To Love Another
Some people don’t know how to respond to throwaway questions. You know, the kind of verbal ephemera that so many us daily traffic in to fill up social spaces? The classic example is, of course, “How are you?” We’re rarely really interested in the answer to the question. We mostly just pause long enough for the obligatory “fine, “good,” or “busy” before moving on to the next item on the agenda. But occasionally people forget their lines and do crazy things like actually tell you how they’re doing. Maybe this pandemic has opened up some time and space for reflection. Maybe we don’t have as many important things to rush off to. Maybe we’re finding more time to ponder the “normal” we’ve lost or are in the process of losing. Maybe we’re doing some re-evaluating of priorities and asking questions about what we’ve been doing and why we’ve been doing it.
At any rate, the other day I asked someone the question: “How are you doing?” I didn’t exactly ask it insincerely—you’d have to be fairly emotionally and spiritually obtuse not to recognize that even throwaway questions feel a bit more urgent in the days of COVID. But I was not expecting the long-ish pause before answering. I was not expecting the insightful reflections about how this has forced a realization of how much unnecessary spending we do, about how good it is to walk more, to slow down, to have longer conversations, to think about how we actually want to spend our days. And I certainly wasn’t expecting a response like, “And, you know, it’s been good for our marriage. It’s been good to spend this time together, to learn how to be together again.”
No, I didn’t see that one coming. We seem to almost assume that quarantine will be bad for our most intimate relationships. Social media is saturated with clever memes about spouses trying and failing to get away from one another. There are funny pictures (see above) and jokes about how this pandemic will probably be followed by booming business for divorce lawyers. Even the superstar therapist Esther Perel is now doing virtual sessions for couples struggling during isolation. And of course, there is the much more sad and serious reality that domestic violence is on the rise during this time pandemic. Many relationships that were probably only lurching along pre-COVID have been terrifyingly sent over the edge by the stress of economic uncertainty and unwelcome proximity.
In light of all this it can sound quaint, even mildly irritating to imagine that there are people out there who are actually using this time to attend more deeply to their love for one another. We marvel that such a thing could happen. We struggle to interpret this as anything other than an indictment of ourselves. I guess there are super-couples out there who are somehow working on their relationship in the midst of all this stress and chaos. The rest of us are just uncreatively stumbling along. Whose turn is it to get groceries? Can you let the dog out? I did it last time. Pass the chips and the bottle of wine and is there anything left to watch on Netflix?
Love is the deepest and truest thing in the world. Of this, I am convinced. Love expresses the very nature of God and God’s intentions for the world. We were created in love and for love. But love is not easy. If it is anything approaching the real thing, and not the cardboard approximations we so easily settle for, it requires more from us than we could ever have imagined. Love is not something we “fall into” once upon a time and then lazily marinate in until we die or fall back out of it. It is active, not passive. It demands something—many things, actually—of us. Love is something that we need to continually give ourselves to, to be trained in, to learn and grow. It takes practice and a determination to get up and keep going, keep trying again. For we fail, inevitably, to love as well as we could or should.
The famous author John Steinbeck once wrote a letter about love to his eldest son Thom who had fallen in love while at boarding school. His words are bracing and true:
There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
If you’ve lived and even attempted to love another human being for any length of time, I suspect you recognize yourself in Steinbeck’s words to his son. We have probably all shrunk back in horror at the recognition of just how easy it is to reduce love to a “selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing” and of just how much pain this can cause. This kind of “love” does indeed make us sick, small, and weak. We end up hollowed out, resentful, ashamed, ugly, crippled. We so easily act in unloving ways and so become unlovely in the process.
But perhaps we also have better moments along the way. Moments where we do indeed learn how to see, to understand, to truly love someone for who they are (as opposed to who we want them to be). Moments where we are able to set aside ourselves and actually attend to the elations, anxieties, hopes and fears of someone who is not us. Moments where we seek to give what the other needs instead of demanding our imagined due and so piling expectations upon resentments. There are moments, in other words, where we are able to die to ourselves for the sake of the good of the one we love. This is indeed an “outpouring of everything good” in us.
I often use a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke in pre-marriage preparations or wedding homilies. It’s a quote that I first encountered years ago but which has seemed truer with each passing year of marriage and of life more generally:
For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
Love is work, certainly. But it is the best, truest and most necessary work we will ever do.