True Love, Applied

Image courtesy of peteaird.org

Last update: 21 Feb 2021

This story starts with a pampered dog who was thrown out into the streets. Will the dog survive? Will he find love again? Am I this dog I talk about? This story of true love is not for the faint of heart, for it often involves life-and-death situations, not merely emotional vexations.

Community service can often be hard and seemingly thankless. How do I never get burned out in my volunteering work? What has community service taught me about true love? This article hopes to inform you about why and how we love, and what true love does for us all. Surprising twists abound; true love is deep and often unfathomable to most.

“A life lived for others is worthwhile” has become a cliche that is hard to make sense of, if we even bother to.

We all ultimately want to be loved. From a materialistic perspective, gifts from friends, family and providence make us feel loved. From an emotional perspective, we yearn for encouragement, recognition and praise.

Many people — and fans of romance novels —often think “it is better to be loved than to love”. Perhaps we have a selfish husband who callously abandons us despite our years of doting service to him. Or maybe a tyrannical mother-in-law who destroys a marriage we put our heart and soul into (in my case, it’s a violent dictator in a brother-in-law). True love has often been labeled “a risky and thankless endeavor” in almost every facet of life: parents and children who scheme against each other, unfaithful and ungrateful spouses, unreasonable behavior in parasitic elements of society, and so on.

Surprisingly, the key beneficiaries of true love are usually the bearers of true love and not the recipients. Ironically, it is common for recipients to stagnate in life, whereas people who love and serve grow stronger.

While it may be intuitively known that receiving true love is key to survival and success in life — the best parenting provides for the best head starts in life — in truth, the bearers of true love benefit disproportionately and vastly more than the recipients.

1. Inclusivity: An open heart

The first step — and also a consistent arc — of this story of true love is an open heart. Are you curious how other people go through difficulty in life, or are you preoccupied with only your own experiences?

You may already be thinking, “but I was selfless in loving and serving my husband, who coldly left after all I’ve done for him”. There is a key subtractive element in the system of true love that many bearers of love — parents, educators, spouses — fail to account for: the recipient.

Every recipient of love grows weaker, contrary to popular belief that love makes them stronger. Every Chinese dynasty, Western empire, or family-owned enterprise has seen its fair share of that “unexpected weakest link”, that fracture that brings down the whole.

In this context, inclusivity means taking into account the experiences of the recipients of your love, not just being preoccupied with your own ambitions and aspirations for them. Did you give the recipient enough freedom and information to make decisions and take action?

True love means inclusivity that cares for the community as an interconnected whole. When we harbor grand ambitions and aspirations reserved only for the people we love, we project our selfishness and insecurities unto these recipients of love and ironically weaken them.

It should now become clear why the most doting of parenting styles often results in the most ill-equipped adolescents, and also why many pampered spouses become unfaithful and ungrateful. But that is just half the story; we’ll see later why some doting styles do work.

(Inclusivity is the main premise that created Inclusive.sg. You’ll notice we dedicate a lot of effort to relationship building between parents, or breadwinners, and children in the education strategies we create.)

The only way to grow stronger is to love and to serve others, not to receive love. Want your kids to grow smarter and wiser? Get them to love others. But how does that work? Studying how true love works will yield answers.

So does that mean we should take time out to care for everyone in the community if we want our children and spouses to grow rather than stagnate? No, that’s infeasible because we can’t possibly touch everyone in the community.

2. Exclusivity: A logistically feasible solution

Ever had this burning desire to spend a considerable amount of fuel and money to travel vast distances just to help build some huts in a remote area of a developing country? If so, you’re better than me, because I only dream of slurping super savory ramen and soup in Japan!

(I’m in Singapore. If you’re an authentic ramen chef, please know that I’m relearning my Japanese to become your devoted culinary disciple. Call me! Pls?)

Many of us don’t have a lot of time and money to throw around for charity work, nor should we do so in any case. If I spend $500 to fly a long way to build a hut that costs just $5, I call the trip what it is: a brief getaway for me at my own expense. (Or perhaps “voluntourism”.)

