Common Wisdom: What Is This Thing?

My eldest daughter, at 28, has resolved not to love again. That is, she quits the arena of l’amour, tou jours l’amour after two experiences which left her scarred and cynical. Romantically, she is 0 for 2. With predictable parental response, I rushed to assure her she was bound to fall in love again but she rejected the notion. No, she said, no more. Love delivers more pain than pleasure.

Were she anyone else, I could dismiss the announcement as ephemeral nonsense, but this particular person dissects everything to such a degree it can be said that whereas most of us experience life she analyzes it. She so thoroughly mulls over all the angles before arriving at a conclusion that she easily disposes of a contrary position. She has already considered it. Nevertheless, because of the subject, I tried to persuade her she was in error. Unfortunately, I could not argue my case effectively. Forced to examine the evidence, I found for the witness. Love’s companion is, at least, equivalent pain.

How to explain, then, the basic characteristic of human nature, which is to seek love, to want to be lover and beloved? Since honest scrutiny reveals the pain factor, why do we instinctively gravitate to something whose price is so high? Time and again we are love’s beneficiaries and just as surely its victims. The pattern begins with life itself, with love for our parents.

I write this marking the first anniversary of my mother’s death. Not a day passes when I am not affected — afflicted — by her absence. My car, which went on automatic pilot to her apartment, does not retrace those roads. I dare not be on the street where she lived. I cannot walk the sidewalks of her town because I see her figure reflected in every shop window. On occasion there by necessity, I spy a form similar to hers and, momentarily forgetting, think oh! there she is. Then the cold chill of reality. My mother is not, and never again will be.

As parents ourselves there is the game of peek-a-boo with young adult children, the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t roller coaster of joy and sadness with comings and goings. The infant I carried, the toddler I steered, the child, the adolescent boy, was home for 48 hours in August, having been gone for 14 months, an officer in the Air Force. We parents congratulate ourselves, properly so, for giving to the world such fine contributions, our independent children weaving webs of their own with friends we don’t know and experiences we don’t share. But it is a masquerade to pretend that cruises in the Caribbean or hearing Pavarotti in Milan compensate for the lost daily exhilaration of “Hi, Mom, I’m home.”

It doesn’t stop there. Consider the bond with one’s spouse, forged through the many permutations of marriage, so deep as to cause even the hint of loss intolerable. I walked into my husband’s post-surgical room to see in the dim light his sleeping self, strong arm uncharacteristically limp on the blanket, wrist girded by a white plastic ID. I could not reach him, could not penetrate the anesthesia, was cut off, isolated. I wondered how I could endure the scene if he were not, in fact, merely asleep?

Love’s awesome reach knows no boundaries, is not confined to family. Witness those surprising encounters with strangers who catch our attention, who then occupy segments of our lives sharing tears and laughter, people gone now from our landscape but whose impact remains. I miss them all — neighborhood pals, college roommates, office colleagues. Reduced now to scribbled Christmas cards and faded photos.

Nor can any discussion of love exclude pets, whose unconditional devotion and loyalty capture our hearts and enrich our lives. Time fails to obliterate the bitter memory of sighting a motionless arc of orange by the roadside, telling me a car had killed the most endearing, communicative cat from a species noted for indifference. Nor the afternoon I stroked the head of an aged dog whose trusting eyes were fixed on me as the vet administered lethal anesthesia. I’ve mourned their loss for more years than they were alive.

There is the litany, and the leitmotif: love, absence, pain. Faced with this reality we have two choices. One is despair, the other faith.

I asked the Lord in heaven above, What is this thing called love? Unwittingly, lyricist Cole Porter points us in the only direction which has the answer.

If love takes us no further than repeated blows and defeat, the instinct to love is useless, a burden. Love ignites the spirit but results in pain because all love ends in absence. Except one. If there had been no Christ, if He had not been born in a stable and died on a cross, if He had not shown by his life and words that love involves pain but we are destined for another place where every tear shall be wiped away — without all this the debit column of love would be bleak indeed, and all love foolish. It is only in the light of the Resurrection that it all makes sense.

Temporal love is a glimpse, a foreshadowing of what awaits us in its infinite, eternal consummation. Hell is not flames licking our limbs, hell is seeing God, being in His radiant presence, then wrenched away. We comprehend this heaven, this hell, because we are prepared for it by the familiar cycle of love and loss. Physical pain is difficult, but the pain of separation ineffable. It is the desolation of the soul. It is The Cry of Edvard Munch, the five ‘nevers’ of Lear.

My daughter has decided not to love again, but the heart is not servile to the head. It is made by its Creator to seek, to yearn, and it will not be denied. The resolution to the puzzling, complicated trinity of love, absence, and pain is acknowledged in the simple words of a saint who exhausted all avenues to human fulfillment, arriving finally at a conclusion that becomes our own: “My heart is restless, Lord, till it finds rest with Thee.”


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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