The Transformational Power of Love
Supporting youth resilience through loving-kindness
Posted Feb 13, 2019
I wish there were a day set aside to celebrate the healing power of loving relationships. But since there isn’t, let’s take advantage of a day that focuses on love to think about supporting young people to rise to their potential, even and especially if they’ve endured challenging lives. Regardless of whether you’re a parent, community member, clergy, or youth-serving professional, we all have a critical protective role in young people's lives. The more loving adults surrounding them, the better. Relationships rooted in loving-kindness are the ones that change lives.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Word
The word “love” holds a variety of meanings. Some imply a closeness or intimacy inappropriate for a discussion about serving young people. This may limit comfort with using the word. In other languages and cultures, different words for love better describe the core feelings. The Greek language clearly distinguishes between romantic love (eros), brotherly love (phileo), and unconditional love (agape). Loving-kindness conveys the concept of pure human compassion (e.g., the Buddhist term “metta,” the Hebrew word “chesed,” and the Arabic expression “mahabbah”).
It is the compassion we have for others and that commitment to loving-kindness that’s central to our ability to enter another person’s life and accompany them along a healing journey. It is this love that allows us to demonstrate genuine concern and empathy and engage others. Many who serve in primarily English-speaking communities avoid using the word love to prevent miscommunications or discomfort. But withholding use of the word should not limit the use of the idea. It may feel more comfortable to strive to be “loving.” “Loving” is to be kind, forgiving, nonjudgmental, accepting, affirming, respectful, and open.
Love is about listening in a way that really hears a story in context. And that looks for a person’s inherent strengths as they navigate the world. It’s about hearing people’s stories and re-telling them in a way they’ve never heard before. It’s about talking with youth that may feel discouraged or demoralized and giving them the gift of admiration.
When it comes to feeling “unconditional love” for others we are bound by our own humanity. We wrestle within ourselves to overcome our own limitations and biases that can sometimes get in the way. But we must strive to see people in the way they deserve to be seen. We must maintain an open heart and commit to viewing others in the best light. We must see their strength in the midst of adversity. Notice their resourcefulness amidst scarcity. The self-respect they maintain in the face of insult. This allows young people to view themselves differently as they see their reflection in our eyes.
Transforming Lives With Love
In some ways, it’s easier to love than to “like” another person. It may not be possible to like everybody. Liking is more subjective. But remaining loving is always possible. Love is active, it is something we can commit to do.
Love is seeing others as they really are and deserve to be seen. Not just seeing behaviors or labels or making assumptions. Not seeing them based on what they look like, or might produce. Just as they really are.
The power we have to transform young lives is monumental when we see them as whole human beings instead of as problems.
Send the Right Signals
When we see and expect the best from young people it reinforces they hold the seeds of success within. They’re reminded to be their best selves. The question every adolescent asks is, “Who am I?” Too many have had the question answered for them. They’ve been met with eye rolls suggesting their thoughts and feelings don’t matter. Some have received labels implying they have “anger problems,” are “oppositional,” or delinquent. Too many have been noticed only when they cause enough trouble to be disruptive. “Who am I?” they ask. “You’re a problem,” is what they hear. A message that’s anything but loving. A signal that paralyzes progress.
Safe, Secure Relationships
Loving-kindness is shown through empathy, respect, and a deep-seated desire that the adolescent develops safely and securely. It is the lens through which we choose to see them. We ask only for a youth’s commitment to become his or her best self and for their permission to be part of the process. This offers genuine healing and growth.
Safe, secure relationships allow young people to experience being valued. To know they’re free to think about who they want to be and how they will contribute to the community. They can recover from pain and shift direction if headed for trouble. They can gain confidence in existing strengths and learn to build new ones.
Be a Change Agent
A risk-focused approach begins by stating a problem and explaining why current behaviors are harmful or may lead to something terrible. This strategy ignores the complexity of young people’s lives and may leave them feeling as though they are seen only as “problems.” This can reinforce a sense of shame, undermining both the potential for change and the creation of trusting relationships. On the other hand, when we see and reflect the very same problems amidst a sea of strengths, young people are less likely to feel ashamed and more likely to trust that they are cared for and about.
Start with Strengths
Look for those strengths that serve as starting points towards progress. Remember that our goal is for young people to realize they possess resilience within them. As others enter and retreat from their lives, they must know that they will always have themselves. Much like Dorothy realized at the end of The Wizard of Oz that she never really needed the Wizard to get home. She only needed to access what was already in her possession. Each young person must learn to discover their own “ruby slippers.” “Who am I?” they ask. “You are a genuinely good person, someone who has great potential,” they must hear.