Loving Expansively

research Jan 14, 2020

By Shannon Thompson

Recently I was walking through the streets of Philadelphia on my way to breakfast with some friends. I noticed a man, about my age, crossing the street behind me. I smiled hello. 

“Why are you smiling so much?” he called to me.

“Because I’m soon to have coffee!” I joked. “The coffee’s that way!” I laughed and gestured in the direction I was heading.

“No one smiles,” the man said. “Are you spiritual?”

“Yes,” I said, turning and slowing, walking backward to meet him. “Are you?”

“Of course!” The man said. “I love you, have a good day!” he called.

“You too!” I said.

“No!” the man said, stopping to face me on the sidewalk. “I. LOVE. YOU.”

Honestly, I’d been unsure if what the man had called to me initially was “I love you.” If I’d been sure, I’d have said it back right away, wouldn’t I have? Wouldn’t you?

“I love you, have a great day!” I laughed, walking backward and waving.

What Does It Mean To Love? 

This article is about love, but not the kind you’re thinking. This is about love without a label of romance, or friendship, or any other kind of constraint that explains or sanctifies it. I want to discuss the power that is love itself. This is about love-in-the-raw, and how it is filling, and how it is giving, and how certain quantities of often unconsidered forms can be “enough.” For the first time in a long time I can feel the love in my life.  I use the word “feel” over “see” or “know” because I would have told you I could see it and knew about it a long time ago. But I couldn’t feel it. Feeling love is a completely different experience from rationalizing that it is present. It is like actually having eaten enough as opposed to just knowing that food is available. Love came upon me this fall. It overwhelmed me, called itself out of me, and once emptied, has filled me. Let me tell you how this happened. I want to broaden your awareness of the love in your own life, help you open to it, to feel it, and to receive it. I feel like the easiest way to explain this process is to share how it happened to me.

Professionally, I am a mental performance consultant to athletes. The majority of my clientele are coaches and college students. Our school enables athletes and staff to have a great deal of access to me, and I also spend a lot of time in their academic, practice, and competition environments. The logistics of our daily lives cause us to cross paths frequently. As a result, our relationships are different than those of many sport psychologists with their clients, who only visit one another during scheduled appointments. We are truly a part of each other’s lives for a period of time.

This fall the number of conversations requested with me skyrocketed. The range of topics presented spanned an unprecedented breadth. Certainly, I’ve addressed plenty of cases of performance nerves, but I’ve also discussed the nuances of personal relationships, concerns about long-term careers, the philosophy of sport, the dynamics of religious faith, and the mystery of love. These conversations have explored the most tender parts of hearts – theirs and mine. Again and again I’ve been given the gift of shared humanity, which is the recognition of relatable experience. To know a sense of shared humanity is to understand our common vulnerabilities.

I’m sure that most of you have had conversations that resemble those referenced above with people close to you. Poet and philosopher, David Whyte calls these “real” conversations, because they focus on what is most important to a person as opposed to superficial matters. Whyte says that “no self can survive a real conversation,” meaning that both parties are changed by the interaction. Certainly relationships are changed: distance closes, understanding deepens, and intimacy is grown. Real conversations are often the highlights and turning points of relationships. This fall I have had real conversations daily, and on some days more than one. If no self can survive a real conversation, then what has happened to me as a result of so many?

I am a single woman who wishes to be married and have a family. For most of my life there has been a part of me that has believed that I will not feel “full” until this outcome has been achieved. I’ve always noticed the good fortune in my life and I’ve consciously practiced gratitude for my blessings. I am constantly cognitively aware I am loved, and that I love others. Yet, my thanks have been tinted with a nostalgic twilight – a subtle grieving for what I’ve perceived that I’m missing in my life: “true” love. What I have meant by “true,” is of course romantic love. The impact of my heavy dose of real conversations this fall has caused my understanding of true love to change.

At first the high quantity of emotional connections I was experiencing came at a cost. When I listen to another’s story, I often feel what they feel. Often I am left speechless; sometimes by the degree of pain and struggle within a story, sometimes by the extent of courage demonstrated, and always by the beautiful complexity of the people themselves. “You’ve probably seen it all,” someone commented to me recently. No, I thought, you’re the only one of you I’ve ever seen. 

