By: Victoria Smith
An ancient question—as old as the species that ask it. And who am I to propose an answer? What’s worth restating here that countless others have pondered already?
This year, my husband and I will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. No small feat, many might say. By having lived a love this long, I’ve learned, and like to think I’ve earned the right to say something about it, humbly aware that twenty-five years is nothing compared with those married or who’ve been together for much longer, such as an aunt and uncle who are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary this March.
February celebrates romantic love. But could a feeling—induced by raging hormones, or the need to procreate or, to be blunt, copulate, or an addictive chemical body high that comes from being the center of another person’s attention, combined with the imprinting process (which is what I suspect is behind the creation of the illusion of having “found” one’s soulmate) brought about by shared aesthetic standards (concepts of beauty), values, activities, and goals (which later prove to be variable)—be truly called “love”? Nature plays sneaky tricks on us to enable itself to re-create, replicate, and expand. Much has been said about this and in much better ways by qualified experts, supported by scientific data and all. So I won’t say more.
Here’s what interests me: the idea that love isn’t love, unless it’s a matter of choice. Ergo, the dictum: Love is not a feeling; it’s a decision. I never understood this in my youth. Now, at middle age, I finally know.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 is often cited as a classic ode to romantic love:
“How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of being and ideal grace. I love thee to the level of every day’s Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”
My heart beat races, and a heat rises from my chest to the top of my head—not from feelings of passion inspired by this poem, but by imperishable feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment I still experience as I remember having to memorize and recite this poem before a summer speech class consisting of adolescent girls and boys, among who was a boy with whom I had a hopeless crush. Hopeless is the operative word. For after I’d finished performing this poem with all the pretentious passion I could muster at my then bosom-less (literal and metaphorical) twelve years of age, I realized that that boy was completely oblivious of me, given that he was, like all the boys there, apparently only interested in my pretty, well-endowed, and therefore “hot” sixteen-year old cousin, who also happened to attend that class. There should be a rule against anyone performing this poem who hasn’t lived a life and been at least partly devastated by it. Goodness, I was then merely someone described in my native language as, “may gatas pa sa labi”! (Translation: “one who still has milk on her lips”)
Browning’s poem is much more than an ode to romantic love. Note the enigmatic line, “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints.” What could Browning possibly mean? Saints are embodiments of our ideal concepts of goodness in human beings, endowing the latter with superhuman powers to facilitate miracles. To lose one’s saint suggests losing one’s illusion of perfection in one’s idol, to see the stains and cracks in the latter’s armor—in other words, to see the object of one’s adulation in all of his or her ugly yet very human imperfections. To see the truth: that no one is a saint. We are all damaged creatures, after all. Along with this painful realization come the greater danger and pain of losing our sense of the miraculous.
Yet Browning says she still loves the object of her affection with “a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints”. “Seemed” is the crucial word here. It only seems she has lost the love that went with losing her saints, but in fact she has not. The saint may no longer be there, but her love for the person who used to be that saint still lives, albeit probably evolved. This is what is meant by love being a matter of choice, rather than a feeling. To decide to love a person despite the latter’s now apparent faults, despite such imperfections breaking one’s most cherished illusions about that person and the resulting pain to the lover, is the highest form of love, for it is absolutely voluntary and selfless. Voluntary, because one is not compelled by irresistible forces, chemical or otherwise, to love another; instead, one consciously chooses to love that “other”. Selfless, because it is the antithesis of self-preservation for the purpose of preserving “the other”, and in so doing, preserves both the lover and the loved by saving them both. What results is nothing short of a miracle.
Who knew that the perfect miracle of love is achieved precisely by our unconditional acceptance of an imperfect other? I didn’t know this when I was a child, in my teens, or even in my twenties. Now, I am truly an adult because I am done with the childish things.
Happy loving, everyone! (All rights reserved. Copyright ©2019 by Victoria G. Smith. For updates on her author events & publications, go to VictoriaGSmith. com. “Like” her on Facebook at Author Victoria G. Smith. “Follow” her on Twitter @AuthorVGSmith)