Lent’s Compass. Day One: Agape Dogs

“The Greeks, as usual, had a word for the forgiving kind of love which never excludes. They called it agape. . . . Agape means “a profound concern for the welfare of another without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process.” Not easy. But if we can follow it, it will mean that we will never exclude. . . . Not the people who have hurt us . . . or the people to whom we have done wrong. . . . It teaches me not only about forgiveness but about how to hope to give guidance without manipulation.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle

Sweets and Bud often argue. They love each other dearly, but they’re sibs. They argue. About everything. When feeling are hurt, I ask them to apologize to each other. It’s something they’re more apt to do after the fact, when I can pull them aside and get them to consider whether what they were fighting about was anything important. There are no magic phrases or techniques. The attention they’re given in those moments is magic enough. Often attention is what they wanted in the first place.

Attention is a visible sign that we care for each other. When we give another our full attention, we stop what ever we are doing. We show the other person they mean more to us that the bill we’re paying, the web page we’re viewing or TV show that’s on screen. So we stop. But giving your attention takes time. In the moments when the kids are arguing, time isn’t something I feel I have an abundance of. Even as I try to let them work things out themselves.

Often, after giving them what I measure as enough time to work things out–and seeing their emotions take over–I’ll blow my figurative referee’s whistle. I’ll ask or tell them to “stop arguing and say you’re sorry.” I try to remember to call them both by name when I do, regardless of who initiated the argument or is escalating it. When I forget, which I also do, I hear about it quickly. The opportunity for forgiveness is lost and I immediately become “unfair.” The other child is, my “favorite.” When I remember and they do apologize? They’re as likely to implement a policy of mutually assured rejection as they are to accept the other’s apology. Why? On the face of it because the tone or inflection aren’t right. “You don’t mean it!” is a typical accusation. Even if they are expressing an awareness of the importance of intention–and they are–it’s frustrating.

That’s the crux of the matter. Providing guidance is a substantial part of parenting. At an early age, it’s easy. Kids do just about everything they’re asked. As they grow up and become themselves, that changes. Along the way, intention begins to matter. That’s true of parents as well as kids, I think. Manipulation becomes part of a parent’s toolkit and the child’s. We want to be sure they’re learning the right lessons. We want them to “mean it” and be assured as we can that they do. They want to weigh our motives and gauge our integrity versus their own. Is this necessary? Is it good? I could answer yes or no. And yet, as a Dad, my most satisfying moments don’t come in the good talks I have with the kids. They don’t come from seeing them evaluate intention or realize that they are sincere. The satisfying moments are the ones where I see them love and forgive in a way that embodies what the Greeks meant when they used the word agape.

This Lent, I want to pay attention to how intention gets in the way of my being able to forgive others. To the way it conditions my willingness to forgive. The way it conditions my love. If my love and my forgiveness are tied to your intention or my own, there is nothing agape about them. Imagine having a dog who only loved you when you gave it a treat?

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