What is the real proof of love?

Because I’m on a Flannery O’Connor kick, I ordered A Memoir of Mary Ann, by the Dominican Nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta (1961).

These nuns ran a free cancer home, where Mary Ann Long came to live at age 3. She had a cancerous tumor on her face; one eye had been removed. By the time she died, the tumor had grown so much that she couldn’t eat. She was only supposed to survive six months, but she lived to be twelve.

She must have been quite an extraordinary child. After her death, the nuns approached O’Connor, to try to persuade her to write an account of the little girl. She wouldn’t do it, but she helped shepherd their manuscript to publication and wrote an introduction to it – which is why I happened to hear about it.

It’s an interesting book for several reasons, but what struck me most was the observation, “Apparently [Mary Ann] knew at that early age that the proof of real love is sacrifice.”

That sentence stopped me in my tracks. It’s another way of expressing one of my favorite happiness precepts – Reverdy’s “There is no love, there are only proofs of love” – but more blunt. I asked myself: am I showing my love through sacrifice?

I know that sounds preachy and dramatic, but it’s a good question.

In my life, day to day, that mostly means sacrificing my time, attention, and convenience.

Am I putting down my book to listen to a convoluted account of last night’s bad dream? Am I putting down my magazine to “Watch, watch, watch!” for the tenth time? Am I cheerfully agreeing to pick something up, drop something off, look something up, or re-schedule some date? Am I swallowing my impulse to nag, to criticize, to complain, to point out mistakes?

Not very often. And I sure load myself lots of gold stars when I do. Speaking of nuns, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “When one loves, one does not calculate,” and I’m still trying to shake the habit of counting up all my sacrifices to make sure I get my share in return. “You got to take a nap, so I get to go to the gym.” “I’m dealing with the packing, so you have to deal with the car.”

But there’s a fine line with sacrifice. Sacrificing too much is not good.

My Second Splendid Truth is: One of the best ways to make YOURSELF happy is to make OTHER PEOPLE happy; one of the best ways to make OTHER PEOPLE happy is to be happy YOURSELF.

If I sacrifice too much (realistically, not too much risk of that), if I don’t make sure I have enough time to read the newspaper, etc., it’s going to be hard for me to make anyone else very happy. Having fun and feeling energized make it easier to sacrifice for other people. It might not even feel like a sacrifice.

I loved reading the comments on yesterday’s post, to see the life symbols people use: lion, phoenix, daisy, water drop, labyrinth, and all the rest. If you need ideas, or if you just like great lists, a reader thoughtfully posted the link to a website Universal Symbols that lists dozens.

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • As a newlywed, I often tell my husband that I love him. But I try to remember these proofs of love as well. And I especially try to thank him when he’s doing something that shows a proof of love to me (like helping me pack my lunch every morning!).
    Letting oneself be loved can also be difficult–striking a balance between appreciating someone else’s sacrifice and saying “No wait, I can get that” because you don’t want to presume too much on their goodwill.

  • Gretchen, a deep and heartfelt thanks for this post. It arrived at the right moment to stop me in my tracks and reconsider. And it made me stop counting my sacrifices in that moment, too. You made a difference in my day.

  • “We can only give too much when we forget that the circle of compassion includes ourselves” – Jack Kornfield

  • I think sacrifice involves listening. It’s not about surrendering our entire selves to the requirements of others. Instead, it’s an openness and a willingness to agree to as many requests as we can that don’t strain our spirit. With faith that our needs will still be met if we follow God’s will over our own.
    Making deals with people about what you’ll give in return for what they’ll give is simply an equation for misspent energy. We ultimately sacrifice gifts that are the domain of spirit.

  • Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home was highlighted on Weekend Edition on NPR this morning. http://tinyurl.com/378cma

  • Raj Hansa

    What a deep question, what a revelation .
    Yes , infact we all make sacrifice an essential component of love .But, being happy at the same time is important. Dont know which one is more important ie Love in its own right or sacrifice as a part of love , taking happiness to higher levels .

  • Jessica’s comment struck a chord. In Steven Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People p.239 “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”

  • Sacrifice as a proof of love is maybe the source of all evil. Seeing my lover sacrificing himself to show me love, would only make me feel sad and unaccomplished. Seeing him happy with his life (and with our life together) makes me feel loved. I don’t want people around me to change their habits for me, I just want to surround myself with people whom I love for being themselves. And I never think “You do this for me, so I do that for you”. It’s rather “If it makes you happy, I just do it.”

    • Hero

      That’s a truly beautiful thought!

  • Sacrifice is a developing stage of love that implies you would rather be doing something else. Sacrifice indicates emotional attachment to something that is lost. More advanced love is devotional service, simply giving service fully devoted to pleasing the object of one’s love. It is not sacrifice because devotional service it’s the best thing. When engaged in devotional service, there’s nothing you’d rather be doing.

  • After reading this i know much more how to make your self and make other people happy.I would thanks to the happiness project.