When I’m struck with awe by the beauty of a person I feel like my heart expands so there’s no room for anything else. I experience a rush of care. It’s an emotional and physical wind - a wind of love - the force of which courses like a current for which I have no words. 

“It’s not words, it’s a feeling,” one athlete said to me after discussing the end of a classic book in relation to his experience of running. “It’s a feeling, like The Ghost Inside playing drums in the rain. It’s so beautiful,” he said. He bravely opens his book, revealing the sketches and poems expressed with cursive pen.

I thought how beautiful he was for expressing this sentiment. The beauty is in his graceful courage to face his faith and family. It’s in the generosity of his explanation. It’s in the worthiness of his question, and his wish for the feelings they elicit to be caught and grown.

“Is there more?” I’ll ask sometimes, when the urgency has settled between us.  Is there more? Do I ever need more than these kinds of moments that have become my life?

I walked around in early September stunned and speechless. Athlete after athlete came and stretched my inner bounds. Do I have the capacity for this? I wondered. And at the same time I also noticed, I was so happy. The nostalgic tint was gone from my perception of love, along with my thoughts of its absence. I was full of love, right now, and here. Not the romantic love that I’d imagined as my only cure, but love-in-the-raw, of real, shared living.

I have a dear friend, Ian, who lives in British Columbia. We met running trails in Kelowna about ten years ago. Ian is fifty, was married, and is now divorced. He has two children, a grandchild, and a committed girlfriend. We live fifteen hundred miles apart and talk roughly every six weeks on the phone. We always have a real conversation. Several months ago Ian explained his thoughts on love to me. He has experienced romantic love, paternal love, and platonic love. He explained that to him love is love, six of one kind, half a dozen of another. The key is to notice the different forms in your life, and to give each the value it deserves. He told me about how he explained to his current girlfriend that he has many friends, some of them women, and that he needs to have the freedom to maintain strong relationships with them. He values the love that he shares with friends, and is not willing to withdraw from these loves to feed the exclusivity sometimes requested by romance.

Author, and On Being podcast host, Krista Tippett expressed the following on discovering how she discovered the love that had always been present in her life, but which she only truly felt after her divorce:

 “When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion – to follow those love stories and those movies. After my divorce I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be. 

This is the opposite of a healing story – it is a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.”


When we use our imaginations (not for fantasy, but for inquiry), many forms of love can be found in our lives: friendships, family, colleagues, neighbors, nature, and strangers crossing streets. Within any and all of these lies the potential for love in the form of recognition, connection, and shared humanity. 

It's Easier Imagined Than Felt

I suspect that most of you can look around you right this moment and recognize numerous forms of love in your life. You can see it, and know rationally that it is there.  But it takes more than rationalizing to feel the presence of love. It’s possible that despite your awareness of it there is still a twilight hue clinging to the edges of a lack. Is there an emptiness inside you where you feel like real love should be? If so, I know the feeling, and I also know a way to feel full: to give.

When I reflect back on my fall full of love there is one characteristic about it that stands out: I have been filled by the giving of love just as much as by receiving it, maybe even more so. To be clear, I do receive love. I receive it through the desire of people to speak with me; I receive it in the depth of the looks between us; I receive it through the stories chosen to share with me, and within the earnestness by which they listen. I receive love through thanks sometimes, but more often I feel it through eyes and energy. 

It occurred to me lately that one of the greatest gifts that someone can give another is permission to love them. This gift is enhanced if someone welcomes your love through the personal strengths that are most authentically you. Many spiritual frameworks (and certainly spirituality free of any framework) claim that when a person can utilize her most genuine talents and passions she is channeling a power greater than herself alone. This is my perception. When I align my gifts with someone who can receive them I become a channel through which my form of loving flows. I am filled from the inside out, in that order. The more love that I give the more I am filled. 

Let’s return to Philadelphia. The morning was early, and I smiled at a man crossing Broad Street. I gave in my way, and he gave in his. I hope he felt as full then as I did, as I do now, as I finish this piece and prepare to hear another person’s beautiful story. “I love you,” he called, as does someone near me. As does someone near you.

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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