After I graduated from college, I moved into a small apartment within walking distance from campus. Over the next ten years or so, I continued to make friends with new students, then bid them farewell as they graduated and moved on. I had those friends over for countless meals, cookies, card games, and deep spiritual discussions. I was there as they explored their own humanity, dealt with victories and disappointments, and struggled with the big questions (Does God exist? What is He like? What career path should I pursue? etc.).
I made a lot of mistakes in those friendships. I was sometimes heavy-handed, overstating this or that argument. I had my own emotional weaknesses and struggles, which made it easier for me to cling a little too close, or misread important situations. But gradually I came to a principle that seemed to work for a healthy way to approach those friendships.
Love is striving to understand what someone really needs, then doing whatever is appropriate for you to do to help that other person's needs to be fulfilled. It doesn't always mean helping them get what they want. It doesn't always mean that you'll be the one to actually "do" anything at all. It won't mean that you understand all of what they need (only God knows that). What is appropriate for you to do will vary, as well, depending on what your role is in the life of the other person.
This principle is, for me, flexible enough that I can usually find a way to apply it to anyone I meet. If I have a brief interaction with someone, say, a checkout person at the grocery store, I only have a tiny window to see into their life, and guess at what their needs are. I have been given virtually no permission or privilege to speak with any boldness into their life, even if I knew some of their needs. And my opportunity for face-to-face interaction ends after just a few minutes. But the command to Love Your Neighbor should push me to try, even in this brief, impersonal interaction, to help this person.
Conversely, my opportunity, privilege, and responsibility increase enormously when you consider the children my wife and I have been given. We see them all the time, we know tons about them, and bear a huge responsibility for their guidance and development. Our ongoing burden and privilege is to keep learning about them, keep connecting with them, keep guiding them through their life's journey. It includes handing out both benefits and discipline.
So this principle guides what I believe we are called to do. But who do we do it to? Everyone we meet--whoever shows up. So when we go to the store, fellow shoppers and cashiers become our neighbors. When we adopted our children, they became, very profoundly, our neighbors.
I'm not very good at actually practicing this, by the way. But it stands as a living principle in my life, pulling me forward, then running behind and kicking me in the butt to push me as well. Learn the needs, then help to meet them, for whoever shows up. Love your neighbor.