My very good friends Jen and Dan have recently been married. Even now, in fact, they are probably enjoying the heck out of each other in Santa Lucia or something. The luckies.
|Jen and Dan’s Reception, as told by the iPhone
© 2010 Justin Gifford
It was an absolutely beautiful wedding—everything went very smoothly, and everybody had a wonderful time. Jen and Dan were so visibly elated it was almost magical. Their blatant affection for each other probably would have been disgusting, but for the fact that that’s probably exactly how my fiancée and I come off to the rest of the civilized world. Still, I couldn’t be happier for them, and I am so glad I got to attend. It made me regret all the more my inability to attend the weddings of some of my other close friends.
Sometimes you get so involved in your own emotions you get lost in them, and lose sight of the things that keep the gears turning smoothly. Love is especially tricky, because it’s so vastly enjoyable—and it makes everything related to it feel especially significant, and everything unrelated to it barely noteworthy. Sometimes you need to see things happen before you buckle down and get things moving along.
I’ve known for quite a while that I wanted to marry Kimberly, but when I saw her dedication while I was in the hospital, I had to marry her. After Jen and Dan’s wedding, it’s become all the more urgent. Love is tricky like that, yeah.
But what is love?* In case you are from Corinth or are otherwise unfamiliar with the specifics of the sentiment, Paul of Tarsus can offer some guidance. Amongst his recommendations to the church in Greece is a shining piece of prose that has been quoted in weddings, films, and books and on countless inspirational posters and embroidered hand towels. As befitting for a celebration of love, Jen and Dan’s pastor recited the passage.
Like so many truths, its simplicity lends it to overuse, which unfortunately risks diluting its message. But it really is a beautiful passage, and has always been one of my favorites. No matter how many times I hear it, it never loses its effect.† Still, like an excellent film that abducts a song with its excellent placement in a dramatic scene, everything perfect came together during the ceremony. You could see the truth of each enduring quality of love on Jen and Dan’s faces as the pastor listed them. It was perhaps all the more powerful to witness it as I held the hand of the woman I’ll soon stand before during such a recitation.
But its truth is universal. Such is the beauty of the passage that it can be applied to any love you might ever encounter. Love between lovers, certainly. But also love amongst families, love for one’s country, love for the environment, love for those unknown to you, love for those you may not even like. It is about more than love—it is a guide to living well and doing good.
* Oh baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me, no more.
† Also true of Pachelbel’s Canon in D and the phrase “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”
Love is Patient
Paul starts out with some cheesy rhetoric that, while insightful, is generally inessential. But then the real fun begins.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
The ramifications of this first quality alone are enormous. I can personally vouch for the patience of love, but where this really comes into its own is on a much greater scale. I love my community, not because it’s the only place I’ve ever lived, or even because it’s an especially lovable place. I love it because it’s home—not my home, just home. So many people only known the Lehigh Valley, and whether they long to get out or dread the thought of leaving, it is their home. I love it because I love my people.
But like any blossoming suburban valley nestled between two busy metropolises, the Lehigh Valley has its share of problems. Another translation of the above passage reads, “love is long suffering.” I feel this version is perhaps closer to the essence of what Paul was trying to get across. It is so easy to get frustrated with the state of things, toss our hands up in collective disgust, and shuffle away mumbling something about how things were in our heyday.
But this we must never do! Contrarily, the more the state of current affairs vexes us, the more we need to be involved. We must above all things treat our community with love, and love is patient. We must, then, be prepared to suffer alongside those whose misfortunes are greater than our own, to the end that we may better the community. Environmentalists today have the same charge; brash tactics are largely irrelevant, and we must treat the ignorant or the opposing with love rather than disdain.
Perseverance is a virtue often lauded, but I think popularly misunderstood. I often hear it being used with a connotation of superiority. One perseveres through things because they are better, or it will make them better for the effort. But that ignores an essential element of perseverance that really gets you through: grace. For love to be patient, and for long suffering to be love, it must be graceful; you must not only be willing to persevere, but glad to.
Kindness is an essential counterpart to patience. To be long-suffering without kindness is to be disingenuous and, eventually, to foster spite. Kindness is the glue that binds us to what surrounds us. It seems a pretty obvious assertion that love is kind, but on further consideration it becomes pretty obvious that it stands to be clarified. Love is self-serving, and no amount of goodwill can change the fact that we love not because we have to but because we want to—and we want to because it feels good.
Part of what makes it feel so good (and, coincidentally, so selfless) is its associations with charity. I am reminded of Screwtape’s advice to his nephew:
The grand problem is that of “unselfishness”…Another great help, where the parties concerned are male and female, is the divergence of view about Unselfishness which we have built up between the sexes. A woman means by Unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others…Thus while the woman thinks of doing good offices and the man of respecting other people’s rights, each sex, without any obvious unreason, can and does regard the other as radically selfish.
Really, you should just go read the book instead of the inane rambling I’ve been treating you to; C.S. Lewis’ brilliance is ridiculously greater than my own. The Screwtape Letters was such a favorite of mine in high school that I carried a copy of it everywhere I went. It was arguably the strongest shaping force of my current moral state.
Anyway, it is with kindness that we can avoid the confusion. Broadly, it’s the same as birthday gifts: you oughtn’t present someone with a trinket you think is wonderful unless they share your appreciation of it. So love must be kind. This is how we must treat the things around us—again, not only within our relationships with others, but everything, from the places we live to the societies of which we are a part.
