What is this thing called love?

© Emily Martin

Love is a mystery, it is foreign, alien, far from understanding. But it is elemental, it is at the beginning and the end. Of what remains, the greatest is love. Mark Twain said: “when you go fishing for love, bait with your heart, not your brain”.

When we talk about romance, we talk about being in love. When we see someone who takes our breathe away, we fall in love. And when things don’t go so well we can now fall out of love with the one to whom we had given our all. After one of this week’s posts a friend sent me a link to an article about the reasons marriages split up, and all too frequently it is simply that they got bored with each other. And it lead me to wonder, do we put too much store by love, or is it that we just don’t understand it?

I can think of no better book on this topic than CS Lewis’s The Four Loves. Love is not always the same, it takes different forms in different relationships, from affection, through friendship, to the eros of romance and the all consuming unconditional agape love from God. I probably should have reread it before writing this post.

CS Lewis’s point, if I recall correctly, is that the other forms of love only work properly when subordinated to the unconditional love from God. We can love because we have already been loved. When we turn we find that he has already turned.

Am I a reprobate romantic to say that love can conquer all? That our problem is not that we put too much trust in love, but that we give it too little. We hedge our bets, and we take our chances, we mitigate against things going wrong. We build structures of reliance that defend our cause and protect our pet projects. We don’t want anything to fail so too often we just do not try.

We think that if love is the answer it will solve our problems. We think that such a wonderful thing will make life easy.

I was at a wedding yesterday and the during the address the pastor said, “I hope this is the worst day of your married life.” It was a cute point, a good way of saying that marriage is not summed up by the celebrations on the wedding day but of a life lived growing together, that there are far better days to come.

But was it too saccharine? Because marriage will not always be defined by happiness and joy. Because while the wedding day is hopefully not as good as it gets, it is also unlikely to be the worst. There will be sadness and troubles, there will be heartache and agony; maybe that wasn’t a message for the wedding day. I’m sure that if I’m married I’ll wake up on some mornings and wonder what I’m doing there, I may regret falling in love, I may regret trusting in love. Wherever I am, whomever I am with, there will be crappy days.

And on these days, like when I’ve had enough of my friends or my family annoy me, is the answer is to walk away or to recommit? Last year I read McCloud & Townsend’s book Safe People, and one of the most challenging things was the need at times to draw a line under some relationships, and to walk away rather than to expend all your energy on trying to redeem and rescue the other person, or your relationship. I found this hard because I often operate as though the love I am supposed to have for all people is translated into a one-size-fits-all relationship.

But love does not mean I try and have the same relationship with everyone I know, and by extension, everyone I don’t know. It means that I love them in whatever relationship we have. So I love my friends in a way that is different to my family, and one day I hope to love my wife in one way and my children in another.

At my church we’re coming to the end of a series called ‘Love is a Verb’. And for a series titled so there’s been remarkably little discussion of love, with the focus instead on the relationships that provide the context for love to be demonstrated. Love is a thing, it is an emotion, it is a state that we abide in. But it is also a verb, it is something that we do, and must do over. It is something that we cannot ever complete. We cannot be done with love and we cannot do without it. It remains.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Cor 13v13

Love is all around us. It is in the papers, on the screens. It is in our hearts, and on our mind. It lets us dream and it stops us sleeping. And too often it is sequestered in pursuit of happiness. Love becomes the thing which gets us what we want. We love because we want relationship. We love because we want sex. We love because we want company, or status, or security.

How rarely do we let ourselves love and beloved for the sake of nothing but that one thing which remains.

Too often we view marriage as the end point of a road of love, but surely it should be the other way round? Should not marriage open the door to a path that is paved with love both given and received, both the end and the means? Love comes in and flows from the relationship as much if not more than being the force which brought it to life. Love is not the answer to all of your or my problems. But maybe it is what helps us live without the answers.

What do you think? Am I getting carried away with my hopes and dreams for love? Is love enough?

Friends with benefits

Except, what sort of friends don’t come with benefits?

If they don’t are they really your friends? I’ve talked a lot about romance and relationships over recent weeks, but I want to pop across the fence to explore emotions of perhaps a more challenging, and certainly less spoken of, kind. Those you share with your friends.

I give a lot of time in my head to thinking about someone who I might be interested in and rarely a second thought about who I class as my friends. And while romance is a messy business at least it has a clarity and definition that is largely missing with friendship.

A romantic relationship can be clouded with confusion and aching with fragile emotions, but the emotions are identified and the parties to the relationship are hopefully limited. And although people talk about falling in love and stumbling into something as though it happens by accident, I suspect there is always an element of intentionality involved.

I recently read “Safe People” by Henry McCloud and John Townsend. I was slightly suspicious as it is what I would class as a ‘counselling book’. And it is. But all the same they make some very challenging points. How much thought do we really give to the affect the people around us have, do they help us grow, do they stretch us, force us to be better, do they cause us to love ourselves or love each other? Do they ask for our service or help us serve?

I’m aware that I’m probably not what they would describe as a Safe Person. I am too self centred, I am too concerned about getting everything right. I use friendships for what I can get out of them rather than what I can give. On occasion I want to rescue, and on others I am the one in need of help.

But then again, I’m not sure any of us are completely safe. I think each of us tend towards narcissism at times. Each of us lack the strength of character to love completely and selflessly.

Friendship is too accidental, too often it’s just the people we happen to be around. For me it sometimes comes down to who will have me. And that’s not left me feeling able to be picky.

I don’t think it’s about dumping our current crop and trading them in for better models. Otherwise the scrapheap would be overflowing.

So how do we grow safe together?

We write a story together. We learn that we are not just living for the moment, that it’s not just about the enjoyment of now, but about the place where we are heading.

I want my friends to make me a better person. I want them to call me out when I am an idiot, and love me when I am falling to pieces. I want to laugh with them, I want them to cry with me, I want to know that even when my worst sides turn to face the world they will not walk away.

But what is the destination? What is the script of the story we write? And perhaps most challenging of all, who are we letting do the writing? Throw me your thoughts, we’ve got a little way to travel with this topic. Next time I’ll pick back up on the idea of conflict, and how this comes into play.