Work has long been my defense against love. In high school, I skipped social activities, sports, family Christmas Eve celebrations, and even my junior prom in favor of running the school newspaper, writing for the town paper, waiting tables, car-hopping at Sonic, lifeguarding, and cleaning churches…whatever I could do to stay busy.
Like Bill Murray’s character in Scrooged, work was easier than the hard, frightening labor of building relationships and opening myself up to the pain of rejection. My mother taught me that. The woman who was to nurture me instead physically and verbally abused me; I had a mother, but no Mommy. As a result, I did not trust people. It was easier, safer, to bury myself in work, achievements, tasks, and busyness. But I did not need busyness; I needed love.
For most of us, our holiday expectations are tinged with a rosy glow. It’s the time of year for love, connection, and bonding—a perception reinforced with cozy ads and heartwarming movies with happy endings. But life is not a Hallmark movie, and sometimes the holidays hurt. We’re lonely, grieving, depressed, estranged from family, or stuck with dysfunctional relatives.
Our defense tells us to stay busy (and stay alone) when we really need to shore ourselves up in love. In an age of unprecedented social connectivity, we have more tools to distance, disconnect, and isolate ourselves from intimate relationships, particularly those that take place face-to-face. At the banquet, we're starving.
In a recent study, Vancouver residents listed social isolation as their most pressing concern. In Britain, the Campaign to End Loneliness, a registered charity, aims to alleviate the loneliness that plagues 700,000 men and 1.1 million women in Britain alone. In America, 40 percent of people describe themselves as lonely—a figure that has doubled in just 30 years. Twenty-first century Western culture is one of the most isolating in the world, partly because of its individualistic focus and partly because of our underdeveloped understanding about love and relationships.
For us today, “love” today calls to mind romance over friendships or other relationships (as Wesley Hill noted in a CT cover story last year). Romantic relationships garner the highest celebration in our culture and even in many of our churches. Then comes the love for children or family. When these relationships disappoint or are nonexistent, the pain hits hard, particularly during the holidays.
As prized as these loves may be in our culture and as important as they are in our lives, neither romantic love nor family love takes priority in the Scriptures. In the New Testament, the Greek word for romantic love, eros, is not used a single time, though it was an important word in Greek literature at the time. Storge, the word for family love, for natural affection, is only used twice—both times in the negative (meaning “without natural affection”).
In contrast, the New Testament uses the word for love between friends 54 times. And though it was uncommon at the time, the word agape—meaning self-giving, self-sacrificial, unmerited love—gets mentioned by far the most: 259 times. These mentions remind us of the oft-overlooked love we show out of friendship and sacrifice.
The intensity of the holidays offers a prism to clarify emotions that we might in other times overlook. It’s hard. When our marriage is strained or our relationship with our parents or kids has fizzled, we may assume that it’s better to spend Christmas alone. Or we may think that hanging with friends is a second-best, a Plan B.
But the holidays are actually a crucial time to slow down, revive old friendships, and dive deeper into new ones. Whether you’re single or married, friends are critical to a healthy emotional life. Even the best marriages and strongest families cannot replace the enormous value a true friend adds to our lives.
We might not feel like we can bear our difficult memories and emotions alone, but we’re better prepared to do so when we’ve bolstered ourselves with the live-giving, supportive, healthy company of friends. When the holidays hurt, don’t look away. Don’t bury the disappointment and the pain. Shore yourself up in friendship love.
And finally, let yourself be sustained by the love that reflects God himself: agape love, gift-love. Hunt for opportunities to demonstrate it. “Need-love cries out to God from our poverty,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “Gift-love longs to serve, or even suffer for God.” Need-love focuses inward, upon ourselves; gift love focuses outward, upon others. Most other types of love expect a return and are based on whether the object of our love is deserved. Agape love contrasts on both points: it is unmerited and expects nothing in return.
Pain can cause us to pull back, isolate, and protect ourselves, or it can awaken our compassion for the pain of others. Fear, grief, loneliness are indiscriminate and universal. The world is not short on opportunities to express agape love. Need surrounds us everywhere, pain presses in on us from all sides. The mystery of agape love is that in the giving away, in the emptying, you’re shoring up love for yourself too.