Love – it draws out the timeworn clichés and greeting card verse in us, yet it is serious and necessary and hard. Without it, there would be no popular culture; without it, there would be no culture at all. Without love, there would be no us.
Our greatest risks are about love – living in it, yearning for it, sustaining it, marveling at it, reckoning with it. Many of us learn this early when a beloved pet dies and we experience a long ache in our soul, and find ourselves regretting the emotional investment: if only we had not loved, so that we could be spared this pain. Was all the fun and wonder worth the loss? And yet we fall right back to it, again and again. Without love we die, or at least the best parts of us die.
The lucky ones are born into love without choice and into that peculiar and life-affirming security that can have only one source – the all-encompassing, caring love of parents. That love buffers our experiences of the world even as it gives us confidence to enter into that unknown, to seek and form other loves. Love back home makes the first steps into adult independence bearably frightening, because it is grounded in celebration and security and, of course, familiarity. And yet that love is conflicted with expectations and obligations – the complexity of familial love is something we commonly experience and rarely fully understand. It chooses us before we can choose at all.
For parents, the love for a child is beautifully painful. Beautiful because it is as pure as our human love seems to allow, and painful because one realizes in an instant that from this moment forward your happiness will depend on the uncertain wellbeing of this person. What is more painful than the loss of a child? What could be more cruel than to lose what one loves so purely? To love as a parent loves is to experience fears, rejection, disappointment that cannot be abated nor softened, even by advanced age. The Greek mythological cycle of gods hints at one of the anxieties of parenting: that one breeds the very giants that may ultimately threaten to replace oneself. But can there a greater consolation in one’s later years than supportive and loving children, to be surrounded by one’s future in the faces of young ones?
Some have been told that love is a choice, but so many others describe it as anything but a choice. We talk of “falling” in love. What an odd phrase—to fall in love. Not only is the image rather frightening and suggestive of vertigo, but it leaves so unclear where exactly it is that one lands. As songwriter Butch Hancock put it: “Fool falls in love, wise men they fall too/Wise men hit the bottom, a fool just falls on through.” Stories abound throughout history of being struck by love, of being captured by love, or of being bound by love. G.K. Chesterton famously declared: “Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”
And so we have many ways of thinking about love, of trying to consider the inconsiderable, that put it at some distance from simple choice while bringing with it obligations. Love is never without obligations, duties, and attachments that burden us, even as it challenges barriers and categories.
To fall in love is to risk a great deal because one discovers that one is enslaved by this love—it can take over one’s mind and alter the way one experiences the world and even turn very bad songs into the highest expressions of the human condition. What happens when love is lost? Ignored, destroyed, denied, thwarted, betrayed, delayed? This too has an extensive literature, suggesting emotional carnage that is hard to consider, hard to calculate. Ask almost any fifteen-year-old and you will likely hear of this carnage—no less real for being adolescent, and it often disturbs the beloved as much as the loving one.
A steadier but profound love is the abiding love of friends, compatriots, teammates – those we’ve suffered and laughed with and formed a lasting bond with. How do we find friends? Who would we call at 2 in the morning to help us with a car repair? Does such friendship need explicit articulation? How can it survive in some form for years, as though time hasn’t passed?
And love stands as a vow and bond, as commitment made publicly on a given day, in due order, and then tested and proven daily, decade after decade. Matrimonial love abounds with the high mystery of paradox and with the most mundane of details (captured in Genesis 2:24’s reference to “one flesh): is easy, is hard; is naturally harmonious, requires constant adjustment; is hard work, is unexpected delight; is routine, is uncertain; is disappointing, is elevating; is dull, is nourishing; it holds on, it whets – it never ceases.
Then, God is love, we are told. What does that mean? It sounds like a statement of being or character and it certainly suggests that love is at the center of God’s purpose, of divine being itself. But why? Why does God love us? More importantly, why does He want our love? Did God create the universe and put in it beings capable of love and hate in order to be loved back? Why should our imperfect love be valuable to the author of all things, including perfect love?
And what are we to think of God’s love when we witness and experience injustice, tragedy, disappointment, setback? In such cases, where is God’s love and how is it manifest? How do we know it or feel it or access it? If God is love, why must the good and loving suffer so? Why can’t love conquer all, at least here and now?
Plato suggested in the Symposium that the highest love is philosophical love—the love of wisdom and knowledge, ideal but transcendent and abstract. He used sexual love as a metaphor for the higher love, just as Freud would, in some measure, reverse this ordering. Be that as it may, love has been at the center of philosophy, theology, art, literature – of culture – for millennia just as it is at the very heart of the adolescent girl struggling to know who she is and what life is about. We cannot escape it. We can run from it, we can seek to be independent of it, or we can fall into it. But no matter what, we cannot be human without it.
This piece was written for The Symposium at Pepperdine, hosted by Ted McAllister and Michael Ditmore.