Much is said about love.
It is sermonized and politicized and philosophized. It creates slogans and books, and its reality permeates our greatest histories and deepest tragedies. Love is often elusive and light, fluttering in and out of consciousness like a thin falsetto. One second we think we have a corner on it and the next second it disappears into the grid beneath the cities of our mind only to appear again in the moments we don’t expect it or even don’t want it.
We are all on guard against false love, against the people or places or ideas that hurt us and leave us jaded. If only we can avoid what isn’t love, we will forever be able to live in what love is. However, false love, like counterfeit money, is best discovered by knowing what the real thing looks like and feels like and is. Discernment comes from spending time pondering what is true and noble and right and pure and lovely. What is admirable and excellent and praiseworthy. Real love is discovered by these qualities and false love is discovered by their lack.
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I’ve noticed there tends to be two routes people take in finding this love. The first route is finding absolute love in ourselves, growing so deep into our being that we are able to be at peace in our own autonomy and uniqueness.
Health and wealth preachers preach self-discovery, encouraging masses to find what makes them happy because when they are happy then God is happy. At the end of the day, it is about being at peace with ourselves and in harmony with creation. God created us and created the world and only wants us to enjoy it. If we enjoy it, then God is happy. More and often are words more common than familiarity and consistency. To know everything is to know what you want; in a world screaming of excitement, we are beckoned to add our voice into the mix. Validation and gratification combine for a Molotov cocktail of self-obsession.
I’ve often bought into the psychological version of this.
Self-awareness, while good in doses, quickly turns into an obsession of mine. Each change in the wind is an indication that my needle is off course. What do I need? What’s bothering me? What can alleviate my moodiness or exhaustion or boredom? If only I can achieve the perfect balance in life, I will be perfectly happy and content.
I find myself fixated on little things that affected me and blinded to the people around me in life who actually matter. My dad becomes my counselor, my mom becomes my counselor, my friends become my counselors, and so on and so forth. Counselors everywhere to listen to me and help me and talk about me.
I just feel like I suck the longer I try and make myself happy. Or worse, I convince myself that everyone else just sucks and I’m the only sane one. This only hurts others, and it only hurts me.
Making myself happy as an end in itself doesn’t end in satisfaction.
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The second route I’ve heard people take is finding love in otherness.
A few years ago I was reading a great Christian thinker (Aelred of Rievaulx) who said that love can be boiled down to this idea of otherness, that perhaps it is the mystery of the other that contains the seed of love.
Another thinker (G.K. Chesterton) said that knowing everything about someone doesn’t create love, but the willingness to not know everything is where love is found.
It’s the idea of being with someone for sixty years and still finding beauty in her laugh, or living to be an old man and continually being surprised by the sunrise (another Chesterton idea). Wendell Berry says it’s an old married couple who “talk of what they know in common and do not need to talk about, and so talk about only for pleasure” (That Distant Land, 298). It’s the joy of something other than our own thoughts and our own head. It’s the idea that, even when words are common and skin the same, a vivid otherness dances like light on the water of our souls.
While poetic and closer than love of self, even this otherness proves somewhat hollow when people fail us and relationships fall apart. We crumble when people prove unfaithful or death brings the orchestra of otherness to a screeching halt.
That wasn’t how it was planned.
She wasn’t supposed to do that to me.
They promised they wouldn’t tell anyone.
It’s like this otherness got halfway there before sputtering and stopping, failing to deliver us to the promised land of contentment.
Putting our love in otherness would work a lot better if people weren’t as chipped and broken as we are.
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Nothing seems to answer this desire to feel and experience love. As Kant said, even charity belies our desire to feel happy; even our selflessness can be interpreted as self-centered. Our minds churn and race as we try and discover the otherness that will fill us. Images on screens and words in self-help books spin in a carousel of illusory illustrations in our heads, filling the filing cabinets and cascading over our mental capacities like California dams.
We can do nothing to experience the love our hearts so desperately long for.
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But what of silence and an otherness that isn’t found on earth? What of listening for the wisp of beauty that isn’t found in the earthquake or the firestorm or the wind? In a screaming world, perhaps love isn’t found within its midst but outside its consciousness. Perhaps love looks like a whisper that booms into the recesses of our depths rather than the hollow shout in a sea of shouting people. What of that?
C.S. Lewis wrote that if we can find nothing on earth that satisfies our longings, then we must be created for another world, a reality with sharper grass and Clariton colors. A world more real than our own and more foreign than our imagination; something so surreal and beautiful that our own earthly definitions of love pale in the light of the greatness that is Truth.
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A guy named Karl Barth writes that God is made in the image of humans too often. Barth writes that humans stand and shake their fists at the sky and say “God” in loud voices, like he can be understood with science and big words.
Instead, Barth writes of God as the ultimate Other. He is the Otherness in which all otherness is found and has it’s being. He is her laugh—still new after sixty years of marriage. He is the baby’s smile and the dance steps of the elderly. It is in his Otherness that we are created, and this otherness, known by many as the imago Dei, is the solid rock on which true love can be built.
Guys from Russia in the Eastern Orthodox Church say similar things about God. They say God is wholly other and distinct, but through Christ he is also deeply intimate. Like Moses in the desert, we are left with the understanding that God is who he is.
“I am that I am.”
Both fully other and fully known.
G.K. Chesterton also wrote that true love leads to a lack of words. Like my first time in Yosemite or trying to tell someone why I love my mom, I find it difficult—words simply escape in the face of the grandeur that is beauty.
This is God.
The church has existed for two thousand years, and God’s people have existed for many more—yet no one has been able to claim perfect words or descriptors.
In my own life, as I’ve swam deeper and deeper into the “is-ness” and “otherness” of God, I have discovered a joy I couldn’t express in words suitable for it. I have found a peace in myself and a love of others that I can’t fully explain outside of saying it isn’t me doing the feeling.
It’s like what I’ve been so maddeningly searching for my entire life has been as near as my next breath and as beyond as my final breath.
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