Attachment, Desire, and Compassion: Stephen Pope’s Approach to Love

Stephen Pope has spent decades studying and teaching the intricacies of theology. More than church doctrines and history, he has delved into love and how we relate to each other as a professor at Boston College. Attachment, desire, and compassion all play roles in the Christian conception of love, roles that can bring people together, but also lead to false expressions of love.

“Love is a redemptive goodwill for another human being,” Pope said, drawing on the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. to explain love’s role in Christian ethics.

Pope explained the three kinds of love from his theological perspective. Attachment behavior refers to one’s affinity toward another person, the enjoyment of another person’s company. Attachment can refer to both friendships and romantic relationships.

Attachment, however, can also be distorted. Attachment behavior may lead to possessive tendencies in relationships, extreme jealousy, and domestic violence.

“Christianity includes attachment as a form of love,” Pope said. “Jesus had bonds with his disciples that revolved around a love in friendship. The Last Supper affirmed the community between them.”

In contrast, desire is the attraction one feels for another person. For the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, love was understood primarily in light of sexual desire, and went by the name of Eros.

In the Christian tradition, however, desire encompasses more than sex.

“Humans were created by God with all sorts of desires, from desires for goods that help us survive, to human goods, to perceived goods,” Pope said. “Our desires are not respectable when we seek to satisfy them in the wrong way. If we are being selfish, and looking to satisfy only our own desires, we neglect the needs of other people.”

The third kind of love, compassion, is an expression of care and empathy toward someone for the sake of his or her well-being. Love as compassion is often sacrificial. For example, parents sacrifice time, money, and energy out of a loving care for their children.

Yet, like the other forms of love, compassion can also be twisted.

“If you’re helping someone even if they don’t want your help, you’re expressing a kind of paternalistic compassion, and assuming you know better than the other person,” Pope said. “It’s condescending.”

Attachment, desire, and compassion are distinct forms of love—the expression of one is not contingent upon the expression of another. Pope and many Christian theologians, however, see marriage as the lone space for the three kinds of love to be expressed together, and expressed most justly in their fullest forms.

“Marriage is where you have a life-long fusing of sexual desire, attachment, and compassion,” Pope said. “Though the forms of love can be independent of each other, from a Christian standpoint, some of these independent acts of ‘love’ can be cold and heartless.”

In his 28 years at BC, Pope has heard many stories of cold and heartless interactions with desire or attachment from his students. He described the social scene at BC as patriarchal, adhering primarily to male dominance.   

Pope drew upon a variety of examples to illustrate his point. From theme parties that put men in positions of power and women in roles of subordination, to cold one-night stands that leave both parties ignoring one another for indefinite amounts of time, the culture of “love” at BC revolves around a competition for power and a rejection of attachment.

“We’re all frail and vulnerable, we all have weaknesses and bad breath in the morning,” Pope said. “The pressure, especially on women to be perfect and simultaneously non-threatening to men, is impossible to live with.”

Moreover, Pope sees the culture and traditions of Valentine’s Day as dangerous for people trying to find and make genuine connections with others. Pope disagrees with the notion that there is one perfect person out there for everyone.

“The existence of a magical moment where you fall in love is a myth,” he said. “Celebrities and movies promote the mystical journey of finding your soulmate. But this won’t happen to you.”

Pope believes that in a society fixated on perfection, people have to work to fall and stay in love. Couples must decide if they want to make decisions in their life that help them grow together, or let themselves grow apart.

“Habits of heart can leave the three loves detached from each other,” Pope said. “But our deepest human desire is to have them fused, have them in the constant attachment of caregiving.”

Featured Image by Alberto Troccoli/ For The Heights

Maddie Phelps

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