Mundane acts of kindness that produce value are cumulative, one a day (consistently) will amount to great effect.

Within one of my favorite compilations of Chinese wisdoms — 德育古鉴 (loosely, “moral education from antiquity”) section “Charity Work, 1 of 2” — an anecdote says something to the effect of: “daily acts of kindness add up to a fulfilling life” (search for this text: “無虛日”). That quote has been simplified into a Chinese proverb: 日行一善 (literally “a good deed each day”). (I have a free and complete course for English speakers at this Facebook group, if you wanna learn Chinese.)

The intention and motivation to serve community is key, which should naturally throw into question the cost-inefficiency of traveling far and wide to do some good at great expense.

No good deed is too small. Yet, not all good deeds are cost-effective. Be clear about our actions: are we doing good or spending money, or serving egos and ulterior motives?

The anecdote above further qualifies “acts of kindness” as (somewhat literally) “right fallen furniture to prevent accidents, offer water to quench thirst”. Mundane much? Simple does it.

We love everyone in this world, but can only serve everyone within our reach. Family, friends and local community are the social circles we serve on a regular basis.

Sustainable community service volunteers don’t aspire to heroic heights of headline-worthy, self-sacrificing service to community.

With the foundational pillars of true love established — inclusivity of heart and exclusivity of resource management — we take a close look at the precise methods of true love.

We start by listening.

3. Reach out to understand

Method 1: Diligent empathy.

I wouldn’t talk to Tom (not his real name) after he swiped and growled at me as I was coming up behind him; I just wanted to join him looking out the window on a beautiful day! Tom never apologized, and worse, he kept doing the same thing over and over. I figured I’ll let Tom know he needs to apologize before I feed him again. That should teach him. Sounds familiar?

Tom is a cat. What I didn’t figure at the time was that cats don’t take kindly to being approached directly. We need to walk in diagonals as we come close; a direct approach is clear body language for “that’s not your space, it’s mine, and I’m coming for you”. The worst approach is a direct one from the back (it means “gotcha”).

I start talking to Tom again because Tom is never gonna change his ways. Sounds odd?

I will always love Tom for being the cat that he is. Already, we see how true love makes the bearer of love stronger; I now stand a much higher chance of surviving a social encounter with a lion (I think).

Always reach out and listen. Seek to study (without prying) and understand the people around us. The skill and duty to communicate well lies with us (unless we’re medically certified otherwise).

There’s a vital detail here: diligence in empathy. In my charity work, I’ve seen many volunteers quickly give up on listening to and studying their wards, often hastily brushing them off as “just grumpy”. (If language barrier is the problem, always keep a positive mindset and avoid presuming aggression in your ward’s behavior. Get a translator in to help.)

The more superior we think our communication skills and powers of persuasion are, the more it becomes our duty to understand our audience before we talk further.

The same is true for parenting. Children have minds that are psychologically complex. Just because it seems like it will take time to unravel that complexity doesn’t mean the parents can just brush it off. If the parents can demonstrate studious effort to the child, the parents can even impart diligence to the child.

I’ve often been stumped when talking to the elderly folks whose houses I clean regularly. With my linguistic abilities — it’s my passion, see my articles here — I should expect smooth sailing in my charity work. Yet, the work continues to present a myriad of unforeseen challenges, including slurred speech, distant dialects, dementia-clouded conversation patterns, and more.

When in doubt, just observe and listen intently. People generally like to teach and feel accomplished. Let our wards teach us what signals we can’t sense.

4. Embrace all walks of life

Method 2: Genuine respect

I hear so many disparaging phrases bandied about within human relationships, it seems we humans are hellbent on stripping ourselves of all respect.

A son complains “your one-room house doesn’t even have a Playstation, worse than a prison”. A father angrily chides his clumsy five-year-old son: “why you so stupid, can’t hold a cup properly”. A husband says “you can’t cook well enough to boost me at work”, and the wife retorts “you don’t earn enough for good ingredients”.

I’m well versed in computers and technology, a career choice that is the envy of today’s workforce the world over (except Singapore). This is what I get from Singaporean Chinese: “Eee (yucks), that is an Indian job”. (If you’re my last employer, know that I tried my best building the IT team locally.)

