On the Motherly podcast, actress Caterina Scorsone of Grey’s Anatomy describes how she came to realize that she was loving everyone, including herself, for “absolutely the wrong reason.”
“I was loving people for their external qualities and not for their essence,” she said. She had believed that she loved her first daughter, Eliza, so much because she was beautiful, clever, and funny — for her qualities.
Then her second daughter, Pippa, was born with Down syndrome. Not knowing much about Down syndrome, Caterina wondered what traits Pippa might or might not have — and then she suddenly realized the error in thinking about love this way. It transformed the way she loved her daughters, her husband, and herself.
It is so easy to slip into thinking that we are only worthy of love if we look a certain way or are the life of the party or because we are able to rapidly fire off witty quips. The businesses that profit from our culture of consumerism want us to feel this way. They need us to feel this way. Their message is clear: you can buy love — all you need is our product that makes you worthy of it.
And it’s true that being trendy and engaging and amusing can garner attention. Some people really care about the superficial and ephemeral. Even those with greater depth might be drawn to people with some of these traits because they make for enjoyable company — they might imagine they love someone because of how these traits make them feel.
Yet with real love, there is always something ineffable or incomprehensible. Whether it is romantic, fraternal, parental, or any other form of authentic love — if you can describe precisely why you love a person, you are probably actually describing why you like them or enjoy their presence.
Love extends beyond this. When we love someone, we love who they are at their absolute core — the most unchanging and immaterial part of the person. We encounter this core or essence of a person, as Caterina calls it, when we break through surface-level impressions and assessments. This authentic encounter opens the door to joy, love, and communion.
It is not a surprise that it took something unexpected to transform Caterina’s perspective. Even if we aim to live counter-culturally and eradicate the prejudices we absorb from society, we still need something to wake us up to these assumptions. That could be unexpectedly falling in love with someone who is entirely different than the future spouse we had once imagined. It could simply be the radical reorientation that often accompanies having a child. It could mean getting to know and love someone with physical or intellectual differences or disabilities.
The façades that we carefully construct and upon which we too often fixate fall away in these encounters, and we come to know the person as he or she truly is, with their imperfections and vulnerabilities. In fact, it is vulnerability itself — in ourselves and others — that so often helps us shed these illusions that are obstacles to love. Vulnerability allows us to not only see others as they are, but to also see ourselves for who we are.
In these authentic encounters, we see that a person’s dignity and worth is not derived from power, wealth, conformity with popular notions of attractiveness, skills, or anything else that is superficial or fleeting. By knowing them at this level, we can fully appreciate the beauty and dignity of this unique person who is made in the image of God, and move toward greater communion with them.