© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved
An anonymous writer once said that when true lovers kiss, they are focused on nothing else. The other becomes the whole universe, time and place are lost. The moment lingers into eternity. There is just the kiss, lingering, passionate and overwhelming.
Who among us has not experienced or desired such a kiss or felt such an emotion? We can literally feel in those times, the hormones coursing through our veins, our sight is blurry, our pulse quickens, the hairs on our arms and backs of our necks stand up and every touch is electric. Our lover has no equal in our mind. He or she is the focus of our desire, need and dependence. Most of our thoughts turn his or her way. We become obsessed and convinced we have found the true one for all eternity.
The power of these emotions are burned into our minds and hearts. We call these feelings “love” and convince ourselves it is not only genuine but ours to hold onto and tightly hug forever. There are few faults in the other – so we tell ourselves. And our lover often says the same thing to us. We have happened across perfection – two souls destined to be together since the beginning of time.
Is this love? Is it lust? Are these the feelings we often associate with a honeymoon phase of a relationship? Is this the kind of love we find rational and enduring – or is it based mostly on feeling and emotion?
In the short story we will consider this week, Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, we are confronted with a view of contemporary life where love is not easily defined. Indeed, the characters in the story are at a loss about the subject – they struggle to understand just what constitutes this elusive emotion we all talk about but often cannot define.
As we read in the story, is love like the possessive, destructive and ultimately lethal form of passion shown by the unseen character Ed, Teri’s ex-husband? He was jealous; he beat her; he threatened to kill her if she spurned his alleged love; finally he killed himself since he could not have her. Despite all of this dysfunction on his part, Teri insists Ed loved her. It was genuine love she repeats to her unconvinced friends. Indeed, she seems to appreciate that form of love over the stale love she has with her current husband. For our sakes, can obsession really be love?
Or is love more like that between Mel, the character who talks the most about it, and his second wife Teri? These two, who have had previous spouses and other lovers, have settled into an uncomfortable five year relationship – engaging in the petty sniping and open hostility at the small faults of the other. Their words of affection for each other are forced and unconvincing. They annoy the other far more than they charm. And yet they profess their love.
Does the narrator Nick love his new wife Laura, whom he describes as his best friend? She is easy to get along with, he reports. They touch and hold hands and speak with gentleness to the other. They might still be in the honeymoon phase of marriage but there seems to be a lack of depth or crackling passion between them.
Or is true love that which is between the old couple described in the story? Severely injured in a car crash and confined to hospital beds with bodies swathed in bandages, we hear about the old man who tears up and cries because he is unable to see his wife – even as she lies in a bed next to his. Mel, Teri, Nick and Laura are entranced by this story even though they are mystified by it. In a culture that professes love for celebrities, cars, brands of detergent and other people who come and go from our lives as quickly as we can change our relationship status on our facebook pages, what do we say about two seniors saddened and depressed because they can no longer see the other? Is that the kind of love we deeply desire – the kind of love felt when we first say we have found it and hope to hold onto forever?
And yet, as the character Mel asks, is love ever permanent? Each of the four characters had previous spouses. He contemplates the love he once had for his ex-wife Marjorie whom he now hates with a passion – so much so that he fantasizes about filling her house with bees so she can be stung and have a lethal, allergic reaction. He would first make sure his children were out of the house – reflecting for a moment the kind of unconditional love most parents have for their children. What happened to Mel’s love for his ex? Where did it go? We might also ask what happened to the love Mel once had for Teri, his current wife? He professes it is still there but what turned it into a jaded and tense relationship? Will that happen to Nick and Laura and their love? For those who lose a lover to death and then find another, did that love also die? How can we have eternal love if most of us would seek another lover when our current one dies or if we break up? Mel asks all of these questions to his friends. Both they and we squirm uncomfortably.
According to the Buddha, just as our love has a beginning, eventually it will also have an end. We should rejoice while we have it and understand that love, along with everything else in life, is impermanent.
In so many ways, this speaks to what we read about in Carver’s short story. The characters begin their conversation about love in a sunlight infused room – toasting each other over shots of gin in a moment of happy togetherness. As they discuss the topic of love and begin to recognize its elusive qualities, its ability to come and go, love’s dark sides of obsession, hate and even its end when lovers are pulled apart by tragedy, the light drains from the room and from the characters themselves. The entire scene changes. At the end of the story, as Carver writes, they sit in the dark, confused and bewildered, hearing their separate heart beats but lacking any real connection.
