Love as the Gift of Agency and Alleviation
Or, two life lesson in the wilderness
The Hebrew word hesed gets translated in a bunch of different ways.
It is love, lovingkindness, steadfast love, or loyal love (as the Bible Project translates it).
Hesed combines aspects of
and enduring commitment,
We could say that hesed is a “care-full love” — attuned and attentive to the needs of the other (even complex needs that are misunderstood by the other person).
Another time I’ll write more on hesed as “attachment love” — a love that combines both intimate emotions (love as a noun) and strategic actions (love as a verb).
But right now I want to focus on love as the gift (or the grace) that
And alleviates distress
Two Life Lessons in a Wasteland
In 2013 we had a family vacation in Moab, Utah.
One day we planned a trip to Arches National Park (see above photo). We arrived early to beat the heat—it was regularly in the high 90s by noon.
We also had a newly minted 13 year who was determined to do things his way.
After repeated family reminders to fill up and bring your water bottle for the 6-mile hike, Soren informed us that he, quote, "didn't need it."
And I thought to myself, "Oh, there are going to be some life lessons today!"
Respecting Agency (and Boundaries)
As we set off on our hike I casually informed Soren that because he chose not to bring his water bottle, it wouldn't be fair of him to ask others for water if he became thirsty.
Of course, he promptly told me that he wouldn't ask and that he would need to. His pride was on the line now.
Some reading this might think I was being overly harsh by setting a boundary that said he can't ask for water from others.
Isn't that mean?
Maybe even vindictive?
Was I being petty toward an impulsive 13-year-old?
It wasn’t mean, vindictive, or petty.
It was love. It was kind. It was grace.
Let me explain: I was lovingly respecting Soren's growing sense of agency.
I didn't force Soren to take a water bottle (I respected his decision)
But I also wasn't going to allow his agency to detrimentally affect others.
Not only did I lovingly respect Soren's agency. I wanted to flourish it. I wanted it to grow. And allowing his decision to go without water was part of that.
So, while the rest of us were burdened with carrying our own water bottles (and of course, Mom and Dad carried snacks and a meal too), Soren wasn't burdened with anything.
First Life Lesson: Letting someone exercise AGENCY is loving (within certain limits)
After seeing the sights at our destination (which happened to be a 6-mile round trip through "The Devil's Garden"), we started back.
And it started getting hotter.
And we started getting thirsty.
And one of us didn't have a water bottle!
So, what was a loving parent supposed to do?
Suffering the Consequences
Based on my first point, some might think that the loving thing to do would be to let Soren suffer the consequences of his actions. He chose not to bring his water bottle. So, in effect, he chose to be hot and thirsty. And respecting his agency all the way to the end (back to the car) is the loving thing to do.
This is the tough love answer.
But for me, this is only half the answer when it comes to love and grace.
I wanted to give Soren the gift of respecting agency. And I also wanted to give him another gift—alleviating distress.
Love as alleviating distress
To his credit, Soren never asked for anyone's water. Even though we could tell he was getting pretty hot and exhausted.
But I offered my water to him, the water that I carried the entire way, the water that he didn't bother to fill and wasn't burdened to carry. The water that I was now going to go without even though I bothered to fill it and was burdened to carry it.
I was now going to suffer a little bit so that his suffering could be relieved. I was going to get less water so he could get more.
This too was the gift of love.
Second Life Lesson: Offering to ALLEVIATE distress is loving (as long as you don’t impose it)
For more on AGENCY and ALLEVIATION, plus the AVAILABILITY of others, see Exploring the 3 Core Attachment Questions Shaping Our Lives.
Love as Respecting Agency and Alleviating Distress
My goal on that little hiking trip was to teach Soren two aspects of love, two aspects of grace.
The gift of respecting agency—that Soren really does have control in his life.
The gift of alleviating distress—that sometimes we need help from others.
(If you want to learn more about attachment theory and how it connects to faith, please subscribe and get all future posts in your inbox or opp, and join our waitlist for our next Attaching to God learning cohort.)
God Loves Us This Way
God loves us, has mercy on us, has compassion for us in this same way.
God's loyal love, steadfast love, and enduring love (hesed) both respects our agency and alleviates our distress.
God neither practices tough love on us—causing us to suffer the rightful consequences of our actions. Nor does God practice a coddling love—bailing us out of (or bossing us around) every difficulty.
Rather, God practices an attachment love (hesed) that is both full of deep feeling and wise actions, helping us to grow the capacity and wisdom to act according to our individual agency and to know when to ask for help when needed.
I'm still growing.
And truth be told, it is only by the grace of God that I could teach Soren those lessons that day. I was more a do as I say, not as I do situation.
Frankly, I'm still much more likely to rely on my own agency, and still very unlikely to ask for help from others to alleviate distress.
This is my desert-avoidant attachment strategy—doubling down on independence as protection against too much intimacy.
But others of us go the other way in our romantic or caregiving relationships, giving (or receiving) so much assistance in the alleviation of distress that your capacity for independent action (the exercising of agency) is greatly diminished.
This is the jungle-anxious attachment strategy—doubling down on intimacy because of the fear that too much agency will leave you abandoned by others.
And thankfully, God is still meeting us each and every day, teaching us other life lessons that lead us into a deeper and more secure attachment.
Where do you see these two sides of love and grace in your life?
How have you become lopsided one way or the other regarding these aspects of love?
If you want to learn more about attachment theory and how it connects to faith, please subscribe and get all future posts in your inbox or opp, and join our waitlist for our next Attaching to God learning cohort.
For a brief introduction to hesed, check out this Bible Project video.