It is not enough to live, we all need to love and know we are loved. I’m going to scuff around the edges of a subject so overworked and laboured that it is almost impossible to go near. The ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ scenario.
However—I am sitting here by myself, the day after Christmas, that one day of the year when we are most likely to see a generous and visible aspect of Love at work—and I am thinking about love, and how we/I measure it.
For we DO measure it to some degree. It is the nature of man to stand somewhere in that spectrum of a conscious awareness of how many people know us and like us, how many love us (despite our faults), how many we easily love back through to the ones we put effort into liking to a lesser or greater extent.
This puts me in mind of one of my favourite books: ‘The Four Loves’ by C. S. Lewis. In it he describes three types of love we humans are capable of expressing, and love as it truly means. Let’s look at the first three, and bear in mind that even here, many do not experience all three.
(Painting by Mitra Shadfar)
Our first source of love experienced usually comes at birth, from our mother. He calls it ‘affection’ and says it is the love ‘least different to that of the animals.’ He hastens to add that in no way does this lessen its value. It is a love born of need—the need for the child for nurture, the need for the mother to give birth or die, growing beyond that into true affection and care. It is this love that is the least discriminating, Lewis says, because it does not rely upon the beauty or cleverness or skill or similarity in the one loved. And I must agree that in my own experience, the day I found out that my mother had died, (my father having died four years earlier), I felt myself entirely lacking anyone on this earth who had known me so long, and despite my quirks and annoying traits, loved me unconditionally. My siblings know me almost as well and I hope, forgive much, but that reliance I had in my parents’ affection was suddenly gone.
I am single and childless, and so it was not, for me, a case of having children looking to me for that same sense of safety and ‘home’. And despite being a loved and familiar ‘Aunty Jenny’ to some of my nieces and nephews—something I value beyond words—it is not the same as being their parent.
(Painting by Vidal Cuglietta)
This leads me to another love C.S. Lewis talks about: Eros. This is the ‘being in love’ kind of love. This love singles out one other, and most times but not always, involves our sexuality and the satisfaction of those impulses. It is much more than that of course; it singles one other person out and when returned, each is wholly caught up in the eyes of the other. They think about each other all the time. Lewis goes into much more detail about the subtleties of this love and it does, indeed, underpin much of our human existence. It is the basis for romance—and in case you wondered, romance novels are the largest selling genre in the world of fiction. We all want to feel special to that one other person, and to feel we have someone with whom we can share our experience of life.
In my own experience, for whatever reason, I did not ‘find’ that person. And I know I speak for many others who did not either, or who now have suffered the devastation of losing their ‘other’. Without plunging more deeply into those miry depths, let me just say that it is possible to appreciate the value of this particular love, without actually experiencing it. Much as I can appreciate motherhood without having been a mother. To be frank, sometimes the idea that there are still many couples out there who are selflessly devoted to each other, and pushing through all the tragedies of life without wavering in their love, is a very heartening thing to me. Long may that be true.
(Painting by Leonid Afremov)
The third kind of love C.S. Lewis talked about was friendship love. He was clear that although this was not usually regarded by us as important as affection (parent-child-family) or eros (lovers), it was no less important. Here is where you meet someone else with whom you go “What? You too?” in delight at a shared interest or understanding. Here is where you do not just stare like lovers into each other’s eyes, but shoulder to shoulder move forward and gather others of like mind to join you. Here, you love each other by choice and shared experience, out of any range of age or gender, eagerly enlarging your shared experiences and broadening your bounds. This kind of love can be enjoyed and experienced by anyone, and is the one I am most familiar with. Real friendship is something held lightly and carefully, requiring nothing of the other that they do not want to give, and allowing them the freedom to engage as they will. Some friendships run so deep that long absence does not affect them, and a return to their company is as simple as starting the next conversation. Other friendships are truly just for a season, and by mutual consent drift apart (whether they are truly friendship as a love, is doubtful).
At this point Lewis brings up the last Love, and it is here that I struggle to find words to express my thoughts. You see, all of the other loves mentioned are to some degree or other, flawed. We humans don’t have a good track record at reaching our ideals, and the loves already mentioned are ideals—something we know just enough about to value them, but dissatisfying-ly elusive in nature.
As I mentioned at the start, at Christmas we experience a situation that requires of us the need to express that love we feel—in any or all of the ways described above—through the giving and receiving gifts and sharing a meal together. With all the commercialism associated with the season, it’s a lot of pressure on any one person, and even more difficult if you are one of the many who do not have a wealth of those three loves in your life. I truly do feel for you.
Lewis calls this last love Charity. It is an old-fashioned word which has been subsumed to mean many other things, but at its heart it means unconditional, unearned, overflowing acceptance, nay—Love—from One who knows you better than you know yourself. Nothing humbled me more, nor changed my perception of life more, than my realization that this love not only existed but that it was personal and intimate. And I cannot let Christmas go by—with all its reliance on our weak human love—without pointing out that it was in fact, a celebration of the birth of this fourth Love upon our world. I speak from my own personal experience when I say that I know this Love exists. It is not political. It has no human agenda. It is not there to right the wrongs you perceive about the situation around you. Those are all too lowly and small to encompass a Love that is much more than that. (This is another whole discussion I don’t have blog enough to go into here.)
It is the sort of Love you can only surrender yourself to, without conditions.
Honestly, at one of my lowest ebbs when I was a teenager, when all hope felt gone and despair clutched at my heart, having heard (but hardly believing) that I had but to ask and God would reveal himself, I cast myself down by my bed and did just that. As I knelt hardly knowing what I was doing, but waiting, I felt a growing presence behind me. It was personal. It wasn’t a thing (the universe, mother earth, a weird extra-terrestrial). It was Love personified, and I felt for the first time unconditionally loved. So much light filled me and seemed poised just behind me, that I feared if I turned around and saw that much love, I would die. I was answered in ways I had never dreamed, and I have never been the same since then. I cannot ‘unsee’ Love as he exists.
You would think that I would have looked different from that day on, wouldn’t you? In fact, the glory is that I fail and fail again, I know disappointment, and singleness, and childlessness, and health issues, and yet, despite or because of it, I can never, ever shake the deep unswerving knowledge that I am Loved. And it makes all the difference.
And if it is true of me, believe me, it is true of you.