Pragmatic Love

Pragmatic Love October 22, 2023

Last weekend Jeanne and I made a quick trip to Minneapolis to attend the annual Evolving Faith conference—their first in-person event since 2019. It was a quick event, Friday evening to Saturday evening; the speaker lineup was packed with authors and podcasters whom we both have loved for some time, including Nadia Bolz-Weber, Krista Tippett, Amy Kenny, and Sarah Bessey (co-founder of Evolving Faith in 2017 with the late Rachel Held Evans). All of the above were excellent, but one of the speakers that lingers with me the most is a woman I had never heard of.

The Right Reverend  Dr. Carmen Lansdowne is the 44th Moderator of The United Church of Canada; she was the second speaker in the first session on Saturday morning. About halfway through her 20-minute talk, she began reflecting on the various forms of love that appear in the New Testament. I studied ancient Greek for a couple of years during my undergraduate education at St. John’s College. After a few weeks of basic vocabulary and grammar, our first attempts at actually translating from ancient Greek began with the gospel of Mark—the New Testament is, for the most part, written in very basic Greek that is a good place for newbies to cut their translating teeth.

Rev. Lansdowne’s talk was a welcome return to those days of learning Greek, which is a far more evocative language than English tends to be. I already knew, as just about any person who professes the Christian faith and is a churchgoer who pays attention to sermons, of three basic words for “love” in Greek: eros (romantic/sexual love), philēo (the love of friends), and agapē (universal love). But I was reminded that there are four other, less familiar, words for love in Greek as well: ludis (flirtatious love), storgē (familial love), philautia (self-love), and pragma, which Lansdowne identified as “committed love.”

I confess that I was unaware that one of meanings of “pragma” is love in Greek. This is the word from which we get “pragmatic” in English along with its various forms; the most common meaning of the word in Greek is “duty,” “task,” or “deed”—it is generally used in Greek, as its derivatives are in English, to identify those who are businesslike, no nonsense, and tend to be focused on getting shit done. What does that have to do with love?

In her talk, Lansdowne told a story that illustrated the connection well. During a conversation with her boss at a job that she loved, she spent some time complaining about an aspect of her work that she hated. Her boss wisely told her that “everyone needs to make friends with the parts of their job they don’t like.” This makes a lot of sense and sheds light on some aspects of love that I, and I suspect many others, don’t pay enough attention to.

One of my two sabbatical book projects is a teaching memoir. I have completed a full first draft (coming in at 90000 words) which is currently in the hands of a couple of trusted colleague friends who will in a few weeks provide me with comments, insights, and reactions. I write about many aspects of the life of a college professor in this manuscript—preparation, teaching, interaction with students in and out of class, conferences, committee work, leadership, and more—but I spend little to no time writing about a regular part of the profession that I love which I truly dislike. Grading.

I am not unusual among professors in my general distaste for grading papers, exams, class participation, and other types of student activity. I have never met a teacher who enjoys grading. In my early years of teaching I complained regularly about the tedium and time consuming nature of grading my students’ work, until one day Jeanne simply asked “isn’t grading part of your job?”

Well, yes, as a matter of fact it is a part of what I do—and if I dislike grading so much, I probably should stop giving my students so many assignments that require my evaluation. But I often say that my overall plan for my students is that they should read until they drop, and after that they should write until they drop. Which means, of course, that I will be evaluating written material until I drop. It’s pragma, a duty and obligation that it an essential part of something larger that I love. No one ever said that love would never require things that are not particularly attractive. As Rev. Lansdowne observed, such duties and obligations are themselves expressions of love.

A month ago, I tagged along with Jeanne as she worked at an admissions event in Toronto. After the event, the dozen or so people who ran and participated in the event gathered at a nice restaurant next door to the venue—I tagged along to that as well. Sitting across from Jeanne and me at dinner was a young thirty-something colleague of Jeanne’s who mentioned that she was getting married in a few months. Later in the conversation, Jeanne and I revealed that we have been together for more than thirty-five years. This impressed Jeanne’s colleague, who then asked us for any insights or secrets that we might share that might partially account for the longevity of our relationship.

Jeanne responded that it helps if you actually like the person you are relationship with. “I really like him,” she said. “I don’t like everything about him [I can’t imagine what she had in mind], but I actually like him.” “It’s a lot of work,” I offered. “You’ll learn eventually in a relationship that love is not enough.” Looking back, I realize that while Jeanne was describing the “philēo” aspect of love, I was referring specifically to the “pragma” aspect.

No matter whom or what you love, be prepared for some of the process of love to involve hard work that seems for all the world like a duty or obligation that you would just as soon be excused from. For persons of faith who believe in the existence of a God of love, remember that all seven of the Greek words for love apply there as well. We are created beings capable of giving and receiving love in all of its forms, even when some of those forms don’t strike us as particularly attractive. That’s the nature of love.

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