering hospital shifts.) I’m learning the beauty of making relationships right, of confession, of living without regrets, of choosing forgiveness, of being so filled with exhaustion that your body aches and yet still choosing to hand someone an extra measure of grace during bumpy crises moments. Yes, I’m feeling “the burn”– actually leaning into it, being with it, and pushing through it. My capacity to love is growing as I continue to take risks in the ways I choose to love.

Recently, a sweet friend emailed me and shared some of the things she experienced when her mom died of cancer. One of the lines she wrote has echoed in my mind for the past two weeks. “Melissa, it literally takes my breath away when I think about the capacity we humans have to love another.” Isn’t that remarkable? Think of the impact we can have on others when we choose to love full-out? Not just going through the motions, faking the emotion, or avoiding the “burn’. Think about the impact of truly stretching our love capacity, of risking, of allowing ourselves to feel and lean into this remarkable ability we have. This, I believe, is what love is truly meant to be–absolutely breathtaking!

A few weeks ago, I was taking a night shift at the hospital. One of my brother’s friends, Phil, also stopped by that evening. Now, what is remarkable about this encounter was the timing of his visit. You see, Phil’s father had just died of cancer–only a few days earlier. Besides that, his mom had also recently had a stroke. In the midst of funeral arrangements, and everything else, Phil’s family has also been juggling taking care of his mom. And still–still Phil drove all the way down to Chicago to see Jeremy. Those moments in my brother’s hospital room had a profound impact on me. I sat on one side of Jer’s hospital bed as Phil sat on the other. Each of us held one of Jeremy’s hands as he slept. I remember being so keenly aware of Phil’s grief, of his pain, and his very deliberate choice to risk being there in spite of his excruciating circumstances. We sat in silence as Jeremy slept between us. I thought about how often we make excuses for why we don’t truly love. How often we convince ourselves that our circumstances are just too stressful, that our lives are too busy, that our grief is too much. Often we pretend to love. And sometimes we fake it. Like me, we avoid the “burn” that comes from stretching our capacity. Finally, I looked up at Phil and whispered, “Phil you’re such a good friend. Honestly, I don’t know too many people who would do what you’re doing in the middle of everything you’re facing.” Phil shook his head, and with obvious emotion, simply whispered back, “Jeremy would do the same for me if I was in his circumstances. He’d do the same.”

I don’t think I’ll forget that night for quite some time. It’s seared in my memory. I witnessed love at full capacity. This–this is how I want to choose to love. To risk, to show up, to be present even when my heart is raging from the burning of the stretch. This is what being raw and vulnerable love looks like. This is an example of the gargantuan steps I’m called to take. This–this is the kind of love that leaves me feeling breathless as I consider the enormous capacity we humans have to love.

~~ Melissa Mains Timberlake

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