I believe it was the first of January that the ad campaigns started, both online and in brick-and-mortar stores. Wherever we shopped, we were bombarded with the message that love means feelings and feelings means expression and expression means… stuff.

Candy, chocolate, jewelry, personalized gifts… the list is endless. Basically, the message is that whatever you have to offer right now isn’t enough.

In the spirit of making use of this season of love with a more positive message, I’d like to propose continuing the celebration by reinventing how we show each other love, and reconsidering the people on whom we lavish our attention.

One of the things I’m working on teaching my children is to watch for kids around them who are being mean or seem angry. I want them to realize that they have a unique opportunity with kids like these. People aren’t mean or angry because it’s fun; they are that way because they have been hurt. And we can make our community better when we choose to love the unlovely and be kind to the unkind.

Something I’ve noticed in my own life is that hurt people see love most clearly when they feel they don’t deserve it. When I’ve said something nasty, been unfairly impatient or thrown the grown-up version of a tantrum and the recipient of my bad behavior treats me patiently and kindly instead of vengefully, I am immediately humbled. I’m grateful.

They saw that I was hurting, angry or fearful about something and they realized my behavior isn’t about them. Instead of taking my words or actions personally, they reacted with gentleness and gave me a chance to feel loved and an opportunity to rebalance myself.

Maybe it’s easy to stay at surface level when this holiday comes around and pretend that our love (the active-verb kind) can be conveyed via stuff. But the answer is never stuff. We’re missing a great opportunity if we fall in line and let our culture dictate the meaning of this holiday that’s brimming with the potential for good.

With our actions, we can show our kids that buying specifically-colored candy and signing identical cards for their friends and classmates is the best way to tell them they matter to us. But what an impression it would make if we went out of our way to give them a new perspective; if we teach them to look around for the hurting people in their social circles and encourage them to go out of their way to show them true love — the sacrificial kind where they don’t go in with the idea that they will get anything out of it.

Maybe that means writing a special note to tell them something they like about them. Maybe it’s finding out what kind of candy they especially like and offering it just to them. Maybe it’s inviting them to an event or activity so they can feel included. There are so many ways kids can show kindness and love through their actions, but they won’t do it if they don’t see us do it first.

An act of real love is going out of our way to make someone else’s life better. And sometimes that’s easy to do. But if the one we choose to love is not acting lovable, how much more true is the love we express when we offer our energy and time to make their life better without thinking of ourselves?

I was recently reminded that turning our energy and focus outward to the service of others is one of the great antidotes to misery and self-pity. Sometimes we are forgotten and no one shows us that we are loved no matter what.

When that happens, we can choose to wallow in self-pity. Or we can turn our attention outside ourselves and seek fulfillment in helping the helpless, loving the unlovable and encouraging the lonely and forgotten around us. We don’t need candy or cards. And we don’t need accolades.

We just need a sincere desire to love — active verb — because Someone loved us first.

Adrienne Tratz is a full-time Catholic homeschooling mom to four daughters.

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