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Two things for a good life

First slide

I’m a real estate agent. So, I drive, a lot. Because I spend so much time in the car, I try to spend it at least somewhat wisely. I listen to books.

The latest, and easily my favorite so far, is "Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times" by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I highly recommend it. Sacks was one of those authors gifted with the ability to say a lot in a few words. He offers fabulous quotes that are interesting to "unpack."

One of those quotes particularly caught my attention. I seriously felt like I had to pull over when I heard it, just to write it down and contemplate it. He was quoting Melinda Gates, who said "the thing you are going to feel best about in life is that you are loved by your family and friends and that you have done something to change the world for the better in some way."

It’s simple. I couldn’t tell you why it struck me so profoundly. Except that it summed up exactly my own greatest desires. And that it echoed my favorite passage from the Second Vatican Council document "Gaudium et Spes," rumored to have been written by the future St. John Paul II: "Man, being the only creature created for his own sake, finds himself only in a sincere gift of himself (GS 24)."

So, Melinda Gates and St. John Paul II were thinking along the same track.

The Gates quote particularly caught my attention because it acknowledged the desire for love. And then she goes on to discuss our innate desire to give ourselves to "change the world for the better."

At first glance, it just looks like a list: two things that all humans want. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is more to it. They aren’t just two unrelated desires. They are, in fact, completely intertwined, two sides of the same coin.

We all desire love, yes. We need it. As "Gaudium et Spes" points out, we are created for our own sake. God loves us madly, simply because he created us in his image and likeness. And he created us with a need to give and receive that unconditional love here in the world. St. John Paul II said that we are created to live within the communion of persons — a group of people who live, not just for themselves, but for what is best for the others.

The family is the prototype of this communion of persons. Religious communities are as well, probably because their earliest founders recognized that human persons need families, and those who vow celibacy are not exempt from that. Workplaces can, in a limited way, function as communions of persons, as can small Christian communities and even groups of friends.

I realized two things: One, just living the communion of persons is already changing the world for the better. When we love someone — when parents raise a child in love, when spouses, priests, religious sisters, friends and coworkers support and affirm each other as good in their very existence — they change that person’s life for the better, which cumulatively changes families, communities, nations and ultimately the world.

Insight number one: loving family and friends is changing the world for the better.

But then I thought about the next level — all of our efforts to further change the world. I thought about the years I spent speaking. I thought about everybody I know who does any type of outreach, who has a ministry of any kind, who works in any way to bring God’s love to the world. I can tell you one thing about that: it isn’t easy. And you know what it takes to do something like that successfully? Well, a lot of things. God’s grace, for one. But what else? The love of friends and family. Support. Someone to come home to. Someone to remind us that our value doesn’t lie in the work we are doing — that God doesn’t value us simply as means to get his work done down here. We are loved for our own sake. And that love gives us the fuel to go out and share that love.

Insight number two: we are better equipped to change the world for the better when we feel the love of family and friends.

I will be speaking at the National Catholic Singles Conference in a couple of weeks. And I’ve been thinking about how single people frequently are told that we will find meaning in our lives through giving — through getting out of ourselves and using our time, talents and energy to make the world a better place. And I 100 percent believe that is true. But there is a caveat. If we just barrel out there trying to change the world with no support, no one in our lives who loves us for ourselves, we’re going to start to see ourselves as valuable only to the extent that we continue changing the world. And we will burn out very, very quickly.

Am I saying you shouldn’t go out and give yourself until you have built yourself an airtight little communion of persons? Of course not. Give. Give now. You were made for it. But don’t neglect your own need for love and support. If you don’t have it, be deliberate in building it. The beautiful thing about self-gift, especially when it is done on the local level, is that it will bring people into your life and will probably enhance the love you experience in your life. But however it happens, make it happen. If you have no family, make your friends your family. And if you do have family, make sure the ties are strong. Do what you can to prioritize that.

And remember that God doesn’t love you because you give. He loves you because you’re you. The giving is a response to his love, not the reason for it.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021