The fourth candle in the Advent wreath stands for love. I've thought a lot about love this past year (sometimes here on the blog). Just last week, I was talking with coworkers about a piece that appeared in the New York Times: The Generous Marriage. You've probably read it by now, but if not, the idea is simple: researchers find that generosity ("the virtue of giving good things to one's spouse freely and abundantly") is one of the leading indicators of marital success—more, even, than sex. Simple acts like making a cup of coffee for your spouse, and not expecting anything in particular in return, make all the difference.
This "insight" is completely obvious to anyone who is married. And it's hardly just for marriages. In a recent Forbes article, Erika Andersen astutely points out that this generosity is a vital quality that people look for in leaders, and in friends, too—in essence, any relationship. Again: no surprise here. But Andersen continues:
One core element of generosity is what we call "assuming positive intent"—taking a generous point of view about why others are acting as they do. For instance, if a colleague does something that inconveniences you, or makes it harder for you to accomplish something—do you immediately assume that they did it on purpose? That they're trying to get in your way or make you fail? That's assuming negative intent.
Assuming positive intent in that situation would mean wondering why the person behaved as they did—getting curious. Were they not aware their actions would impact you? Were they so focused on their own agenda that they didn't take time to consider yours? If you get curious in this way, vs. automatically assuming the worst, you're much more likely to have a conversation with the other person—an open, non-accusatory conversation—to find out why things happened as they did. And you're much, much more likely to then be able to resolve the situation to everyone's satisfaction.
Here is where I come back around to Advent. Because, let's remember: generosity and love are intimately linked. It is impossible to be generous toward someone you do not love—and if you do not love them when you start being generous toward them, it's almost impossible not to end feeling some love. The sacrifice implicit in generous behaviour teaches us to love the one toward whom the generosity is extended.
But this "assuming positive intent" generosity is, well, really hard. Especially this time of year, when I am home for Christmas and the old family quarrels rise back up to the surface; when I speak with a friend and things seem off, somehow; when I encounter a work situation that upends my world.
So let us remember this: while most of us are profoundly selfish, scarcely inclined to extend generosity toward others, even the good ones—let alone the moderate effort of just assuming positive intent—God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ came, and died, for us.
This, friends, is love. Merry Christmas.