Vicarious Love


There is so much darkness in the world it seems, perhaps we need to speak more about light—or more specifically, love.

I have always liked to learn unfamiliar words. Once I graduated from Dick, Jane, and Spot, even as a child I relished coming upon a word that contained new meaning. In junior high I learned the word “vicarious.” You know this word; it describes a special type of sharing in which we participate in the feelings of another person. There does not seem to be much personal reward for this activity; we are just drawn to walk beside someone in a special time. It can be positive or negative.

We have a new baby in our family. When the father of the baby posted a photo of his new daughter, his message accompanying the picture was, “I love her.” For me, as well as others apparently, this triggered a rush of joy and love. The submitted Facebook comments said, “So, so sweet,” “Precious,” “She’s adorable,” “Beautiful,” “I love her too.” The comments were numerous and similar, and it was clear that the picture and the father’s comment put an arrow through the hearts of the readers in a positive way. We became participants in that set of events.

Since babies are born every day, one suspects that these feelings are echoed in every culture and country. The spoken languages may be different, but the love connections are the same. The baby and parent can even be unknown and elicit these same vicarious feelings; walk down the aisle of a grocery store and watch the responses to a new baby present.

A topic for another day concerns the prevalence of births and babies in the Bible. Not only are many scripture words spent on the birth of Jesus, but also on that of Moses, John the Baptist, Samuel, Isaac, and others.

There are other life events that elicit strong vicarious feelings. The Gospel of John mentions a wedding as the site for Jesus’ first miracle; I do not believe that is an accident. Although American weddings today feature a wide variety of places, activities, musical types, comments, and traditions, those of us spectators cannot help but be drawn into the celebratory nature of the moment. Special things are happening; we may not be able to identify them exactly, but we can feel them. The wedding couple may be little known to us, but our hearts tell us important events are afoot.

Springtime brings graduation ceremonies, another clear spot for vicarious love. A commencement indicates and celebrates several activities including finishing a set of academic challenges, a physical movement from one locale to another, the onset of a new job or next training. The graduate is obviously the key player here, but the parents and other relatives have their own set of pleasures and pride.

Because of my career in academia, I have attended scores of commencement ceremonies. Although they have a routine to them, at each event I am still pulled into the sense of accomplishment and appreciation that permeates the event. Everybody is happy.

It might seem odd to include funerals as an example where vicarious love appears. Clearly, there are multiple and mixed emotions in the attendees. I suggest that even grief and sadness can be based on a love that goes deeply into the past of family and friends. Those closest to the deceased have the most intense emotions, but even those of us more on the periphery cannot avoid the waves of love that come from those sitting the closest to the front of the chapel. Again, we might not be able to identify exactly what is occurring inside us, but we know that this love did not originate with us; it reflects the love from those closest.

Even more specifically, in this case and in others I believe that this emanating love from others is a touch from God. We were not created to be immune to the love feelings that others have. Responses to babies, wedding activities, graduations, and funerals are all windows of God’s care and grace to humans. Those windows do not open just to those closest; they open to all of us if we will observe with thoughtfulness.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

One comment

  • Empathy and love are so crucial to our humanity. It’s hard to grasp the reality that some people are devoid of these basic human instincts.


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