Of all the mysterious forces in the universe, the light side, the dark side, the power of hope and the drag of fear, there is no greater force than love.
But what is love, exactly? Thousands of lines of popular music from the 1920s through the 2000s have inably wrestled with the topic. Wars have been fought over loves won and lost. So what is it? This love thing?
I have this theory that love is what exists outside of everything we can explain through physics and the material sciences. For that reason, I don’t find it difficult to view the Bible in metaphorical terms. What we think about God and life is the ‘special creation’ about which creationists and fundamentalists obsess while trying to twist scripture into something resembling a scientific text. Those who do so are missing the point completely. The Bible is about love. Plain and simple. All the most important messages in the Bible are about the significance of love.
Here I will admit that I walked away from much of what I already know about scripture through my late teens and early twenties. The thing that brought me back to the notion of eternal love was that sappy 1970s biopic titled “Jesus of Nazareth” or somesuch. I watched it with my college girlfriend who was studying Judaism at the time with a professor at Luther College named Richard Simon Hanson. 25 years later Professor Hanson would read and review a book I wrote about scripture titled “The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age.” (2007) The book deals with the effects of biblical literalism on politics, culture and the environment. It took me seven years to write, and it accurately predicted everything taking place right now in American culture. The confusion of politics with religion. The neo-Confederacy of a secessionist culture. The takeover of American politics by authoritarians. And the rise of love illiteracy as it is supplanted by people obsessed with money and power over compassion and grace.
So the interest in love as a transcendent force in life started back when I was in college. I fell deeply in love with that gal that I met on an RA retreat in the hills outside Dodgeville, Wisconsin. It was love at first sight that would last a couple years and then melt into time and memory. But we motivated each other and it was wonderful. She was immersed in her performance of a production of Godspell. I was running 100 miles a week as a member of a team that took second place in the national cross country meet. Love floated us up. Love carried us through.
But it was not a love destined for lifelong partnership. And that is the nature of love sometimes. Oftentimes, in fact. The nature of love is that it exists in its own space. It has its place sometimes, but not always forever.
Head for love
For me, the timing of that love was fortuitous. It made me impervious to my own fragmented, distracted and anxious brain. Love supplanted that fearful mind, and I ran to performances in cross country and track about which I had long dreamed, but had not achieved. Love will do that.
There were other kinds of love still to experience. I know there was a strong love for my teammates all through high school and college. Many of those relationships are still intact. Most recently two longtime high school buddies came back to town to attend my wedding to Sue on May 6. Friendship with those guys is surely based on our love for each other.
And also, two of my other high school teammates still live here in the Fox Valley. We still go cycling together. I hold great love for them too. They have all been there for me in some very tough times, and I hope I’ve done the same for them.
Even love can fail
But love also fails at times. It is the human condition to fail each other now and then. No one is perfect. Certainly not me. But that’s when love is truly tested. When we fail each other and forgive, that is true love.
Which brings us nearly full circle to the agape love of the Bible, where forgiveness rests like the beating heart of love inside all of us. If we cannot forgive, we cannot fully love. And if we do not find our way to ask forgiveness, love can be interrupted. That is a stumbling block in life. We fall all over ourselves trying to get it back. It hurts. It causes us to stumble again. We lose hope. Yet we gain knowledge and wisdom from these experiences.
Power of forgiveness
We must also learn to forgive and love ourselves. This is perhaps the most confusing of all principles. I can point to a specific moment when that capacity to forgive myself entered my life. I was in support therapy during my late wife’s long journey through ovarian cancer. The stresses of caregiving both for her and my stroke-ridden father while holding up family responsibilities were profound at times. Add in financial stress and the concussive force of life was too much to handle on occasion. So I met with a counselor from Living Well Cancer Resource Center who said, “You seem to be good at forgiving others. How are you at forgiving yourself?”
Now that seems simple enough. Probably she’s asked that question more than once through all kinds of circumstances. But for me in that moment is was beyond profound. We beat ourselves up emotionally and psychologically because we fall out of love with who we have become. Or we imagine we should be someone else, someone somehow better than this seemingly sorry creature on whom life seems to have exacted so many tolls. Where is the escape hatch? The steam valve. The way back home?
Learning to love yourself
Learning to love yourself despite life’s often conflicting messages is important in many ways. Self-love generally gives us self-confidence and a healthy base of self-esteem. But then we must also deal with factors such as guilt in its many forms.
