At various times in my life, I’ve drawn the conclusion that feelings of love can’t be trusted to stick, but acts of love are always true.

Feelings will come and go. Feelings don’t require anything of you. Sometimes you can’t even control them. In a society so heavily influenced by the advertising of food, activities or goods that create good feelings, we’ve been trained to pursue good feelings rather than good character.

Then we wonder why so many marriages built on feelings don’t last. People will say “I don’t love them anymore,” as if feelings are the most legitimate indicator of the health of the relationship, and they walk away. Our whole concept of love has been tainted by this garbage for generations now.

I will happily admit that love as a feeling is delightful. For me, Christmastime with my husband and children stirs up strong feelings. Quiet, snowy nights, mistletoe and the warm glow of candles and Christmas lights give me all the warm fuzzies. Feelings are good to have. They help us sort ourselves out and cope with our circumstances.

But all of us have felt when those feelings fail. When we make decisions based on feelings alone, we end up betraying or feeling betrayed. It’s a lonely place where everything feels breakable, untrustworthy and not worth investing ourselves in.

There’s a reason you hear the phrase “actions speak louder than words.” Words come out of what we’re feeling, what we want and what we think. Actions speak of the choice between my own good and the good of another. It’s called sacrifice. And that’s what true love is.

My husband and my children are gifts I have been given. Loving them each day is a choice. Do I choose my own interests today, or slow down and make room for what will help them on their own journeys? Although they’re not always mutually exclusive, real love often asks me to choose between those two things. But why would I give up what I want for somebody else when I don’t feel like it?

The only reason I find compelling enough to care outside of myself is to remember the goal of my faith: holiness. Writer Matthew Kelly puts it in other terms: becoming the “Best Version of Yourself.” That’s what I’ve been asked to do with my life, and I don’t do it by thinking (and feeling) about me all the time. I do it by leading the people in my life to be the best versions of themselves.

How can I love them toward their best selves? The short answer is sacrifice; offering my time and energy to help them become more and better than they are now and saying “no” to some of my own desires (like pity parties or unnecessary indulgence in food or other comforts) in favor of what will build them up.

I had a chance to put this philosophy to the test some time ago. I bought a cheap kitchen knife to replace one I’d lost and promptly sliced right through a fingernail. Fingers heal, and mine did, but fingernails just have to grow out — and I’ll tell you what, it takes forever.

Around the same time, I ran into a mom whose child was getting into all kinds of trouble and headed for disaster. So, trying to think what I could possibly do, I decided to give my troubled fingernail a purpose. Every time I felt it, thought about it or began whining to myself about how uncomfortable it was, I’d pray for this child instead and ask for someone to come in to lead them out of this dark place.

I did this for about three months while the awful thing slowly grew. I didn’t see the mom at all during this time, but I ran into her unexpectedly within a week of the nail growing out. I asked how things were going. She wasn’t very happy and I felt for a minute like my effort hadn’t had much effect.

But as I listened, I realized that my prayer had been answered precisely. Someone had come into the kid’s life as a mentor and the kid was paying attention and changing course. It hadn’t been her prayer, so she was grumpy because she couldn’t control the situation. But it was exactly what I had hoped for this child.

That was a big lesson for me. When I choose sacrifice on behalf of another person, something changes. First, it gets me out of my own head all the time so my focus turns outward and less all-about-me. Then, it brings positive change into the life or heart of someone else.

They may never even know. But the world is a little brighter because of a choice I made — a choice to love with my actions — and I can live with that.

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

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