I have resisted writing this particular post for a very long time. I think American (n.b. when I use the term “American,” I’m referring to the United States, and I’m only using the term American because I am one and it’s what I know. The things I label as true for America could very well be true for Samoa as well, but how would I know?) advertising has made love banal as an idea and that contemporary academic cynicism has made it impossible to feel sincerely. Since my feelings are (to me) neither banal nor fake, I don’t want them to be interpreted that way, but I question my ability to express them any other way. I’ve tried to avoid the issue by, well, avoiding the issue. Also, I’m still pretty muddled about what I think, so all these declaratives below are really more like thoughts that I’m pretty sure about, but could be persuaded to think differently on. So here are the four things I think about love right now: 1. There is not enough language to describe all the kinds of love there are in the world. 2. Love is not a thing– so it can’t be “given” or “deserved.” 3. Loving is hard. The beauty of a romance comes from overcoming obstacles, not from the total absence of obstacles. We cheer for the eucatastrophe. We’re bored when nothing happens. 4. Love is an honorable risk. I know that better, more poetic, minds than mine have covered this before, but goshdarnit, this is the Age of Information and this my blog, so I can say what I think about love here. Shakespeare can get his own blog.
First, I think we’re faced with lingusitic failure when it comes to describing some things. This shows up most tragically, in my opinion, in many spiritual autobiographies and in terrible, terrible Christian fiction. John may have been able to encode Christ and his workings (John 1:1), but very few writers outside of scripture have similar capabilities. A finite, mortal mind cannot comprehend the totality of Deity (making an exception for the inspired), so how could it express it? We can come close, but cannot express the whole picture. Maybe I’m just a child of postmodernism, but at some point, language just breaks down. Some things are beyond expression.
For me, love is this way. I tell my husband regularly that I love him, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what he means to me. I mean, he knows he’s important to me and that I like him better than anyone else and that I plan on doing that forever, but there’s a lot involved in my love for him that “I love you” doesn’t catch. My personal history, my romantic history, and my current mood all weight and shade those three little words a certain way. Every time I say “I love you,” I can’t say “Thanks for laughing at that Wedge Antilles joke I told before we were dating that no one else caught.” I can’t say “Thanks for getting me a new car and not being mad when I wrecked my old one and thought I was going to die.” I can’t say “Thanks for not being emotionally or sexually abusive.” I can’t say “Thanks for putting clean towels in the bathroom.” You get the general idea. I can’t say all these things every single time I say “I love you,” but all of those things (and more!) are what I’m feeling when I say “I love you.” And that’s just when I say it to my husband.
There just aren’t enough words in English to describe every kind of affectionate relationship (nor are there in Greek, either, though Biblical scholars might lead you to believe so). Part of me wonders whether this Prop 8 issue isn’t partly linguistic in origin. Lots of people who voted for Prop 8 also voted for an expansion of domestic partnership rights in previous years. It seems that some heterosexual couples engaged in a legal contract just aren’t comfortable using the same word that describes their relationship to describe a relationship between homosexual copules engaged in almost the same social contract (the word I’m referring to is, obviously, “marriage”). If supporters of Prop 8 feel that there is a real difference between heterosexual and homosexual couples, maybe they should be supporting new words to describe these relationships more accurately. And what about relationships that fall outside hetero/homsexual lines? I have a friend-who-is-a-female with whom I hope to grow old and happy, but we’re not interested in each other sexually. She’s more than my best friend and she’s not a girlfriend. We’re plenty physically affectionate, but again, not sexually. What word describes our relationship? What about close male relationships outside of family bonds? What about specific family members that you’re close to? There should be a verb to describe the way you feel about the aunt you went shopping for prom dresses with and another verb to describe how you feel about the grandmother you only saw once before she died when you were three, but who you’ve heard a lot of stories about and feel positively towards. We just don’t have these words. “Love” has to pull extra shifts to cover these gaps in our language.
Of course, even if we did have words in our language to cover that range of relationships, we still wouldn’t be able to express ourselves all that accurately. De Saussure insists (and I believe him) that there is a difference in the word for a thing and the thing itself. Hence we have as many words for “tree” as there are languages, and yet they all refer to tree. The word describing the thing itself is arbitrarily chosen and irrelevant, mostly– it just matters that we know what “tree” means when we hear it. There’s this gap, though, where there’s room for me to imagine either a teensy mesquite bush or stately sequoia when someone says “tree.” Even if we use more specific language, say “sequoia,” that gap remains. So, in some sense, I can never tell my husband how much I love him.
Because of this linguistic miasma (a.k.a. “play,” thank-you Derrida), we get tricked into thinking all kinds of things about love. One of the things that I run into most often that I don’t agree with is that love is something people can deserve. I’m not sure if it’s the Christian or the cynic in me, but if we only loved people who “deserved” it, then no one would have any love. Every single person I know has let me down at some point. Nobody’s perfect. This doesn’t mean that they’re bad people– they’re all very good people!– it just means that they are People. Futhermore, the scriptures (an authority on love to me) don’t say “Love the people who treat you nicely and give you compliments all the time and hook you up with a good job and a fancy car and think the same whay you think.” The scriptures say that we should love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:2&) and (if we believe The Book of Matthew, and I do) that we should love our enemies, bless those that curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute us. Do those sound like people who deserve to be loved? And yet this is what we (Christians) are called to do. If we were better at it, there’d be a lot less conflict in the world. My point is, no one deserves to be loved, so that shouldn’t be a reason why we love. We should love because it’s good for us, just like we should eat vegetables instead of potato chips because it’s good for us. It’s a choice we make and need to continue to make.
I don’t think we need to make ourselves doormats, though. I think “forgiveness” is such a wonderful principle because it allows us to recognize that we’ve been wronged while giving us a way to move forward in love. When I can forgive my ex-husband (and in some moods I can’t, though those are rarer now), I’m able to say “You were such a jerk to me” and I’m able to have compassion (a kind of love) for his situation. That doesn’t mean I’ll ever trust him again, but it means I can move on without rancor. It’s possible to recognize that someone is harmful and still love them.
True love, in my mind, can’t exist without forgiveness. Forgiveness is hard, but so is love generally. I really like what C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, “Our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your sense.” Love is a difficult thing. Is it any wonder that Mormons advocate eternal marriage? It seems to me that it would take an eternity to work out living in that tension of having on the one hand “deep feeling for the sins,” or an awareness of the many, many ways in which we’ve been wronged and on the other, “we love the sinner.” Forgive, forgive, forgive, so that we can love.
In that same passage, Lewis also declares that “there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilation — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” This eternal perspective is what makes love worth it to me. I move an awful, awful lot and am terribly shy. Sometimes it seems like even making friends is not worth the effort when I know that as soon as I move, they won’t be willing to put out the effort required to maintain long-distance friendships. Still, I feel certain that at the end of all things, the effort we put into our relationships with others comes back to us. Is there any greater adventure than love? Death is the only thing I can think of that might come close. I think loving is an essential part of living fully. If that means getting hurt (terribly, terribly hurt) sometimes, I still say it’s worth it. Love is always an experiment. I have very loving relationships with many people and I’ve had terrifying, destructive relationships, so I feel qualified to say that the work I put into nurturing these relationships and the risk I take in making myself vulnerable to them has been worth the trouble. When I love, I know that I am alive. When I love, I know that I am human. When I love, I know that I am not alone.
This is a really long post. I’m struggling against ineffability here. Tell me what you think. I’m willing to be wrong.