One of the most profound ways I’ve learned to see the world is based off a lesson in a class I took about Dante’s The Divine Comedy. My professor Dr. Glyer was explaining Dante’s vision of heaven in Paradiso. She brought up many different sized cups to the front of the classroom - some were tall and skinny, others short and wide, some small, others big. She explained that the cups represented each person’s capacity to love. The bigger the cup, the bigger the capacity to love. She explained that our cups were always changing while we’re alive. All of our little daily actions – from returning an item someone dropped, to listening to a friend in need, to showing patience for children – increase or decrease our cup size.
She theorized that Dante placed different cup sizes in different spheres of heaven, but here’s the most important part – no matter what cup size you have, once you’re in heaven it will be full of love. The size doesn’t matter anymore, because you will be filled to the brim with love. There will be no room left for envy of another person’s cup size. In fact, there won’t be room for depression, hatred, jealousy, or anything that’s not loving. You’ll simply be too full of love for any of that.
What struck me most about this analogy is not how we’ll be in heaven, but how we live our lives on earth. Our cups will be full when get to heaven, but we spend our lives with varying levels of fullness and emptiness. This is how I’ve come to see people – there are people with full cups, and people with cups who are low or empty. The amount of love someone has in their cup reflects the kind of person they are.
So, there are two factors that determine who a person is, their cup size and the fullness of their cup. People with large cups have greater capacities to love. This means they have more virtues, such as kindness, courage, truthfulness, etc. People with smaller cups perform less acts of service for others and have less good virtues. The fullness of the cup reflects how much love an individual needs or gives. A person with a full cup will do more kind acts for others, be open to listening, and will not feel burdened to go out of their way to help someone. A person with a low cup has a deficiency in love. They need others to do kind things for them, listen to them, and generally have a need to be loved. A full cup is more give and a low cup is more take.
The greatest news about cup sizes and fullness is that they can change in two ways. Your cup size is solely based on what you do. This is more affected by your small everyday actions and is generally reflected in how good of a person you are. To get a bigger cup, do more kind things for others. You can pay it forward at your local café, volunteer, smile more, let someone in the grocery store go in front of you when they have less items, etc. Being kind and considerate in your daily actions can grow your cup size. Adversely, every time you perform acts of selfishness - like cutting someone off, blowing up at the cashier, not tipping, etc – you make your cup size smaller.
The fullness of your cup is almost entirely based on outward influences. This is how loved you feel, which means it’s determined by the love you are receiving or not receiving from others. When someone is showing you love, they are feeding into your cup. Our earliest feeders our are parents and guardians, but as we grow older our friends and partners are part of this. Others fill your cup by showing their love for you. It could be through the time and attention they give you, thoughtful gifts, support, words of affirmation, showing care or affection, etc. When someone is giving their love to you, they are filling your cup. Likewise, when you do these things for others you are filling theirs.
We can also give ourselves love, but I’d argue that it’s hard to give yourself love when you aren’t receiving enough from others, because the act of self-love is simultaneously giving and receiving. You can give yourself love by setting aside “me time,” performing acts of self-care such as pampering yourself or maintaining your daily hygiene. Seeking to better yourself, whether intellectually, physically, or emotionally is also a way you can fill your own cup. But again, it’s sometimes hard to show self-love if your cup is low. It’s like driving to the gas station on a low tank of gas. You’re trying to fill it up, but you might not make it.
Religious people are also fed by the amount of love they experience from their deity. For many, this is the ultimate source to fill up a cup, because it’s the kind that doesn’t run out. Self-care and receiving love from others is a continuous task. It’s literally like others are bringing your food, or you get yourself food, but eventually you’ll be hungry again. You have to be constantly supplied, which is why your cup can feel low when you haven’t seen you loved ones recently. For say Christians, experiencing the love of God does not need replenishing and it keeps the cup always full.