Early in our lives, we learn the supposed difference between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ behavior. But then we learn that being bad can feel really good at times. That pretty much explains all that partying in college, does it not? And who can forget those first years of masturbation, when guilt washes over the fervent hand, and those moments after when all the world seems accusatory. Yet goddamn, that felt good.
Love and sex
Ultimately mutual sex enters the picture as well. For some people, that comes sooner than later, and that is ‘pun intended.’ And when it comes to early attempts at sex, I’ve looked back on trysts with certain girls and realize that I was unprepared for anything beyond what actually happened at the time. So we must be grateful for those experiences, as Bob Seger once aptly communicated in the song Night Moves:
Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
Out in the back seat of my ’60 Chevy
Workin’ on mysteries without any clues
Workin’ on our night moves
Trying’ to make some front page drive-in news
Workin’ on our night moves in the summertime
In the sweet summertime
Yes it can feel sooo good to be bad. Most of us go through life walking this line between learning what feels good and deciding what feels bad. For our bodies. For our conscience. This spectrum is far richer than the simple notion of yin and yang, black and white, darkness or light, or science versus religion. It is the full spectrum of love, yet it raises so much doubt.
Love beyond boundaries
We should now take a moment and think how difficult it is to be someone whose nature and notions of love are questioned at large by society. For millennia those whose sexual orientation and notion of love is focused on the same sex have been ostracized and condemned. Same with those who are transgender by physical nature. Some try to deny people their true nature, or fix some flaw in upbringing or lack of religion as the blame for what is so clinically called homosexuality. That stunted term does little to describe the nuance and breadth of human experience among those who claim their rightful natures.
But the damaging fact is that it is often fearful and ignorant people who too often rule the day with judgments of what constitutes legitimate love. Frequently it is also those whose own emotions are conflicted by repressed desires, or who simply refuse to understand or accept the worlds of love that exist beyond literal interpretations of religion, psychology, or stupidity.
Head for hate
Imagine what it’s like growing up in a world where the love you feel and attractions you have are by definition of culture denied. Where can one go with the deepest feelings one knows? And what is it truly like to be undermined by accusations that all such desires and interests are sinful or wrong?
The impositions of the judgmental are the opposite of love. They also stand outside the clear understanding we’re developing through science that emotional, biological and chemical desires are emphatically genetic and inherent, not concocted by some notion of “lifestyle” or “choice.”Those words are the product of hateful thinking. They are also the ignorant product of a tradition of discriminatory thinking that stems from fear, and nothing else.
Those with a head for love understand differences in other people and accept them. But those with a head for hate grab hold of those false distinctions and act with determination to impose punishment on other people for being “different,” either by loving differently, acting differently or loving without limits. That last one typically scares the life out of most people.
Disturbed minds and the taboo
The level to which this brand of hate can be carried (in contrast to love) is disturbing. The difficult thing to separate is the love for the taboo that drives so many people to indulge in secret passions while accusing others of wrongdoing. The fact that Americans thrive on images of sex and love and danger while banning something as simple as nude beaches illustrates the confused state of repressive guilt that hangs over a nation supposedly liberated from repression.
What we need instead is to foster a head for love that is not discriminatory. With it goes the parallel value of compassion, a prospect sorely missing in the civil war of modern politics that is driven by tribal partisanship. So much hate. So little love. Such stupid decisions based only on money, not on concern for the needy among us, the elderly and all those whose condition in life is somehow judged inferior.
The real debt in this country is the lack of love for others. We need to progress toward respect for love in all its forms. But when many of those who claim that America is a “Christian nation” ardently neglect the all-encompassing power of love, that is difficult. Half the nation is seems is married to legalistic notions associated with a religion of power and authority and politics.
The only real way to make American great again is to dispense with discrimination and develop a greater head for love instead. This is not idealism. This is fact, proven by history, that America is at its greatest when it is at its most compassionate.
That is not where we are today. Not when the Speaker of the House embraces hardline Ayn Rand theories of supposed self-sufficiency anchored in dispassionate demands for cuts to support for the elderly while offering tax cuts to the wealthiest who are already thriving. This is not compassion. This is unloving greed. We’ve lost our way, but not because of too much compassion.
So, I’ll leave you with a quote from a highly flawed yet greatly respected President named John F. Kennedy and another quote from the book of Corinthians. The two go together.
If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.
John F. Kennedy
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.1 ––Corinthians 1 3:13