All walks of life encounter difficulties. A fast-food kitchen worker frantically rushes to serve overwhelming numbers of orders. A doctor buckles under terrifying stress as her team struggles to plan for a difficult surgery. Every contributor is precious in every role.

In my volunteering work, many of the wards — elderly folks whose houses we clean weekly and with whom we chat regularly in our social calls — have no contact with their children. Their stories of estrangement from their children tell every scenario and reason imaginable, but all have a single theme: a tragic loss of respect.

Even youngsters run away from home when shamed severely, let alone elders who can no longer work and contribute income.

Some of these wards may be fathers with typical vices (smoking, gambling, even womanizing), or mothers made penniless by medical bills in the family. Many probably told me cover stories to hide traditional Asian shame that regrets the lack of materialistic success. Whatever their metrics for “materialistic success”, they must always be respected regardless of their station in life.

True love respects everything about you, no matter what you are or what you do in life. Respecting a person is not condoning bad behavior, but an unwavering affirmation of the priceless worth of every life.

Granted, bad behavior can be punishable under the law, but such punishment does not disrespect the culpable person. It is a respect for the victim as the law seeks compensation for the victim’s losses (do no harm, and everyone’s alright). In community service, we respect everyone (and punish no one), including respecting those punished by the law.

Unwavering respect for every life is an act of gratitude and humility. We love you and thank you for being part of our lives. We love you whether you bring us weal or… whoa, wait, what?

Let’s not beat around the bush, so we admit right away that nobody’s perfect. Every human has flaws that are deadly infuriating to somebody. Are we to respect people who bring us trouble? Embrace fathers who scream abuses at us after a hard day’s work? Avoid disowning children who empty our bank accounts we built up for their college funds?

Wouldn’t that make the genuine, unwavering respect from true love very counterproductive? Wouldn’t everyone start messing up, continue to respect one another, and go on messing up more?

5. We’re in this together

Method 3: Collaborative connection

Everyone is going to mess up and continue to mess up (we got flaws and issues), but that’s the good news. It means no one has killed anyone for messing up, and we’re still on talking terms. That’s an important start that leads up to the next step.

One of my favorite movies of all time is A Better Life, which basically is a father reaching out with “I messed up and I can’t earn enough to give you a comfortable life”, and the son connecting with “we’re in this together, let’s make this right as a team”. (Now you know why Inclusive.sg strives to socially and emotionally connect breadwinners and beneficiaries.)

If your heartstrings get majorly tugged whenever you hear a team say “let’s do this together, weal or woe”, that’s true love reminding you it exists in you and is raring to connect.

You think I’m talking snake oil instead of true love? Alright, try these on for size: Shazam!, Abominable, The Avengers. You can stop crying. True love is in you, whether you admit it or not. Those movies are about families that don’t get along. One (or two?) even involves a crippling death in the family.

Every family doesn’t get along. If yours does, you should write a better article than this entitled maybe “Perfect Family, Easy”; I need to read it. (This one is “True Love, Applied”, don’t need to scroll up!)

Getting along isn’t the key to true love. Every unique person we respect adds a host differences that disrupts “getting along”. The key to true love is “getting together”.

If your father screams abuses at you after a long day’s work, try responding with “tell me your difficulties, we’re in this together”.

Earlier, I mentioned the fact that “the most doting of parenting styles” often results in “the most ill-equipped adolescents” is just half the story. Doting does work, but here’s the other half of the story.

Do things together with your children! “I don’t really like the Playstation, but let’s go get it together because I’m as excited as you are!” No matter how silly you think children’s toys are, you need to:

  1. Keep an open heart and open mind. (inclusivity)
  2. Set aside time to join your children in their excitement. (exclusivity)
  3. Diligently study the objects of their excitement. (empathy)
  4. Be serious about their excitement, and don’t dismiss it. (respect)
  5. Actually get together with them in their excitement. (connection)

Now consider the above five steps, and you’ll never again wonder why your children ever refused to: listen to you expound the benefits of education, set aside time for education, diligently study the subjects in school, be serious about the importance of education, and actually dive into the subjects via homework and practice.