People with low or empty cups have not received enough love from parents, self, friends, and may not have religion. They might’ve grown up in unloving or abusive homes, or maybe simply had an absent parent who worked all the time. People with low cups are in constant need of others to fill up their cup for them. Understand that this isn’t a want, it is a legitimate need. People with low cups need others to fill them up, but the ways in which they seek out love can oftentimes be destructive and unhealthy. That is one of the reasons it’s important to grow your cup size, because a side effect of a large cup is that you’ll most likely end up pouring your love into someone else’s cup.
Here’s a breakdown of how different cup sizes and varying levels of fullness affect who you are:
· Big full cup: Considered by nearly everyone they encounter to be a good person who radiates love and generosity. These people have so much to give that they will happily listen to strangers, go out of their way to help others, and make others in their lives feel very loved and cared for.
· Big low cup: Often seen as a good person, but will usually only do kind things for others who do kind things for them. Though they have many great qualities, they are more guarded with their time and attention because they feel drained and don’t have much to give.
· Small full cup: These are the people we probably love to hate yet can’t help loving too. Their small cups make them not so great to be around, because they’ll have many bad qualities. Their perspective of the world might be dreary and bleak, but they’ll still be super helpful and caring people who have no trouble going out of their way performing good deeds for others.
· Small empty cup: Their view of the world is that it’s a terrible place to live in. They think that all people are terrible, flawed, and not worth loving. They tend to have not too many great qualities and are people that others may not like being around. They are takers in the highest sense who are in constant need of validation, attention, and love from others. They have a very low capacity to give anything to anyone because of how deficient they feel.
Of course, there are variances for everything in between these four categories. Basically, the bigger the cup, the more capacity you have to love others, the more positive view you have of the world and others, the more virtues you have, and the more general acts of kindness you perform for others. The more full your cup is, the more loved you feel, the more you are willing to give of your time and attention, and the less you need from others. The opposite is true of small cups and those with low levels of love.
For a better understanding of how our cups affect our lives, I’ll share the journey of my own cup. As a child, I’m told I was very loving and affectionate. I had plenty of love from my parents, family, and friends and I was discovering God. I had a large full cup. During my preteen years, my parents separated, which resulted in a lot of ugliness in my life and in the lives of my parents. I became depressed and developed a completely negative view of the world. I did not like people. They irritated me and I had the general sense that most people were bad. However, I still strived to be a good friend and tried hard to be there for my mom, who was struggling far more than my dad. I had a big cup that was empty.
In high school, I met a boy who radiated love for others. I admired it so much because I didn’t understand it. The world wasn’t ugly to him, but was instead beautiful, and I thought that made him beautiful. He fell in love with me and filled my cup until I was able to fall in love with him too. He continued to fill it until we broke up, but along the way he introduced me to who could keep my cup full always. He taught me about God in a way I had never understood, but when I was sixteen years old, I understood, because I truly experienced God’s love and since then have, for the most part, had a very full cup.
The only time since then that my cup has been low again was when I experienced a couple years of depression and I felt very lost. During this time, I had plenty of love from everyone around me, but I didn’t have self-love. Developing that self-love again took time, but eventually my cup got full again. Whenever my cup is full, including now, I live my life in a way in which I can pour into others. Having a full cup means that I have a lot to give, so I do so easily.
Generally, I think it’s so easy to love people with full cups, because they are such giving, caring people. It’s not easy to love people with low cups because they need so much from others without giving much or anything in return, even when they want to or try. Seeing people in this way helps me understand why people act the way they do, and what it is that they need. Sometimes a grumpy person is just low on love and needs to be filled up a little. Other times a cruel person has a small cup and needs to work on bettering themselves and expanding their cup size before I’ll consider associating with them.
It’s said that people come in all shapes and sizes. Well, I say people come in all cup sizes and fullness levels. If we can see ourselves and others in this way, perhaps we can have a better understanding everyone’s needs so that the world can look like a place that’s possible to make better.