But the promise that love is kind is followed by the admonition that love is not jealous. When I thought, spake, and behaved as a child, I spent much time wondering how Paul could reconcile this claim with Yahweh’s own admission, “I am a jealous God.” I’m sure much heady theological discourse has been written about the complexities of the diction, but for now let’s just assume that it’s complex.
Nevertheless, that love does not envy is essential. Envy is not a bad trait because it entices us to do evil; it is a bad trait because it undermines our feelings of worthiness. I can personally attest to this. Envy is the deadly sin of choice for me.‡ My past relationships have generally been ruined by envy; jealousy nursed so many insecurities they eventually consumed me. I tended to feel not only inferior, but that I was in danger of dragging others down with me. Not awesome.
But it also undermines our general goodwill. When we feel envious of those who are better off than we, it makes us oblivious to those who are worse off than we. It hardens our compassion toward those to whom we would extend our hands, and it is impossible to love all our brothers when we envy some. That our hearts remain open to everyone is crucial to our ability to love what surrounds us.
‡ Some would say I’m more prone to pride – on the brink of hubris – but I’d say it’s a healthy appreciation of my finer qualities!
It is not Self-Seeking
It’s hard to see why love shouldn’t be self-seeking. Maybe it’s because I really am cynical at heart,§ but I see love as a fundamentally self-serving endeavor. Which is not to say that it doesn’t also serve others; just that with zero incentives, be they emotional, spiritual, or otherwise, I find it difficult to imagine anybody willingly doing the zany things they do when they’re in love.
So if we all agree that love is self-seeking, what do we make of Paul’s assurance that it isn’t? Was he just trying to stir up trouble? Doubtful. So let’s be a little clearer about what is meant by self-seeking.
In love, one doesn’t seek to profit himself at the expense of those around him—especially not at the expense of the subjects of his love. This is really all completely apparent, at the root of it. Nor does he seek to profit even if it costs nothing for anyone else. Love is only self-serving when the benefit to others is even greater. Obvious, maybe, but an important distinction nonetheless.
Love propels us to do amazing things, and grand. Environmentalists who love their world are compelled to nurture it and stand at the ready to aid it. Teachers who love their craft are compelled to encourage their students to share that love. Engineers who love their cities are compelled to build them better. Neighbors who love their neighbors are compelled to open their houses to each other.
We are all compelled to protect each other.
This is an important stipulation, because there is a lot in the world to protect each other from. Protection out of love is different from protection out of self-interest. History is saturated with examples of interest groups trying to preserve what they assume are universal morals in what they perceive as an atmosphere of moral decay. But it accomplishes little, and can have far graver repercussions.
Such hogwash masquerades as genuine concern, but seldom achieves much for the greater good. But protection from true love is concerned only with the recipients’ well-being. As with our consideration of charity and envy, if we are to act with love, we must do so with a perspective besides our own.
In order to do that, love must always trust—and it does. Love is reciprocal; you give a little, you get a little. Ideally, anyway. But trusting is the hardest thing for us to do. Everything else can flow with grace when we are in love, but trust can be stifled by a host of opposition.
When we love, we are at our most vulnerable. Such an all-important, all-encompassing, and sensitive feeling is very much at risk of being hurt. There is always a temptation to hold something back when dealing with love; this is natural, but helps no-one. Love is an investment, but like a fiscal transaction, your return can only reflect your initial investment. If you fear the market will fail you and you choose not to invest as fully as you could, your return cannot be as fruitful as it might have been.
We must, if we are to embrace what we love completely, trust that our love will prevail over any opposition. That trust can only appear, however, once love is already fortified by patience, kindness, tolerance, understanding, and selflessness.
§ I’m not.
Love Never Fails
After an impressively-comprehensive list of the things love must be in order to succeed, Paul closes with one terse observation about what love can do—love never fails. It is easy to presume that it means that, like schoolchildren who are told they can achieve anything they set their mind to, love can accomplish anything under the sun. This is too simplistic for my tastes.
I’d like to think of it more that love is not predisposed to a particular outcome. Love is successful because it is love, and it is therefore always successful because it is always love. This seems, logically, to be preposterous. Except that love is so completely perfect that, as Paul notes, the imperfect disappears. When there is perfection, there is just no room for anything else; just as when there is light, there cannot be darkness. It is not that light is the opposite of darkness, but that it is a vanquisher of darkness.
But there is yet more to love than that it is per se necessarily a success. That love never fails is also an observation on its longevity. Paul compares it to the things it will outlast—prophecies, human language, and knowledge itself. Love never fails because love is eternal.
This is an excellent feel-good message, but, again, we can extrapolate from it a guideline for our lives. As Gandhi is fond of saying on refrigerator magnets and in e-mail signatures, you must “be the change you wish to see in the world.” To do good in the world is to give the world something that will endure. To treat what surrounds us with love, we must think not of quick fixes or clever sound bites, but of lasting contributions. The Iroquois believed that
In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.
The Iroquois understood love.
Now, what Paul said in 264 words took me 2,550 to express, and I managed to bring us no closer to an intellectual understanding of the subject. I suppose, in the end, not every concept can be minced and dissected and understood on a molecular level. It looks like love really will outlast knowledge.
So be kind to what surrounds you.