Get your loves in order

“The punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.” — Saint Augustine

One of my favourite ways to spend a quiet Sunday morning is with Oprah Winfrey. She hosts a show, Supersoul Sunday, in which she interviews authors, artists and thought leaders about life’s big questions. For those who can’t watch live, there’s a website, where you can catch up with past episodes. What I often find as I dip into the archive is that I come across something that’s uncannily relevant to what’s happening in my life at that time. Last week, this something was the concept of disordered love.

In the episode I watched, David Brooks, author of The Road to Character, was describing his attempt to cultivate ‘eulogy virtues’. We all know that our personal qualities are more important than our professional achievements (our CV virtues), but Brooks argues that the way we live suggests otherwise.

Getting things in the wrong order

The part of the interview that grabbed me most was when Brooks told Oprah about the philosopher Augustine’s conception of sin. Saint Augustine believed that we sin when we get our loves out of order — when we put a lower love above a higher love. For example, if we gossip about someone close to us, we’re putting our love of popularity above our love of friendship. Or if we put our love of appearance above our love of goodness, we’re getting things wrong.

Now physical beauty, to be sure, is a good…but it is a temporal good, very low in the scale of goods; and if it is loved in preference to…the eternal, internal, and sempiternal good, that love is as wrong as the miser’s love for gold. — Saint Augustine

How do we know in which order we’re putting our loves? By considering the time, energy and value we assign to them. We get to decide how we spend our days, and the choices we make reveal something about our own scale of goods. We might tell ourselves that our love of family trumps our love of money, but if we spend more time and energy pleasing a horrible boss than being available for our family, we’re getting our loves out of order. Brooks’ point is that every time we make a decision about what we focus our attention on — and we do this every hour of our lives — we subtly elevate or degrade ourselves.

What do we make time for?

I was struck by the idea of ordering loves because I’ve recently changed jobs and find myself with more time and freedom than I’ve had in a decade. I’m now freelancing from home, so I get to decide which projects I take, when I work on them, and what I do with my free time. (The phrase ‘free time’ is revealing in itself; all our time is free if you think about it. It’s just that many of us choose commitments that make us feel enslaved.)

When I had a full-time office job, it was easy to tell myself I couldn’t fully devote myself to the things that really mattered because I had so little free time. However, what I’ve discovered now I have more flexibility is that it’s still easy to get my loves out of order. Unless I make a conscious effort, I find that:

  • I put love of work above love of peace (I’ll finish a job before I do my yoga practice)
  • I put love of money above love of relationships (I’ll put off calling someone because a new project comes in)
  • I put love of doing above love of being (I’ll compulsively work my way through to-do lists).

Why is this? I think it’s partly cultural. Society celebrates external accomplishments, so it’s tempting to continuously channel our energies into achieving.

Why high loves are hard to prioritise

However, I also think that high loves are more challenging than lower loves. It’s harder to face ourselves in quiet stillness than to lose ourselves in tasks allocated by others. It’s harder to give selflessly to others than to expend energy in the knowledge we’ll be paid for it. No-one’s going to ask you to spend more time on being. No-one’s going to send an email to check how loving you’ve been. And no-one’s going to give you a pat on the back for cultivating peacefulness.

The thing about high loves, though, is they’re their own reward. We know when we’ve got things in the right order because we feel joyful, relaxed and content. Similarly, we know when we’ve got them wrong because we feel restless, tense, and subtly dissatisfied.

If disordered love is so common — and I agree with Brooks that it is ­– what’s the solution? To ask ourselves what we truly love most, and to set our schedules accordingly. The rock and sand analogy is helpful here. We can think of our lives as a glass jar and the things we fill our time with as rocks and sand; the rocks are the big, important things (our high loves), and the sand the smaller, less important things (our low loves). If we put sand — lower loves — in the glass first, there’s a good chance the rocks won’t be able to fit it. However, if we put the rocks in first, the sand can settle around the rocks and everything can be accommodated.

So, we need to work out what our rocks are and put these first. If Augustine’s right, this is the way to a truly good life.