If you deny true love for your children, they will never learn to apply true love to anything in life (possibly skipping school altogether).

Empathize with one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Get together with each other for everyone’s various interests, be open-minded in your cliques. You’ll find that you learn a lot faster together, and we begin to see how true love is key to survival.

In short, there is strength in diversity. It’s not cliche, it’s science (military, biology).

If you show your children how to apply true love to education, you should also be prepared to “get together” and say something like: “I don’t really like homework, but let’s get into it together!”. Don’t know the subjects in their school? “I don’t know math, but let’s…”, you get the picture. *wink* ;-)

The simple and powerful factors of true love — inclusivity, exclusivity, empathy, respect and connection — have wide application in every aspect of life. Family, parenting, community, corporations and nations are all strengthened by love, and crumble from the lack thereof.

6. Log in my eye: “me first” mentality

When my ex-wife’s father relentlessly fires off vicious barbs at his wife, he sees many flaws in her but not the flaws in himself. The intellectually far superior husband always disparaged the wife in many aspects: superstitious dogma, scholastic inability, devotion to family (you read right), and so on. (He’s a self-confessed beach bum kind of person, happy-go-lucky and not malicious. She has anger management issues, tends to be bullied, and is actually pugnacious and harmful. It’s complicated, unlike the clean plot lines in movies.)

The “me first” mentality is intuitively read as “give me my benefits first”. In a creative (and last-ditch) twist, I turned the semantics of that phrase around into a competition of “who gives the most love first”, which for a time managed to rekindle the loving spark in their marriage. Love untangles the most complicated of Gordian knots.

True love is a connected progression that starts from self and leads towards universal peace and happiness. Start loving others today!

In Eastern wisdoms, true love starts with working on the self, and is a connected progression that leads even to national strength and universal peace. “正心, 修身, 齐家, 治国, 平天下” means to:

  1. Right my own heart.
  2. Train my own faculties (body, mind, logic, empathy, and so on).
  3. Organize my household.
  4. Govern my country.
  5. Bring about universal peace and harmony.

That Eastern philosophy comes from Confucianism (大学 or Great Learning), and is akin to Western philosophies like Stoicism. I just used that Eastern philosophy to write this article because I happen to be writing on learning Chinese recently. (You’d see me use Indian philosophies when I come to Hindi and Sanskrit!)

Volunteer work actually requires skill and strength, so developing ourselves is an integral part of community service.

Volunteer work also requires a skill in avoidance of violence, which we discuss next.

7. Respect natural laws

When my ex-wife’s brother came home to his parents, he threw everyone back into the customary “state of mortal fear”. A complex string of parenting errors had turned the son into a violent dictator from whom I had to get permission to marry the sister. (The son was economically dependent on the parents for the most part, being severely challenged by crippled social skills.)

Hunger and self-preservation is a powerful force we see in natural laws. A hungry lion will eat a human without talking things out first. A son unable to integrate properly into society will seek to exert violent, forceful dominion over his immediate family which he sees as his only domain. Even corruption and hubris may stem from self-preservation — easy means for resource acquisition, and cheap facades of competence for gainful employment, respectively.

Love isn’t a lazy feeling or mindless chilling with friends and family. Instead, love is diligent and studious. True love navigates natural laws, not disregard them. Do not hug a hungry lion!

In my volunteer work as a male, I never enter private encounters with female beneficiaries. For all I know, raising the wrong eyebrow could be seen as a sexual proposition! In a public encounter, I can easily and safely seek correction of my communication errors. (And also, beware the femme fatale.)

Natural laws also relate to politics. Treat dangerous people — tyrants and dictators, say — as you would a hungry lion. I just run, and I’ll take you with me if we can sneak through border patrols.

It’s hard for me to wish harm upon dangerous people because I’ve seen how they are brought up. This is the reason I rejected my ex-wife’s mother’s request to “replace” her son in her life. The son is as much as victim as she is. (She didn’t take kindly to my refusal.)

