Agape Latte Speaker Promotes Self-Giving Love

by Kathryn Lieder


“Agapic love, self-giving love, is really what we’re here for,” Ethan Sullivan, Assistant Dean of the Carroll School of Management, expressed in the last Agape Latte talk of the semester on Tuesday, April 7 entitled, “You Have the Power.” He centered his talk on what he has learned about the importance of self-giving love from his experiences as a son, husband, and father.

As an undergraduate at BC, Sullivan majored in English and Philosophy and he is currently the Director of the CSOM Honors Program.  He teaches two sections of Portico as well as a Capstone course.  Sullivan encourages spiritual reflection in the classroom by devoting 5 minutes per week in each of his courses to praying the Ignatian Examen.


In 1995, having just completed a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, he was living with a group of college friends in Portland, Oregon.  Between camping, surfing, and playing in adult soccer leagues, everything seemed to be working out perfectly, but his romantic life was lacking until mutual JVC friends introduced him to a woman named Jen. The two instantly hit it off. 


Time and again, he would make plans for just the two of them to go on dates outside of group gatherings, but just before they were supposed to meet up, he would make up another excuse for why he could not go. “I just wanted to wear that suit of armor that I was really good at wearing and not let anybody in. Life was easier that way,” he said. He compared the way in which he was carrying out his life to the directions on a shampoo bottle: “lather, rinse, repeat.”


He continued to follow his old ways, until one day, just before her JVC year was about to be up, Jen insisted that they meet up at a coffee shop to talk. Upon arriving, before he could even sit down, “she stands up and points her finger at [him] and says ‘I am a catch and you missed the boat.’” 


It was in that moment that he realized, “[He] had missed the boat.” Jen moved back to Connecticut, but Sullivan saw one more glimpse of hope when she asked if he could deliver a suitcase to her during his cross-country road trip. Despite his intention to redeem himself in person, he was again unable to step out of his comfortable “suit of armor,” but this time, thankfully, he had slipped a love note into her suitcase. 


After accepting a permanent job at her JVC position, Jen moved back to Portland and the two began to really get to know each other, but they took their relationship slowly. “I gave up myself to her and she gave up herself to me …It was this gift of self-sacrifice,” he expressed.


Twenty years later, the two are married with four kids. “I almost missed it… I almost was too scared to experience… this beautiful love that can only be found when you give up yourself,” he admits. 


Through his relationship with his dad, Sullivan also learned how essential “giving yourself up” is to loving another person. From a young age, Sullivan adored his dad and saw his dad’s unconditional love for him through his devotion to coaching his sports teams, but he soon grew to see that their relationship lacked depth.   


While Sullivan was an undergrad at BC, his dad began encountering bouts of unemployment and underemployment. At a time when his dad needed his support more than ever, Sullivan not only avoided talking to his father, but felt shame and felt that his father was “letting him down.” Sullivan fell into the same comfort of excuse-making that he had done earlier with Jen in order to avoid having real conversations with his dad about what he was going through. 


Sullivan notes that it wasn’t until ten years later, when he started having children of his own and when his dad was diagnosed with cancer, that he truly came to realize the importance of loving reciprocally.


Sullivan remarked, “There is no greater feeling than coming home from work and hearing the pitter patter of feet running toward you saying ‘Daddy’s home!’” It was in those moments that he realized, “the way I feel towards my kids is the way my dad felt towards me.”


His father’s diagnosis with cancer came as a wake-up call. Thankfully, it was not life threatening and he is now in remission. Through that experience, Sullivan came to realize that “[he] needed to turn this passive love into a much more active love.”


“It’s really easy… to love humanity; it’s easy to love an abstraction,” he remarked, “But it’s a lot harder to love real, live human beings.” Practicing active, agapic love, Sullivan points out, means being able to “love that guy with road rage who just cut you off, or the person who’s talking on their cell phone really loud in line at the grocery store.”


Sullivan reflects on the beautiful simplicity of time spent throwing the football back and forth with his son: “Once you hold onto the ball, the game’s over… it’s the back and forth that makes it all worth it. That to me is what agape is, it’s giving love and it’s self-sacrificing.”


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