What is Love?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV

Songs have been written about it; and poems, short stories and novels. In fact the greatest songs ever sung, and the greatest stories ever told, are all about love.  Look at the most popular plays, they are all about love: Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Rent.  Rent? Well, you tell me:

One thing I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have as well, is most love stories have death and dying as a major theme.  This is, of course, because love seems to be about sacrifice, and dying for love represents the ultimate sacrifice.  Hence all the stories about dying for love.  But, what about living for love? What is that and how does it differ from dying for love?

For one thing, dying for love is in a sense easy, because it is so dramatic, and final.  You steel yourself for the inevitable, and then it’s done.  Living for love, on the other hand, seems very hard because it is not a single tragic moment, but moment to moment, and it never ends. Ever.

Living for love has something in common with dying for love in that it also requires sacrifice.  The difference is, the sacrifice that characterizes living for love doesn’t end in one final dramatic event but is something that we live, day by day, day in and day out, like love itself.

The reason this is so is because love requires a certain universality; it applies to everyone, even, according to Jesus, our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).  As long as there are others, there is the requirement for love, and so there is also the requirement for sacrifice.  To take it even one step further, if we include G-d in those “others,” we can sense the magnitude of the sacrifice that love actually requires of us.

When we look at the above clip from Rent, we notice that it is also about death and dying, but it is not explicitly about dying for love, it is about living for love.  It is about Tom Collins’ love for his dying Angel, and the sacrifices he makes out of that love.  It’s about Roger’s conflicted love, and conflicted sacrifice, for the HIV positive and drug addicted Mimi and her love for Roger, who is also HIV positive.

While these examples have much of the drama associated with dying for love, they still give us a glimpse at what living for love is about, but what is living for love like, without the drama?

Initially, I thought that I could not come up with an example in the arts of living for love without the drama.  Then it hit me, of course there are plenty of examples, one being one of my favorite movies of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the movie, Jimmy Stewart plays a young man, George Bailey, who has big ideas.  He was going to get a college education, an accomplishment achieved by a relative few in those days.  He was going to travel the world and build things: bridges, skyscrapers, airports.  He was going to be somebody.

However, one circumstance after another arose that forced upon him a choice: does he pursue his dreams, or does stay for the sake of others?  Of course, he stays, and therein lies the story.  Due to his Uncle Billy’s mistake, he faces disgrace and jail.  At the end of his rope, he contemplates suicide but is saved by an angel, Clarence.  Clarence shows him what life would have been like in his hometown had he never been born; this changes his mind, and of course, there is a happy ending.

Now my point here is not that there isn’t plenty of drama in the movie – there is – and humor, and all those things that make up a great movie.  But many of the important decisions were, in a sense, rather mundane.  Does he stay and help the members of the Building and Loan after his father’s passing, or does he go after his dream? Does he hang on to his college money for when he is able to use it, or does he give it to his brother, with the understanding that his brother will return so George can then pursue college?  When his brother graduates and is offered a position in another city, does he hold his brother to their agreement and go off to school himself, or does he give his brother his blessing to take the other job?

Do you see what I mean?  Just a man living his life, making decisions similar to ones we all have made with the important distinction of always putting others ahead of himself.  One could argue that there is a death here: the slow, painful death of George’s dream, and this is a valid point.  But in the end, this turns out to be a good thing, because George realizes that what he has – family, friends, their love for him, and his love for them – is far more valuable than anything he could have achieved as a big shot engineer traveling the world.

The life and death decisions for most people are, thankfully, few, but it’s all of the little decisions that we make in between them that challenge us and define our lives. These are the most important because they occur everyday, many times in the day.  What does love require from us when someone cuts us off on the highway?  What does love require from us when a friend tells us that they can’t meet an obligation as promised?  What does love require from us when a child asks us the same question for the hundredth time?  What does love require from us when our spouse is late for a dinner party? I could go on, and on, and on.

There really is no end to the opportunities for us to sacrifice something for love: our pride, our time, our money, our ego; to live for love.  We are constantly given opportunities to meet the demands that love places on us.  What do we choose?  Or more accurately, who do we choose?

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