February 14, 2020

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

What’s love got to do with it? Everything, when it comes to others

Sean GallagherIt’s not too often that you sit down to watch a Super Bowl and get a discussion of love as understood in different ways by the ancient Greeks.

But that’s what happened during the broadcast of Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2 between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. After the first quarter, viewers saw a minute-long commercial for New York Life, a life insurance company, explaining four words for love among the ancient Greeks.

The commercial’s narrator, a woman, noted that “philia” was “affection that grows from friendship.” Next was “storge,” which was the kind of love one has “for a grandparent, or a brother.” “Eros,” the narrator then said, is “the uncontrollable urge to say, ‘I love you.’ ”

The narrator then notes that the fourth kind of love, “agape,” “is different” and is “the most admirable.” It is, she says, “love as an action” requiring “courage, sacrifice [and] strength.”

Of course, this being a commercial, the narrator goes on to say that New York Life has helped people express agape for 175 years, helping them put love into action by providing life insurance for their loved ones.

And of course, being a television commercial, there were video images to illustrate the kinds of love mentioned. Those used to show agape were dramatic and heartwarming: a grown child helping to care for an elderly parent, a young parent caring for a child, family members sharing memories, or making them.

The closing image of the commercial shows a mother in a kitchen affectionately holding a toddler daughter in her arms and receiving a hug with the words “Be good at life” in the middle of the screen, followed by the social media hashtag “#LoveTakesAction.”

Buckets of ink have been spilled over the centuries in books about this topic. So, one shouldn’t set a high bar for what a 60-second commercial can say about love, even when it tries to get to the heart of the matter instead of focusing on the too-often vapid understanding of love promoted by contemporary culture.

The New York Life commercial gets some things wrong about love. And it’s certainly not complete.

But it got some things right before an audience of hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.

Agape is the Greek word used in the New Testament to describe Christ’s self‑sacrificial love for humanity and the kind of love he calls us, his followers, to embody in our relationships. Theologians through the centuries have described it as an entirely selfless love. In this kind of love, the lover loves another only for the good of the other and with no self-interest in mind.

This understanding of agape was implied in the New York Life commercial, especially in the images of people caring for others who had no way to pay them back. It might have been good for the script to have given a specific mention of the selfless nature of agape.

But the focus in the commercial of “love as an action” seems to draw forth the Christian understanding of this deep kind of love. St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote that love is “willing the good of another.” That is, love is making a choice and taking action based on that choice for the good of the one who is loved.

In our culture, love often has a very shallow meaning, being tied to passionate emotions alone. Hopefully, the commercial from New York Life will open the eyes of its viewers to a deeply beautiful, but also profoundly challenging form of love that God offers to us and helps us to give to others.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter and columnist for The Criterion.)

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