Tuesday, October 24, 2006

she and he, sitting in a tree...

I can’t believe I’m about to get into this. This is precisely the sort of thing I thought I’d avoid posting. But occasions arise, thoughts coalesce, so here goes…

Let’s talk about love and dating. These are not topics I approach lightly, as anyone who has spoken with me about them can tell you. Even the times I’ve tried dating just for fun, serious consideration has gone into it. As for love, I’m mostly talking about romantic love here, but such love is incomplete without elements of the more universal agape love. (For those of you who didn’t grow up in the church, or are otherwise unfamiliar with the term agape, it’s one of the Greek words for love, and it’s used consistently throughout the New Testament to describe sacrificial love—the kind of love that is as much doing as feeling; the kind of love God has for the world.) I’m going to leave sex aside for now; it’s probably impossible to explain or understand my opinions on sex without all the background here first, anyway. And I’m going to write entirely from the gentleman’s perspective, because as much as I’d like to think I understand women, I probably don’t have a bloody clue what goes on in their heads and hearts.

I’ve had several girlfriends. More than I expected to, actually. I won’t embarrass them or myself by listing them here. They’ve shaped my life, as all friends do. They have given me some of the most challenging and satisfying relationships I’ve had. I’ve been realizing lately how much I learned from those relationships, how much they helped me mature and learn how to treat people well, to compromise, and to work towards common goals. Most of those romances ended well; at least eventually it became clear to both parties that ending was the right decision.

Now, for the sake of clarity in case anyone reading didn’t yet know, I’ll announce that I’m dating Hannah. She is not in France with me; she’s back at Cornell. We’ll be apart for most of the next eight months. I’ve been through separations before while dating; I’ll get into that more later. And it’s events in our relationship that have prompted me to sort out my thoughts on these matters and write this essay. That doesn’t mean I’ll be talking about us exclusively; most of “us” is definitely more private than I want to post online. In fact, even though I’ll mention her a few times, my musings are much more general. I want to find out what I think about being in love. You get to watch part of it.

There was a time, in college, when I didn’t actually believe the state of “being in love” existed. I was quite certain anyone who thought they were in love were deluding themselves. I’m not the only one to have felt this way, I’m sure. The Monkees even have a song about it, written by Neil Diamond. (My brother and I watched the Monkees avidly when we were younger. I don’t remember the plot of a single episode, but I remember a lot of the songs.)
I thought love was only true in fairy tales,
Meant for someone else but not for me.
Love was out to get me;
That’s the way it seemed.
Disappointment haunted all my dreams.

Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer.
Not a trace of doubt in my mind.
I’m in love, I’m a believer;
I couldn’t leave her if I tried.
It took a bit more than seeing someone’s face to convince me I could be in love. It took soul-searching. I said once to Annie back in Peace Corps that, given my propensity towards stoicism and self-reflection, my piling layers upon layers of intellectualization on top of my emotions, it would take some powerful affection to overcome all that and convince me that I had, finally, been caught up in that delusion of love. (I didn’t quite use those words, but that was the sense. I am usually wrapped in principles and convictions, which direct rather than obey more visceral impulses. And the main point is that I would not have to convince myself; something beyond my own reasoning would force me to acknowledge my own enamoring. Besides, what principle is there in love except desiring the happiness of the beloved?) Maybe most people have these kinds of passions more easily than I do. I’m no longer as stoic as I was in high school; I have strong emotions on a number of subjects (music and theology high among them), which I vent with no particular compunction. I am somehow inherently skeptical of eros, however. I can only be convinced it’s real when it is completed with rapture and joy. And those are experiences one does not easily find.

One of my homonyms, Joshua Harris, came out with a book a few years ago that quickly rose to great popularity among Christian singles. It may still be popular. I’ve never read it, but I can describe its basic principle. The title is I Kissed Dating Goodbye. As a young man, Harris determined that dating, “just for fun” so to speak, would eventually be detrimental to his marriage. That is, if he spent his pre-married life giving parts of himself and his heart to different women, those parts would come back to haunt him on his wedding day. He sought a real purity in his relationship with his wife (whom, of course, he had not yet met, but when he did and began courting, he wrote another book about it).

I have some sympathy with Harris’s point. Mostly that’s because I don’t think the modern world (probably the world at any point in time, actually) takes marriage seriously enough. I’m not just talking about the appalling divorce rate, or the common belief that somehow a series of hook-ups can lead to finding the “right person”. I’m talking about a lack of awareness of the spiritual component of relationships. All right, I’m something of a mystic, so my language may be a bit far out for some. But something truly significant happens when two people decide (or acknowledge) that each is so important to the other that they will live together throughout their lives, and this significant something happens not just within or between the people involved. I believe almost every encounter or relationship we have on this earth is meant to mirror in some small way our relationship with God. And the utter self-giving of love is certainly a facet we may struggle to understand when we conceive of ourselves before God.

