Guest post by Margaret Graves.
As the pain and thrill of attraction took hold in my head, my rationality lasted just long enough to ask, “What are you supposed to do with attraction?” A quick internet search of my usual Catholic resources came up with nothing satisfactory. So, I plunged into Love and Responsibility, aided by Dr. Edward Sri’s Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love. John Paul II did not disappoint.
Attraction is morally neutral
Thomas Aquinas, and several devout Dominicans, had taught me this one before, but it bears reinforcing. Attraction is morally neutral. That tug you feel towards that person is not wrong or right. It just is. You don’t need to pretend it doesn’t exist. What is wrong or right is what you do with it.
Attraction can be understood as a recognition of a perceived good in the other. Maybe the person you are attracted to is handsome, kind to strangers, intellectually brilliant, or their singing moves you to tears (or all of the above). Your attraction to them is fueled by recognizing something you think is good in them.
Let’s go back to that word “perceived.” This word cuts two ways. First, your perception of the good. You may be attracted to something in them that you think is good, but actually isn’t. Because we are fallen human beings with sins and wounds in our life, sometimes we think something is good when it actually isn’t. Our view of the good may be incomplete and through our experiences we may have unconsciously learned to seek certain behaviors in others that aren’t actually good or healthy. Second, the reality of the good. You meet someone and they seem out of this world kind. You are charmed off your feet. But, slowly you realize their initial kindness was just an act. You were attracted to something that is actually good, which you thought you saw, but wasn’t actually there. Perception is surface level and does not constitute actual knowledge.
Get to know the good
Building any kind of relationship requires knowledge of the other person and who they actually are. In my reading of John Paul II, he never used the word attraction. Instead, he spoke about a similar idea under the title of sympathy. He describes sympathy as a shared emotional connection. Of sympathy he says, “sympathy must be transformed into friendship and friendship complimented with sympathy.”1 While sympathy is slightly different, because it is defined as mutual, the same principle can be applied to attraction. That initial emotional attraction can lead to friendship, but shared emotions are not all there is to friendship. If you recognize a good in someone and you want to be around them, try to get to know them. See if that perceived good really exists, see how that good relates to the person’s other qualities. Assuming neither of you are already vowed, actively make yourself open to the possibility of a relationship. (If you are, you need a very different article. Try this one.)
Emotions obscure knowledge
In getting to know someone you are attracted to, be aware that your emotions are going to obscure the truth. John Paul II makes no bones about this, he writes, “In the eyes of a person sentimentally committed to another person the value of the beloved object grows enormously – as a rule out of all proportion to his or her real value.”2 Prince Charming may actually play the guitar well, but perhaps not as well as you think. To balance your emotionally rosy vision, focus on building a concrete friendship beyond the emotional connection. John Paul II defines friendship as wanting what is good for the other as much as you want it for yourself.3 That requires deep knowledge of the other, and sharing in life together so that you actually have the opportunity to do good for the other.
Alongside the idea of friendship as central to marriage, actual or potential, John Paul II presents companionship as a key aspect of friendship. Companionship is objective shared experience. Objective shared experience is doing something concrete together, like building a trail or serving at a soup kitchen. You are both objectively and undeniably experiencing the same 45o grade of the trail or the same 190oF soup. You may react differently, but you are sharing the same objective experience. This helps you objectively get to know each other, by learning how you react to different circumstances, people, and each other. The concreteness of it helps you attain true knowledge to guide your feelings.
The Personalistic Norm
Another concept I found helpful in guiding my emotions and pursuit of friendship is the personalistic norm. The personalistic norm is an idea developed by John Paul II. In brief, it means that you always treat another person as a good in and of themselves and never use them as a means to an end. How does this apply to what to do when you are attracted to someone? It means respecting them as a separate entity from you. You may offer them friendship, and they are not open to it for whatever reason. Pursuing friendship doesn’t mean there will be friendship. It means giving it an active opportunity to develop. Also, don’t seek out their friendship just for your own pleasure, your convenience, or any other reason that reduces the other person. You are seeking to know them and the good that they are on the possibility that you may also be a good for them.
John Paul II has taught me many things. I am grateful for his copious writings being around to help me navigate the world of relationships. I am now confident that seeking to know someone I’m attracted to is a valid path. Emotions may obscure reality, but do not need to prevent truly getting to know the other person and building an authentic relationship. The offer of friendship may not be accepted, or may not turn out as expected, but you’ll never know the truth if you do not seek it.
1 Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2013, p. 74.
2 Ibid., p. 112.
3 Ibid., p. 73.