“If I never loved, I never would have cried.”
Simon & Garfunkel
“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared with love in dreams.”
“[Jesus], having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.”
The Gospel of John, chapter 13, verse 1
Mother Theresa was fond of saying that our main task in this life is learning what it really means to love. She was also fond of saying that there is no spiritual growth without suffering. And I’ve come to understand that the two – love and suffering – are not so very separate from each other.
I think we’re sort of conditioned by our culture to think of love in terms of mellow warm feelings toward another person – taking pleasure in their presence in our lives, wanting to do things together with them, or give our time and energy for their sake. But if warm-fuzzies is all that we mean by love, it winds up being pretty shallow and lame.
In a fallen world, it comes to seem that any love worthy of the name inevitably has a tragic aspect about it. We are all fallen, broken persons, and our fallen-ness and broken-ness redound to the pain of those who love us. And hobble our ability to love others as we ought. We inevitably hurt and disappoint those who love us, and in many ways, the measure of love is the manner in which it deals with those hurts and disappointments.
Our kids have taught some of this to Molly and me. When 1F was the ‘perfect’ adolescent, it was pretty easy to love her; to soak up the accolades we received for having raised such a wonderful girl. But, I don’t think I’ve ever been more deeply wounded than I was when she walked away from our family to live with the F-bomb. And I never, in my worst dreams, would have imagined one of my daughters having a baby out-of-wedlock. But, you know, in the ensuing years, I think we’ve come to a stronger love for each other. I found out that my heart could bear more pain than I thought it could, and that I loved my daughter even though she had hurt me like I’d never imagined I could be hurt.
Likewise for 3M – it was easy to love him when he was a cute and precocious child, when we got appreciative pats on the back for his wit and intelligence. But when he ran away from home, and defied us in every possible way, he simply broke our hearts. And such is the tragic aspect of love – real, down-and-dirty, harsh, dreadful love. He is not today what I would really want him to be, but I think we have learned to love each other for who we are, apart from any questions about ‘approval’.
All of our kids, in one way or another, have suffered from my (and, I suppose, Molly’s, although even to say so evokes thoughts of the Log and the Speck; besides which, it feels like ‘talking behind her back’) failures of love. 1F and 3M are just the glaring, nuclear examples. 2F suffers greatly to this day that we didn’t love her as she needed us to – that we were so dazzled by her sister’s ‘perfection’, and too easily put off by her more strong-willed personality. 4M can be a male version of 1F – ‘perfect’, except when he thinks we’re not looking. 5M too easily gets lost in the chaos that swirls around his older siblings, and 6F has had to endure all manner of trials that we wished we could have been more effective in helping her through. But perhaps we are learning, just a little bit better, what it means to love. Perhaps we can dig a little deeper, and give our kids the love they need, where once we’d have come up short. Perhaps. At least, I hope so. . .
It’s not just the kids, either. As much as I love Molly (and she me), there is, even still, a tragic aspect to our love. She has not avoided disappointing me (or, to be certain, I her), even though she is still the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. Some part of the measure of our love is coming to know – really know, where it hurts to know – each other’s weaknesses and character flaws, and keep moving forward. Even to cover for each other’s weaknesses (whether or not we ever thought we should have to).
So, again - the measure of our love is not the absence of our disappointments with each other. The measure of our love is what we DO with the inevitable hurts and disappointments that we inflict on each other – can we let “love cover a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8), or not?
And then we have the example of God Himself, who “demonstrates His own love for us in this – while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus didn’t wait for us to get our shit together in order to make a gift of Himself for our sake. He loved us, “to the end,” even in all our fallen, broken, garbage.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said that, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” And I think it’s likewise when it comes to ‘learning what it really means to love’. To love greatly is to risk being hurt greatly. To ‘pour ourselves out’ for the sake of the beloved, with little or no regard for what we have left when we’re done.
“And greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
Jesus, with all trepidation, I ask of you. . . teach me how to love. . .