“I want you to be” (What St. Augustine, Wordle and Bobby Portis teach us about love)
For all of it’s acclaim, the narrative arc of true love conquering all else is a bit trite. True love calls to mind more readily images of princes stooping low to plop non-consensual kisses onto sleeping maidens, and deeply enmeshed, ill-advised romances streamed unceasingly from the Hallmark channel more than anything else. Despite these misunderstandings and misappropriations, I still think love is the answer to most of our problems, or to borrow from the Apostle Paul, “the greatest of these is love.”
St. Augustine of Hippo is credited with the phrase “Amo: volo ut sis” which translates to “I love you: I want you to be.” Perhaps those of us seeking proof of the power of love on display would be more advised to look toward the direction of “being-ness” than that of starry eyes and romance. What is that particular quality which allows people or groups or teams or things to transcend and become something more than the sum of their parts? Augustine would posit, well, love of course.
It is love that is that unmatched and unmatchable quality that makes your grandma’s cookies taste like no one else’s (despite the fact that she uses the recipe on the back of the bag). It is love that brings tears to the eyes of loved ones while a child plinks out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” during a piano recital. It’s love that takes a simple five-letter-word game and makes it into a global phenomenon. Because love, inherently, expands transforming both the lover, the beloved and any who bear witness in the process.
Take the example of Milwaukee Bucks Forward, Bobby Portis.
(For those who are used to me writing more about theology and existential crises, a “Forward” is a basketball player who is both skilled at shooting the ball from most places on the court and playing defense–notably in rebounding missed shots. Thanks for following me here. For those who may be reading because this is a basketball take of sorts, I know that description is oversimplified. Let it go.)
Portis was initially drafted into the NBA by the Chicago Bulls in 2015. He showed promise as a player, but his career with the Bulls was largely a series of ups and downs–most notably a very down moment when Portis got into an argument with a teammate and punched him in the face resulting in an eight-game suspension for Portis and a trip to the hospital for his teammate. Portis was later traded to the Washington Wizards, and then signed with the New York Knicks ahead of coming to Milwaukee as a free agent in November 2020.
Portis is beloved by Milwaukee–teammates and fans alike. During their playoff run, teammate Pat Connaughton was photographed wearing a “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” t-shirt, an homage to the chants Portis receives on the court.
Cheers for Portis are second loudest only to Milwaukee’s franchise player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The belovedness Portis experiences in Milwaukee is reflected in his game. After being an essential component of the team winning the NBA Championship in 2021 Portis re-signed with Milwaukee, passing up on offers to make millions of dollars in other markets noting, “They’ve allowed me to stay true to me and who I am, and sometimes you can’t really even put a tab on that. I’m just grateful and ecstatic about being here.”
Milwaukee, you could say, wants Bobby Portis to be. And so he is. And he is having a career year in almost all major statistical categories. By any measure, he is not only being, he is being the best Bobby imaginable.
It is that simple-to-state but difficult-to-execute kind of love which transforms. A love that says “no matter who you are, what you can do for me, how this pans out, I love you. All of you. Full stop.” Once love is assured, then the beloved is free to risk reaching beyond their own limits or fears and is capable of becoming more than even the lover imagined possible.
Or take for example the word game taking the world by storm: Wordle.
Invented by software engineer. Josh Wardel, who set out to build a game his partner would enjoy playing, the couple is now joined by two million others worldwide who take delight in unscrambling and guessing the daily five letter word. Overwhelmed with its popularity, Wardel notes that if he were to ever make any changes to the game, he hopes that “they are changes I would have made even if it was just [my partner and I] playing.”
Josh Wardel and his partner want Wordle to be. And so it is.
Many people desire to do great things with their lives. They want to have satisfying friendships; rewarding work; supportive and uplifting family relationships. But often, the pursuit of these things prevents us from actually attaining them. We want our projections of the friends, family, jobs and relationships we imagine for ourselves instead of wanting those directly in front of us to simply be. And in so doing, we miss the opportunity for love to make us all more than who we believed we (or anyone else) could be.
Perhaps there is nothing so special about Bobby Portis or Josh Wardel or anyone else. What is special is being so caught in the present moment, and the potential of giving oneself fully to that moment–be it a five-letter-word game or an NBA Championship. Perhaps the greatest practice any of us could engage in to cultivate the life we hope for–the happily ever after promised by true love–is to do the hard work of showing up fully and wanting each moment to simply be.
This already challenging practice is only further complicated by living through year three of a pandemic, plagued not only with illness but division between family and friends. How can I want you to be if I think you’re completely incapable of any rational approach to reality? Theologian Thomáš Halík in his reflections on Augustine advises that Divine Love approaches us “not as a ‘fact’ but as a possibility, as an invitation, an appeal, a challenge.” If we bear this in mind, and seek to appropriate it in our dealings with one another, then I am seeking to practice an approach toward others less focused on the “fact” of who they present themselves to be in front of me, and more with a curiosity and an openness. “Who might we become together if we both choose to show up?”
Which is not to say anything goes. Grey cubes still remind us not everything fits at all times. There are things that hit in the right place but at the wrong time. But none of these obstacles are insurmountable if we commit ourselves to practicing love in the sense of wanting the other to be. French philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin observed of the world that “love is the only force which can make things one without destroying them.” Love must be chosen, by lover and beloved alike, over and over, and in so doing lover and beloved are made one, and those who observe love are drawn into the oneness as well. But, as far too many Hallmark movies illustrate, a love which collapses either lover or beloved into the other ceases to be love at all because uniformity–the sameness of desire–necessarily abolishes unity–the coming together of two or more parts for the benefit of the whole.
“The real opposite of love is not hate…but indifference,” Halík continues. We are invited in a million ways every day to practice indifference toward one another. Our choices in when to stay home, how to carry ourselves in public, whether those sniffles are just normal January or something we should concern ourselves with further are all acts of love or indifference in their practical application. Love is the choice of wanting our neighbors and strangers to be. To see the potentiality in everyone, even if they seem hellbent on obscuring our vision. And in that choice away from indifference, a new world is born–even if only within ourselves at first–a world that is big enough for all of us to be.
Quotes by Thomáš Halík taken from his book I Want You to Be: On the God of Love.