Many English words are so close in meaning that they often require explanation after use. For example, I have an issue with the word loyalty yet I have no problem saying I am devoted to someone or something. Faith, Loyalty and Devotion are often linked as closely as siblings in the Etymological family. The latter suggests to me an action of giving one’s self over, sometimes completely and with willful intent. I am devoted to my wife, I am faithful as a result of that intention, yet my loyalty has limits. That can seem strange yet in context it’s consistent.
The conundrum of these three value words is well expressed in the love song, ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ made famous by Olivia Newton John in the film Grease. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i52mlmJtyJQ . In my defining way the word Devoted in this song is more like Loyalty. From my past experience, when the head is separated from the heart, decisions are fraught with danger. In my lexicon Loyalty, certainly the blind type, is foolish. I have faith that when both my emotion and my thinking are involved I can permit clear sighted devotion.
Having a career requires a certain level of devotion. Those training to be Olympic athletes would need the highest level of devotion to their goal. Equally, someone who wishes to master a musical instrument might say they are devoted to their art. I have worked with some teachers who exhibited this extreme level of devotion. It’s inspiring to see that high level of passion or devotion. There are many examples in history of religious figures who followed a calling and thus devoted their lives to a cause. That level of devotion moves too close to zealotry for my liking. A devout person I am not, for that means a willingness to forsake all else in an adherence to a defined path.
Whether in religious practise or other areas of a full life, I avoid thinking of myself as a devotee. Likewise I resist calling myself a fan of something or someone. Both terms suggest a slavery to a cause, or an overwhelming commitment to an idea. When we get ourselves so wrapped up in something that we lose sight of our original intention, we can move across the border from carefully considered thought into hopeless obsession.
During my church years I met many who espoused the practice of daily devotions. Some on the zealot end of the spectrum would rise at the same time each morning to follow their routine. Others saw value in spending a few minutes each day with an activity that centred their busy minds. These activities don’t need to be of a religious or scriptural nature. I have found reward in a singular moment gazing intently at a bee as it wiggles through a cluster of sweet flowers. Or, devoting time to listen to what my wife has to say when she returns home from an adventure makes me feel closer to her and brings me the peace I desire.
At this stage of my existence I refer to myself as a witness. I enjoy being that fly on the wall. It’s a safe vantage point, less messy than open engagement on the field of life. I show my enthusiasm for this role by sharing my opinions in a cheerleading fashion. There is a lot of the Rah, Rah in me still.
My enthusiastic side comes out at surprising moments. I once started exclaiming excitedly over a colourful bird while attending a lesson for a summer job. The instructor of the youth assembled gave me a disdainful look, saying dismissively that there were lots of that species in the area. Another time as a young father I rallied my son to hurry and see ‘the coolest car’ that had just parked near a store my wife was taking us to. My poor little guy got troubled when his mother didn’t share my interest and proceeded with her shopping, leaving our son not knowing where his loyalties should lie.
It’s a treat to see others go public with their enthusiasm. I once happened upon a colleague, new to our city, scampering about unashamedly in a small park within a busy intersection. She was fascinated to find cherry blossoms in the tree above her head and crocus bulbs bursting through green grass. This, on a February day while the rest of the country was still gripped in an icy grasp. I felt her joy.
Hope springing eternal will make me enthuse over what I’m seeing. First moments, signs of promise, a young person earnestly playing a musical instrument or actors skillfully inhabiting their characters may bring tears of rapture. My eagerness sometimes comes in a rush of emotion that can be startling. A few bars of music may stimulate me to remember a time gone by and I’ll want to share the memory with someone, anyone, and right now!
Based on these occasional inspired outbursts I might think of myself as an Enthusiast. What an exulted title! It would be fun to be introduced as such with appropriate fanfare at the entrance to a black tie event. Enthusiast implies you might be an expert in your chosen field or have exceptional talent, neither of which would be true for me. I know a few people who might be deemed bird enthusiasts, jogging enthusiasts or film enthusiasts. When I was a boy I maintained a stamp collection that earned me a scouting badge but like the character in the film Adaptation, I lost interest. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y410SQD2mz8
Thing is, my rhapsodies come in spurts. My passions never last long enough to acquire sporting trophies, fitness goals, artistic excellence or any sort of public acclaim. I just love feeling enthused, however long it lasts.
That’s the heart of the word for me: Enthusiasm is an expression of my love.
My mother set conditions for me. She left me chores to be completed before she got home from work. The moment I got home from school it was a race to avoid a confrontation. If the tasks weren’t done she would deliver a cold shoulder that felt like a biblical shunning.
Consequently, as an adult, I think of conditions as a way to avoid consequences. When I set a condition for myself then I feel I’ve prepared the way for fewer avoidable consequences. For example when I ride my motor scooter I have a sensible condition that I can’t ride unless I wear my helmet. I’d love to not wear my helmet for the feeling of the wind in my hair. However the consequence of me not wearing my helmet is painfully obvious. Similarly, I see what the weather conditions are like before I plan what to wear. The activity I choose to do in my day is conditional on my state of health or mood. Determining what condition your condition is in might be a good start to everyday. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gfa6umSlR8A
When I became a parent of young children the rules (conditions) I set for them were all about avoiding the probability of consequences. Those rules were not always about safety. For example, when they were old enough to have an allowance, this payment was conditional on an amount set aside for giving to others and saving for a rainy day. When they grew older there was an expectation that they would contribute to the family well being by helping out around the house. At one point when they were all teens, I wrote a ‘family manifesto’ and taped it to their bedroom doors. It outlined the conditions of residence (open to further discussion) that could be considered ground rules to avoid conflict.
I guess it’s clear I don’t believe unconditional love exists for me. Certainly I would never set conditions for loving a baby and I know most societies hold unconditional love as inviolate. But really? Don’t we set conditions for our romantic partners, our elders in nursing care, our preschoolers, our spouses, our pet, our bank advisor? My love is too valuable not to set conditions, for myself or for others.
Conditions are a part of love. I may be disappointed in others, as they may be with me. It doesn’t stop me from setting conditions, at least in my head. I value contribution as well as love. They are both part of the condition of our existence. Everyone is unique and we all have a responsibility to share our talents.
If unconditional love does exist it was practised humbly and consistently by Fred Rogers. On television and real life his message was simple: He told children he loved them just the way they were.
Some suggested this credo takes away the need for individual effort. Nonsense! Love is a powerful thing and is conditional for the building of responsible human beings.