What is love?
We humans have tried to answer that question for ages: “What is love?”
Quite a few years ago, my daughter Kayli and I had the chance to see not only what love looks like, but what hate looks like as well. We went to Raleigh to attend the counter rally to the Westboro Baptist Church’s attempt to bring hatred to Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral.
The people who gathered there to counter-protest Westboro were from a multiplicity of backgrounds and carried with them signs, proclaiming “God Loves Elizabeth Edwards,” “Hope,” “Love Thy Neighbor,” “God Is Love,” and a number of other equally inspiring signs. There was this one guy with boxes of hot coffee tucked under his arms who was sharing a cup with anybody who wanted one.
On the other side of the road Westboro arrived. Their signs read, “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for Breast Cancer,” “Elizabeth in Hell,” and other hate filled messages.
What is love? Well, it’s not the signs from Westboro, I can tell you that. And, It certainly WAS part of the spirit of those gathering to show a collective disapproval of such hate filled perspectives particularly on a day when a family was grieving.
Events like that give us just a bit more understanding of love, but the question ultimately still stands: what is love? Those of us who grew up in the church may jump to this understanding of love: Love is patience. It is kindness. It is not jealous or conceited, rude or selfish. It does not take offense, nor is it resentful. It is always ready to trust, to excuse, and to endure whatever comes.
In most religions, love is linked inextricably with God. The Christian texts say that “love comes from God” and that “God is love.” In Islam, one of the names of Allah is Al-Wadud or “the Loving One.” Bahá’í teachings state that all genuine love is divine.
Isn’t that wonderful!? Love is all we need! As Socrates said, “One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life, that word is Love.”
Well, while it is not recommended to disagree with Socrates, I have to say, I disagree. Yes, as ridiculous as it might seem, I disagree with Socrates. Love does not free us of the pain in life. I’m not alone in believing that either. Let me share with you a brief except form the childrens’ book The Velveteen Rabbit:
The Velveteen Rabbit longed to become a real rabbit not just a toy rabbit.
“What is REAL?” the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Toy Horse one day as they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before the maid came to tidy the room.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.
C. S. Lewis saw this difficult reality of love as well, “To love at all is to be vulnerable…To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
I have to agree. You know, as much as I love the song, I have to say, in the bouncy refrains of the Beetles song, “All you need is love,” I want to hear the echoing descant of the 80’s Rock ballad, “Love Hurts.” I guess I want it to be real. You see, when I hear, “Love with all your heart, mind and soul,” I want my first reaction to be real. I want to say, “but I might get hurt.” When I hear, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” part of me selfishly says, “No way. Now you are just asking too much.”
We all know about this “dark side” of love. We plaster it subliminally throughout our language in words and concepts like: love hurts, love lost, tough love, love-hate relationship, lover’s quarrel, lovesick, love to hate – but when it comes to religion… well, I guess we want our religion to be shinier than that. We don’t want the gleam of religiosity to be severely refracted by the reality of the “dark side” of love.
Each of us though, and some more easily than others, recognize that the reality behind love is that for all of is wonders, for the joy, the jubilation, the indescribable exultation that we are remind of this time of year… love hurts. Real love can hurt, unlike any other hurt.
So why, why love? Why set ourselves up for the pain, the suffering, the sacrifice? Why not follow the advise of C.S. Lewis and wrap our hearts carefully “with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of [our] selfishness.” Why? Well, let’s go back The Velveteen Rabbit this time, I’ll continue past the Skin Horse’s answer:
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time… Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
So, why love? Loving and being loved makes us “real.” It makes us authentic …and, sometimes it makes our hair fall out, yes – sometimes it hurts.
Why love? Well, if we don’t, as C.S. Lewis suggested, we will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. Why love? Because as many religions suggest, Love, when we do it right, when we are real about it, is the Eternal in us. That’s why.
As the Skin Horse reminds us, being real, with ourselves, and with others, doesn’t happen all at once. It takes time and sometimes by the time we start figuring out how to love others as we love ourselves, most of our hair has been loved off.
Will it hurt? Sometimes, but when we are real with ourselves, and with others, we don’t mind being hurt because of love.
When we get real about love, when we get real about loving ourselves, and loving our neighbors… loving each one with reckless abandon in full knowledge that along with the joy and jubilation… love hurts. When we can get real about love, then and only then, we will tap into a big part of the meaning of life. Then, like the Velveteen Rabbit, we will know what it means to be real.
Standing on that street corner that Saturday as we offered a counter message to Westboro, we tried to be real about our love, even though for some of us seeing the hate of Westboro broke our hearts – sometimes love does hurt. We were there to share our love… and while there is still hurt, still hate, in the world – there’s also just a little more love now.
And that’s the importance of love. Love reminds us that in spite of the hurt, in spite of the hate, there is something in the world that is greater than either and all we need to do is be vulnerable to risk the hurt that may come with it and share love every chance we get – and maybe even particularly in the face of hate.