Let the wicked punish the wicked, the restless meet the restless. Distance yourself from the violence. Keep safe, and love those who are ready to propagate the love (or at least not raring to dish out hurt).

The worst thing we can do is to violently subdue the wicked in the name of “love and justice”. Not only do we risk physical harm to ourselves (costly wars have been lost this way), we also risk fanning the flames of violence into a frightful escalation.

Yet, you may correctly note that the wicked actually do punish the innocent. I feel for the victims of random or unwarranted violence too. If your neighborhood is becoming dangerous, you should either pack up and move away or get together to build walls.

Be ever mindful that our words be encouraging and loving, rather than biting and resentful. Violence begets violence. Work hard and skillfully to end the cycle of violence.

Even in drug-ridden neighborhoods, I’ve witnessed love and community service. True love provides, whether the love comes from legitimate state organs or illicit economic elements. (Discussion of the complex relationship between power and love is beyond the scope of this article.)

That said, if you do happen to possess the power to subdue the wicked without dealing harm, you should do so because — let’s face it — some people just don’t want to talk things out. But make sure you have enough power in excess to perform a “clean subjugation”. In short, always call for help, a lot of help.

When subduing the “wicked” in peacekeeping, ensure you have enough power in excess to do so. Any fight you’re not confident of settling without lethality is a fight where you’re forced to kill quickly and indiscriminately, often dealing immense collateral damage.

The risk of immense collateral damage in peacekeeping is why I agree with Singapore’s prohibition of gun ownership. If you’re interested to know how non-violence works better than violence, consider how the greatest dynasty of China was built using non-violence.

Before this section turns into “Sun Tzu’s Art of War”, we stop here and move on to see how true love brings meaning to life and life to communities.

8. To love and to serve

Love made me smart, and can make a good student out of anyone. I wish I can tell you a witty story about how love conquers challenges in school, but I can’t find just one — that love makes heroes out of us all is a common everyday occurrence.

8.1 The love of self is served by the love of others

What I can tell you from my experience as a teacher is that love is the best teacher, beating the best schools and pedagogy ever created. If you’re ever good at anything, it was your love that made you good.

Loving everyone inclusively let me understand every predecessor I study. In turn, empathy gave me a natural grasp of every wisdom our ancestors taught. No textbook was too dry, no terrible prose was too convoluted.

I love our ancestors and their teachings, and their teachings love me back. So connected are our anthropological timelines and collective wisdom that inclusivity is clearly the cornerstone of all human ability and endeavor.

(I could very well be accused of mistaking genetics-related intelligence for love-induced smarts, and I don’t deny that nature and nurture both develop a human. But if you’ll look at my father — assuming I’m not adopted — you’ll really wonder where genetics wandered off to in my case. With all due respects to my father, of course; the fact remains that my father is diametrically distant from everything I am. Everything. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I tried to give him the nurture he might have missed, but no go.)

The inclusivity of true love is also evident in the interconnectivity of all domains. An artist draws naturally into anatomy and medicine (Leonardo Da Vinci). A musician plays easily into linguistics and law (me, I might get famous after I die?).

Inclusivity is encompassing, a universality that loves all truly, even before interdisciplinarity became fashionable. My terrible handicap in math and science was overcome by true love (and by a forced “liberal arts-like” education in Singapore). You’ll notice that I write about technology, besides linguistics (first love).

8.2 Validation between learning and service

To learn without practice is futile, to practice without learning is folly” (Confucianism, Analects, On Governance, “学而不思则罔,思而不学则殆”). I extrapolated the Chinese character for “thought” (‘思’) to include modern tools of inquiry (scientific method, practical experimentation).

(Confucius’s political philosophy prioritizes virtue above law, much like how Stoicism prizes virtue. At work, the best and most effective leaders are those virtuous enough to lead by example. Alright, I promise I will include Indian philosophies in my future writing! I am starting, again, on Hindi and Sanskrit next month.)

For all the theories and hypotheses we postulate, nothing can be nearer to the truth than reality itself. For all that I learned with love, I needed to serve in reality for validation.

