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Jennie Goutet Headshot

What Is Love?

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The danger in writing passionately on the subject of tolerance is that you become intolerant of people who are not tolerant. And the danger in writing passionately about love -- and how it is not self-seeking, proud, or boastful -- is that you end up boasting about knowing and possessing the kind of love that doesn't boast.

So let's pretend that I am neither intolerant nor boastful, and say that I am merely passionate when I talk about my convictions regarding love, and what it is.

I chose a rather fundamental Bible-based Christian path when I was 25 years old, and as a result, my belief system is different from the majority of my entourage. But I also believe that if God had wanted puppets -- clones who were identical in thought, reason, feeling and choice -- he would have made puppets. He didn't. This means that most of my life is spent adapting to people, and trying to understand feelings, choices, and a thought and reasoning process that I would not make. It hurts me to stretch my tolerance because some choices don't naturally make sense to me. Sometimes I feel like I am physically pushing my mind and heart to understand another person who is wholly different from me.

But I do it because love is not self-seeking.

Our pastor and his wife know a family in the church back in Boston. Their daughter was highly allergic to peanuts. From an early age, they taught her to touch her tongue to foods outside of the home if there was any doubt whatsoever that there might be peanuts or peanut oil in it -- all while trying very hard to protect her everywhere they went. This was recommended to them, because any reaction from just touching her tongue to the food could save her from ingesting what was deadly to her.

But one time . . . just once, even touching her tongue to a food containing hidden peanuts was too much for her 8-year old body, and not even the swift action of her parents with the EpiPen could save her. Their young daughter died immediately.

I've been hearing a lot of frustration expressed by parents who don't want an entire school to have to cater to one or two children who have food allergies. But how simple it is to show love to others by ensuring that the food you send with your child to their school won't cause grief upon grief to the parents whose children have a severe allergy -- who may die if they come into contact with even a small bit of it. What an easy sacrifice to make -- we, whose children are fortunate enough to escape special considerations, such as a food allergy.

I am gluten-intolerant, and although I never expect people to make me gluten-free things, I am touched beyond words when they do. And when my friends bring their children over, who are allergic to eggs and dairy, I consider it a fun challenge to make a dessert that both they and I can eat -- and to make one that doesn't taste like cardboard.

I even like remembering the smaller details: Melanie takes six sugars in her coffee, Gerard has reactions to foods that have been frozen, Elizabeth is allergic to cinnamon. I like to remember people's individual needs and desires as a way of showing them I care -- that's just me.

But children whose classmates need to be kept safe from certain foods, even if it means putting restrictions on school-wide celebrations, this should be a no-brainer and a willing act of solidarity for every parent as they choose to adhere to it.

Love always protects.

Back in New York, we were really close friends with a couple in our church. They were married a year before us, and had a child a year before us as well. After we moved to France, the husband decided that he no longer wanted to be in a heterosexual relationship, and -- although he remained an amazing father to his son -- he divorced his wife. This hurt a lot -- the end of a marriage we looked up to with people we loved. It hurt to witness the intense pain his wife suffered -- she who was caught by surprise and unprepared to be abandoned.

Nevertheless, when our friend -- the husband -- brought his new boyfriend to Paris, we invited them over to dinner. Because, you see, we love our friends -- both of them. And love keeps no record of wrongs (whether or not the wrong is against us -- which, in this case, it wasn't). We pulled out all the stops in hopes that they would feel welcome. I made leg of lamb and chocolate fondant. We had a cheese platter. We decorated the table. And we threw open our home and our arms to this couple.

Our friend was natural with us -- he was unsurprised by our welcome. He knew us. His boyfriend was less comfortable. He was stiff and we couldn't melt his frostiness with our warmth. I'm guessing it's because he knew we were Christians, and he knew where our convictions lay, and I can't say that I blame him for being wary. But we welcomed them because -- although they follow their path and we follow ours - why should different paths preclude friendship?

Love always hopes. It always perseveres.

Apart from our lives in East Africa, where we were mainly surrounded by -- and friends with -- people of the Muslim faith, my first Muslim best friend was not until I met Amina in La Défense. Each of us has always remained staunch in our own convictions, but we tend to seek the common ground in our friendship rather than focus on the differences. She doesn't try to teach my kids to adhere to her faith when they go over to play, and I respect her in the same way when her kids come over to our place.

We've been friends for many years now, and I delight in making and serving Halal food for her family when they come over. Halal is the way of sacrificing the animal with a special prayer to render the meat sacred. I suspect it's similar to Kosher food, and although none of my Jewish friends that live nearby are strictly Kosher, I would do the same thing for them.

Why should I cause my friends to stumble in their beliefs, or cause them to go against their consciences just because it's not something required in my own faith? Accepting friends and allowing for their beliefs does not lessen my own convictions.

Love does not dishonour others.

Politically speaking, I am left-wing in America, and right-wing in France. The right is just too right for me in America, and the left is just too left for me in France. Of course the people I'm closest to in both France and America don't perfectly agree with me. And it has nothing to do with their religious affiliation either. That surprised me at first. I honestly thought -- when I was living in New York -- that all Christians would surely see how Christ-like the democratic party was.

It's okay -- you can laugh at me. And you can disagree with me. Many do.

But I will say this. There are educated and informed people choosing to subscribe to both ends of the political spectrum, and even to all the shades in between. I may not choose to agree with someone, but I will try to understand what drives them -- why they make the decisions they make. What am I missing? What can I learn? Because surely you have something to teach me.

Love always trusts.

In the blend of experiences, thoughts, passion, beliefs, environments that God allows each one of us to be subject to, there are bound to be different convictions and different choices that ensue.

There is so much to love that goes beyond "feelings." It's about respecting people's needs, and allowing them the freedom to make their own choices, and granting them the space to express their own convictions.

I may have a long way to go in truly learning to apply this, but that's what love is to me.