While I am the last of people to offer advice on love, I find in Carver’s story profound truths about the nature of love and life. Just as we discussed last week our need to let go of past regrets and hurts, the same holds true regarding our perspective on love. It is said that human nature craves security, predictability and permanence. We are averse to change even as much as many of us, in this congregation, claim we are progressives. We yearn bygone moments in the past – the comfort of the known versus the risk of the unknown. In love, we often want much the same. We hold onto notions that love should be wild and passionate and ever constant in our lives. True lovers never hurt each other. They never change. They never are indifferent or bored or forgetful. Great dreams of “happily ever after” linger in our minds and we expect it to come true.
What we come to realize, like the characters in Carver’s story, is that love is not like that. While modern lovers seem willing to jump from one relationship to another, even those who enjoy long term relationships experience the pain of love and loss. We grasp at love like our youth obsessed culture grasps at staying young – we refuse to accept that it changes. The Buddha even likened our craving for permanence in love to being in a sinking boat and trying to hold onto the water. Love hurts. Love changes. Love will end.
As soon as we recognize and accept this however, the better able we are to understand the spiritual implications of real love. The irony of finding happiness in our love lives is to let it go. We must set our lovers and our expectations of them free. Indeed, we must even let go of being in love. We must let go of our unrealistic demands – that the excitement and lust and intensity of love will be ours forever.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of the famous aviator, once said that, “the only real security with love is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not even in hoping. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was, nor forward to what it might be, but living in the present and accepting it as it is now.” Adding to that idea, Eckhart Tolle, an author of books on spirituality, writes, “the moment we see how fleeting everything is – and don’t resist it – something in us feels spacious and peaceful.” Whether intentional or not, Tolle echoes Jesus who said that, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”
Much like letting go of past hurts, regrets, mistakes or guilt, we must let go of past dreams and expectations for love. By doing so, we find the happiness and joy we seek.
Sadly, this epiphany is not available to the characters in our story. They seem paralyzed and in the dark about how to define real love and then how to find it. Even in their discussions, they are mostly unable or unwilling to self-examine what they are doing – failing to fully appreciate the love they share at that moment. That kind of love exults in the present and is content. The Islamic mystic Rumi wrote hundreds of years ago to his lover – sometimes assumed to be another man, “Come on sweetheart, let us adore one another, before there is no more you and me.” The only real love Rumi and his sweetheart can experience is in adoring each other now. Too often we obsess about what we once had and what we hope to have in the future. In doing so, we ignore the love we actually have, right in front of our faces.
As I said earlier, whatever I have to say on the subject of love does not come from my own expertise in finding the kind that many of you experience or have known – the kind that endures over decades and not years. I am one like each of you – seeking and groping for truths about love and life that will enable happiness, meaning and fulfillment. I want to live and thrive. I want to love and be loved. I want to serve and find meaning in helping to change the world for the better. I want to be around friends and people who are not afraid to change for the better. It would be too easy today to simply expound on the great ideals of love. We all know what they are. Constancy. Passion. Respect. Service.
But those are expectations and dreams. What kind of love do you have in your life right now? Accept it and be thankful for it. I do not support embracing destructive love like the kind described in the story between the unseen Ed and Teri – the kind that is emotionally or physically abusive or overly possessive. I talk about accepting the kind of love many of us find in life – it is gentle, easy, we are not swinging from the chandeliers in all forms of ecstasy, we even argue and negotiate. That love is a long way from our honeymoon time – and a long way perhaps from what we expected. Even in singleness, we often find that our hopes for love keep us trapped in craving and expectation for what we lack. Such thinking can lead to bitterness and depression – which is ironically much like that experienced by those who are not single but whose past expectations for love have changed.
Instead, we can realize there is abundant love all around us – it is here for our taking. I cannot love Ed 9000 miles away in the same way I can when we are together. But I can love friends and family – all of you – who are here, who are in my present. I can love Ed differently, but also in the present, over the phone and by e-mail. In doing so, I find I am content and happy. I have to let go of what I want and find contentment in what I have. Even now, even here, I am richly filled with love all around me. I daresay that is true for every person in this room. In this moment of time, in this little place in a corner of our universe, there is love happening between spouses, partners, new lovers, old lovers, friends and family. Look around you. To the one next to you, to the one across the room, love is not yesterday nor is it tomorrow. Let all of that go. Love is right now.