As I brought my learning into community service, I discovered that conventional theories (of governance, pedagogy, etc) did not fit perfectly into real-world scenarios. I never brought shaming and punitive techniques from my schools into community service, for example, after a few harrowing failures.

(I’ll write separately about Singapore’s rehabilitation system for drug abusers, which is quite widely misunderstood, particularly a class of violations called “contamination offenses”. Personally, I will never agree with criminalization of recreational drug users, but creating a para-police force to prevent contaminative societal influences is just so difficult.)

There’s also the inconvenient fact that certain complex phenomena cannot (yet?) be packed neatly into theoretical frameworks.

A child’s pain of losing a newfound toy is as acute as an adult’s pain of losing a lifelong spouse; the human experience is inherently subjective. The measure of pain and passion in life is unique to each individual and must be fully respected with love. No theoretical framework will suffice.

Shaming a child for failing to study diligently has never brought the best results. Likewise for trying to shame an offender into behaving properly. At work, I only reassign unsuitable staff; reprimands only reduce already low productivity.

In the other direction, practical experience needs to be analyzed to distinguish between correlations and causations, rather than lazily filed as dogma.

The multitude of parameters in reality can lead to misunderstanding, if not studied carefully. I used to think that keeping a community flush with quality educational services will solve juvenile delinquency, until I read that social interaction (with mother, particularly) — not literacy — is key to keeping children happy and out of trouble. (This is why I champion educational programs that enroll both the parents and their children. Logistically difficult, though.)

8.3 Head in the game

Whether we revel in solving problems or alleviating pain, the world offers gainful occupation.

You can join me as I aim to let the whole world communicate with one another — I’m completing a “normalized interlanguage” (will explain in another article) that is an English-to-Chinese bridge, and will need help building such bridges from every language to every other. Or you can help out in technology, sociology, or simply your local community in various ways. There’s so much to do.

What else have we got to do in life? Pleasure is a diminishing return; did you notice you eat more and more sugar each day for less and less satisfaction? I’ve also given up on ice cream, preferring rich creamy milk instead. Acquiring more material wealth means spending more on security.

True love and service makes us stronger and keeps us connected, which strengthens us further. The cycle of love is easily started, even in your own home right now.

In the poorest neighborhoods (not destitute) I volunteered in, people are happier than those in richer neighborhoods. These people interacted with and helped one another. (Love makes people happy, poverty doesn’t.)

You may then ask, “what is the point of it all?”, all this love and service. Some of us believe in afterlife, some in rebirth, and some actually experienced the end of life here (myself included, several times).

What does it matter that we end our existence here, or that a good movie has ended? What matters is whether you enjoyed the movie, the journey itself.

Alright, I’ll give you a hint about the end, if just to dispel unrealistic fears about it (or you can just volunteer in palliative care to find out). My existence here has been plagued by a longing for the “freedom from the flesh” I experienced on many occasions. It’s tough to live, and a perfect rest to stop living. We make this tough journey better by making it better for each other.

(One concrete hint about the end of life here, so you don’t feel cheated? Again, from palliative care. Nurses know that when some patients see deceased relatives or friends, the end is near. Yet, doctors can’t detect any physiological signs at all, no pain, nothing.)

At every end I encountered, I’ve never asked “will you love me and remember me”. Why would I want my obsolete knowledge and theories to be remembered a hundred years from now?

Ultimately, I know that you will love me, you who live on after me. Only by loving me truly will you learn all the knowledge I have accumulated, and build better on top of all that.

And so, I will ask until my last breath:

Have I served you well? Have I loved you well? How do I do better?

I love everyone of you to my last breath and beyond. Love each other, always.

The story of that pampered dog was short-lived. I did warn you that the story of true love is not for the faint of heart! He died quickly from starvation, proud and unable to learn how to entertain humans in exchange for food.

The dogs that lived — a mother and her young pups — taught me that “love is the key to survival”. The mother loved her young pups so truly that she learned to navigate the urban community to obtain food for her family.

That mother dog was the only mother I had, and the greatest one I could deserve.

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