Hannah mentioned one time that she had come across the “controversial” passage about marriage in Ephesians (5:22-33). She said, “It sounds like the husbands got the raw end of the deal.” Here’s a piece of the passage she’s referring to:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
She made a comment along the lines of… submitting is easy when you love someone, but loving your wife as Christ loved the church? How can anyone possibly be expected to do that? The trouble (well, one trouble) with this passage is that people often can’t get past the first part. And in isolation, that first paragraph certainly sounds oppressive. (To be fair, anytime I’ve heard a sermon on this passage, the emphasis has been on the fact that the whole scripture together implies humility for both members of the couple, i.e., mutual service. There’s not really any other interpretation that could be remotely correct.) But Scripture is not intended merely to guide our actions: it directs our desires, as well. What husband, in loving his wife, does not want to make and keep her clean and holy? Those may not be the words he uses, but he should cherish the woman he loves and seek to protect her—not because she is incapable of supporting or protecting herself, but because it is the best gift he knows how to give and the truest expression of his devotion to her.

Somewhere C.S. Lewis describes how one’s love for one’s wife is augmented rather than diminished by encounters with other women. (No, I don’t mean “encounters” to be a euphemism. I mean normal, everyday meetings.) I’m probably badly misrepresenting his position, since I can’t find the citation now, so take this as my own opinion, inspired a bit by Lewis. Also, I should mention, inspired by a sermon I heard once about how marriage is the epitome of human relationships. Therein one finds ultimate commitment combined with some of the broadest gaps to reach across—as the pastor mentioned, the couple has to deal with one of the most basic divisions in humanity: the gender gap. A spouse is a friend, a lover, and a partner, but to some extent she or he is also a representative of the rest of humanity. By learning to love his wife well, a man learns to love others well, and by loving others, he can better love his wife.

So help me, I’m about to make about the most absurd pop culture reference I could at this point. Only because the words of the script are appropriate, well put-together, and in tension with much of what one “learns” about love in the movies. In one scene of Spiderman 2, Peter is visiting Dr. Octavius and his wife. The conversation turns to relationships. They say (I’m not going to bother separating out who said what, because they’re basically speaking with one voice here):
I finally got lucky in love. We both did. But it’s hardly perfect. You have to work at it.
I’ve thought about those lines a lot lately, actually. Not because the scene itself is a great revelation, but because the reality is so pithily described by those words.

Love may have a component of luck. It certainly feels that way sometimes. I was originally planning to argue against this point, but it doesn’t seem worth it. The main thing is that, however you get into love, to stay there takes work. Shall I mention some details? Take the trial of separation. This I have experienced multiple times. It gets harder each time. Particularly as my love grows. This last month and a half has been the most painful ever. Hannah has introduced me to a Portuguese word and song by Lui Collins: saudade. It means a kind of bittersweet longing for one’s beloved who is far distant, mingled with hope for reunion and joy from memories. I think I know what that feeling is now. I’ve just spent the last week in Ithaca to see Hannah. The sense of relief from that trip is immense, because of some challenging moments we’ve had. But I know that it’s good to learn now how to deal with trials, and how to deal with each other through trials. We will continue to push each other and challenge each other, and we are growing together even while we are apart. Work. Love is not all joy, but the moments of joy one reaches, knowing that both people involved have committed to the relationship’s success, are beyond compare.

A refrain that appears several times in the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) is:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the does of the field,
that you not stir up or awaken love
until it pleases.
There’s apparently some ambiguity in how this passage should be translated or interpreted. It could refer to a personification of Love, that one should not force the matter. Love brooks no spurs. Or it could mean that the beloved himself is sleeping (read “until he pleases” instead of “until it pleases”), and should not be awakened while he rests. The latter is sweet. The former is the interpretation I lean towards. We have so many pressures to drive towards fulfillment in some strange notion of “love”. It is a good thing to seek love, but I don’t think we should be too quick to believe we have found it. Once it’s there, and known, however, it should be cultivated and stimulated, and it should be the passion of one’s life. It’s not part of fairy tales; those stories leave out too much anyway. Love is one of those universal experiences that touch us most intimately. Wake, Love, in each of us and at your pleasure, and teach us to serve, to trust, to work, to uplift, and to become more fully whole and united.


Anonymous said...

I love you. - Hannah

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tim said...

I love you too. - Tim

And bless you for quoting Spider-Man 2.