Honor/Shame and Success/Failure
In the ancient world (and in many other cultures today) the functional value system was based on accruing honor and avoiding shame. Doing or saying things that are honorable brings honor upon the person who did or said them and upon their family or tribe. Likewise, doing things that were shameful brought shame upon both the individual and the group.
The West has moved more towards a success/failure value system that is also more individualistic in its application. Saying or doing something that appears successful brings a sense of pride to the individual while failing brings a sense of shame. The success or failure can extend to the family, but doesn't usually go past that (especially not with the lasting force experienced in honor/shame societies).
What both of these value systems have in common is that they categorize actions and words as reflecting the value and worth of an individual or group. You become more worthy and more valuable if you do the things that are honorable or successful. You lose value and worth if you do things that are shameful or fail. You become honorable or shameful, successful or a failure.
Love and Success
The first time I came across the idea of disinterested love I rejected it. I was reading On Job by Gustavo Gutierrez and he developed the idea of Job having a disinterested love of God. That is Job didn't love God because of his interest in success or honor or health, but rather loved God without interest in what God could do for him, just because. My professor asked us this question: "Would you still love God if there were no promise of heaven?" Of course not, I thought, why would I? The whole idea of a disinterested love seemed like what they make you talk about in school because they have to talk about something, sort of an intellectual Zen koan akin to asking whether a tree makes a sound when it falls and no one is around to hear it.
Fast forward several years and I started looking at the idea of disinterested love in more detail, this time as it relates to my wife. It was in one of the many, many conversations that we have had about our relationship and we got to the point where we were wondering why we loved each other. It's not that we doubted that we loved each other, we were just thinking about why. Did I love her because she's pretty, funny, kind, thoughtful, graceful, and generous? What would happen if I found someone prettier, funnier, kinder, more thoughtful, graceful, and generous than her? Would I love that person instead? No. Of course not! And that meant that those weren't the real reasons why I love her.
I don't love my wife because of her success or her honor. I don't love her less when she fails or does something shameful. I realized that I have a disinterested love for my wife (that's some romance for you, folks; I'll sell the greeting cards and make a fortune!). Now, that's not to say that I don't sometimes equate love and success. When I'm tired or emotional I can, in the moment, feel less love if she has done something that contradicts my ideas of success or I'll feel more love if she does something that agrees with my ideas of success. But those are fleeting feelings and not the real reason why I love her. The real reason is far more simple and complicated than that.
Love and ValueI love my wife because she is herself. Not because she does anything for me or in spite of what she does that I don't like. But I don't have the same feelings for everyone, so how can it not be because my wife is intrinsically better than everyone else? They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so maybe my wife is just better to me than anyone else (she's not, but that doesn't make me love her less). I love her, and the more that I get to know who that person is, the more the feeling of love grows, not because she's becoming more successful, but because I'm better able to see her inherent worth and value.
We have subtly flipped the order on so many things so that they seem right. Love and value are connected, but we have flipped it so that love is earned through value instead of love being a response to value. We have said: "I love you because..." rather than "Because I love you..." and the order makes all the difference. My wife's beauty, humor, kindness, thoughtfulness, grace, and generosity are ways I can appreciate her value, not why she has value.
We all want to feel loved, that is to have our worth and value celebrated by someone else (Note that this is a very simple definition of love. I'll expand on this idea more in another post, including differentiating between romantic love and platonic love). But when we make love the reward for having enough worth and value we force ourselves to earn the love we so desperately want. We try to be more honorable, more successful so that we can feel the love that we think should be given as a reward, or if that doesn't work, we can try to make others into shameful failures so we have value by comparison.
Moving the Goalposts
There's a common logical fallacy called moving the goalposts. Basically it's when you change the rules of the game to suit how you're playing it rather than changing what you're doing to comply with the rules. If an argument is about the price of peanut butter and you feel like you're losing your side, you can just move the goalposts to an argument about the deliciousness of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead (it might be time for me to eat lunch).
This happens in relationships with people too. We base our worth and value on being smart, but then we find someone who is smarter so we move the goalposts: "Sure, she's smarter than me, but I'm nicer." When we base our worth and value on a comparison we will, inevitably, lose. The smartest person in the world won't always be. The prettiest person won't stay that way.
Moving the goalposts from honor/shame to success/failure or from one definition of success to another doesn't address the underlying problem: our value can't be created or destroyed by what we do.
But wait, you say, bad people do bad things and good people do good things. That's in the bible!
You're right, to a point. Jesus talked about good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit. I'm not disagreeing with that. Rather what I'm saying is that piling a bunch of fruit underneath a tree doesn't tell you anything about that tree. You can't hang grapes on a vine and make it into a grapevine. The point Jesus was making when he talked about bad fruit was that it was a way of identifying people who claim to be doing good but are lying.
Love Your Enemies
Doing good things does not make you, or anyone, more worthy of love. Jesus told us to love everyone, our neighbors (even the people we don't want as neighbors), even our enemies. Love should not be contingent upon performance. Moving the goalposts is pointless because there are no goalposts. No matter how much honor you accrue, no matter how much success you have, no matter how much shame you feel, no matter how many times you fail, there is no more or less worthiness for love and belonging.
Sure, when someone is doing good it's easier to love them. When someone is nice it's natural to be nice in return. We like to reciprocate good for good (and bad for bad). But that's not, ultimately, what makes a person worthy of love.
Instead of trying to get enough honor or success to be worthy of love, we should work on knowing ourselves and allowing ourselves to be known by others. Working on creating healthy boundaries, expressing needs, seeing our own worth and the worth of others. The bible says that every single human is made in the image of God and is worthy of love and belonging. All of us.
You can't earn your worth because you already have it. You can't lose your worth because it is who you are. You can only hide your worth and ignore the worth of others. Or, you could recognize your worth and the worth of others. There are no goalposts.