It being Valentine’s Day, I thought I might write a little something about love. So a few nights ago at dinner, I asked my family how they’d define love. I was hoping for some cute little sound bites.
Of course, my children can tell when I’m sniffing around for quotable material, so they clammed up immediately. “Uh, I dunno,” they said. “Love is when you like somebody a lot.”
So, sorry folks; you don’t get to read a lighthearted piece about love. Because my children were right to resist my efforts to boil love down to a cute quote. In the same way, we should probably resist the Valentine’s Day Marketing Department’s efforts to boil love down to cards and candy and flowers. Throughout the course of this past decade, which has encompassed 10/11 of my marriage and all of my childbearing years, I have learned repeatedly that LOVE IS NOT CUTE; LOVE IS TERRIFYING.
Listen: I’m an enormous fan of love. I happen to believe that love is the purpose of our lives, the most important thing we can do with our time on this planet.
But we’ve been sold a lie about love. For my first two decades of life, I longed for love in any form: romantic love, friendship love, spiritual love, the love between parents and children. I longed for love because it would make me feel good. Everything I’d heard and seen indicated that love would validate me, would be an assurance that I was okay, would make me feel happy.
Partly, I blame fairy tales for my misconception of love, especially the Disney-fied versions. One of my daughters recently noted, “None of the princes in fairy tales has a name. Are they all just called Prince Charming?” Good point. We make a big to-do about the portrayal of females in fairy tales, but if I were the mother of boys I’d be pretty steamed at the absence of male role models. Love in fairy tales is only about the female protagonist; her nameless love object only exists to free her in some way.
Likewise, my initial impression of love was primarily about ME: how I felt (mostly, I was supposed to feel good). It took almost another two decades to discover that that was the opposite of love. In fact, love is not really about me at all; it’s primarily about the other person, the loved one. Which means that mostly, I won’t feel “good” when I’m being loving. Mostly, love will feel like work, like a fight, like “a cold and a broken ‘Hallelujah.'” (Leonard Cohen told the truth about love).
Perhaps the purest incarnation of love is dying for somebody else. Stepping in front of an oncoming car so that your child won’t be hit. Sydney Carton going to the guillotine in place of Charles Darnay at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. Jesus on the cross on behalf of all humankind.
I used to imagine these scenarios as a way of testing my love. Would I take a bullet for a friend? Put my children onto the lifeboat and go down with the ship? Push my husband out of the way of the runaway train?
Then I realized that love asks us to die a little bit for our loved ones every day. Sure, occasionally love demands a big dramatic gesture, but mostly it involves doing things that you don’t really want to do.
For instance, I never, ever want to wake up in the morning while it’s still dark in order to change diapers, fix meals, and mediate disputes, but every morning that I force myself up out of bed, I’m dying a little for my children. Erick and I would both probably rather read or watch T.V. once the kids are in bed and the house is quiet at last, but every evening that we force ourselves to sit and discuss our days and ourselves and our relationship, we’re dying a little for our marriage. And I’m usually scared to fix a meal for somebody else (Will they like my cooking?), or pick up the phone to call a friend (Will I be interesting enough?), or host a party (The house is a mess and I’m so tired….), but whenever I force myself to do these things, I’m dying a little for my friends.
Love is a gradual process of killing yourself for others.
(To be clear, I’m not talking about a martyr complex: If you’re sacrificing yourself to manipulate others into gratitude or repayment, it negates love because you’re really just making things all about yourself. I’m also not suggesting that love requires giving up your identity. If you have no sense of self, no boundaries, then it’s impossible to love others without fizzling out. A healthy sense of self is not the same as selfishness).
Oh my gosh, it’s so hard, isn’t it? Especially when your child accuses you of being mean when you’ve just spent all day ministering at her sickbed. Or when you feel like your spouse just doesn’t get you. Or when your friends seem to keep taking and taking.
We’re not big on hard these days; our culture is all about making things easy for ourselves. We can do so many things with the touch of a few buttons: cook a meal, buy stuff, pay our bills. Love is one of the few things that remains hard.
So why bother?
I’d submit that the most worthwhile things in life are hard — the things that we have to work or fight for. But what about when love doesn’t feel worthwhile, when your efforts are repaid with eye rolls or indifference or divorce papers?
That’s where faith comes in. Faith is love’s water; it’s necessary in order for love to survive. We put love out into the world like a seed that we may never see germinate. Or like making a fire in the woodstove; I pile the wood on top of the glowing embers, but then I have to sit and wait a while until the wood heats up enough and suddenly bursts into flame. We love even though we may never see a payoff; we love because we have faith that it’s the right thing to do, that somewhere down the line it’ll make a difference in a life — or in the world.
We’re all gradually dying anyway. We’re slowly killing ourselves simply by living another day. The question is: what are we dying for? Are we spending our lives serving self, work, pleasure… or love? I’ve tried serving all of those things. And love is a slow dying to ourselves, but it’s the only thing I know of that doesn’t kill my soul.