The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is how to love, and be loved in return – The Sitar that Speaks the Truth, Moulin Rouge
In Romans 12:3, Paul calls us to look at ourselves with sober judgment – to think truthfully and honestly about who we are. Then he calls to love one another, and specifically to “let love be genuine” (Rom 12:9). I am convinced that there is an underlying logic to the progression of Paul’s thought at this point: that we can only truly love another, without hypocrisy, when we think vocationally, when we truly and graciously identify, accept and embrace who we are.
Any other posture is burdensome; it cannot lead to genuine love. Sometimes our generosity is misguided and our love for others is offered out of a busy and hectic spirit rather than out of serenity and joy. Sometimes we are caught up in the desire to be loved, in the hope that everyone will like us, and this inevitably undermines our capacity to love genuinely.
When we think vocationally, we are freed from what A. W. Tozer calls the burden of pretense and enter into the freedom of humility. Tozer reminds us of the joy that comes when we are freed of artificiality, of the burden of trying to impress others. When we recover the principle of vocation, we are able to embrace authenticity, genuineness and truthfulness. This is freedom; and it is a freedom to love others authentically.– Gordon T. Smith, Courage and Calling
It is said that Martin Luther King, Jr. sought a particular freedom, an emotional freedom from two things: an inflated head when praised and a crushed spirit when criticized. – Gordan T. Smith, Courage and Calling
Consider the tree – The Giving Tree, that is, the tree which I invoked in my previous post, Why I am Liberal. I ended the post by affirming the importance of giving – that is, of unremitting Generosity. (Let’s just say I am taking this concept out of politics for a while – those are murky waters I’m not too familiar with, so let’s say we are in the realm of philosophy and literary criticism and creative non-fiction). However, there is a very important caveat to Generosity which I didn’t talk about in that post – Prudence.
Prudence is one of those virtues which has fallen out of fashion. It sounds like a girl’s name no one but a Puritan would give to their daughter (and by Puritan, I evoke the stereotypical Puritan, with a dour outlook on life and a perverse delight in squelching other people while hanging around with a plank in his eye). But all Prudence is is practical Wisdom, and one manifestation of Prudence is the ability to adjudicate to whom you give and when. It is guided by Telos – the fundamental question – Why? Why you give should guide the who and when and how. If you were to be asked – what is the most basic question that exists in the world? The answer would be: Why? Why the stars? Why the earth? Why are you you? Why mum? Why dad? Why me? It is the question any three year old would arrive at.
This is teleological thinking, and I am increasingly convinced it is the very key to the Kingdom of Heaven. To apply Telos to oneself is to search for vocation. What was I put on this earth to do? What must I pursue in the limited span of my life? I am still in the process of doing so, which is why I am reading Courage and Calling. So far, I am convinced it is my duty to give. I am convinced it is my duty to Love, to attempt to embody Love, and to Love extravagantly. Why? Because Jesus first Loved us. I have answered the first question. But now Prudence comes in – Love, yes, but who, and when, and how? These are impossibly important questions! I could unleash hell, still, even with Jesus at my side, if I answer them incorrectly! And all too often, I already have.
So let’s get back to the Giving Tree. When I first read this, when I was about nine, I was completely enchanted. It spoke to me. In fact, it spoke to me so much I wrote my own version of it, except with a giving river instead of a tree. And most people in my class of other nine-year-olds thought that the tree was right, and the boy was wrong. I mean, the tree loves so unconditionally! She gives, and gives, and gives – how can that be wrong? And the boy, he’s so selfish! He just takes, and takes, and takes…
However, upon reading it again at age twenty-four, I realize there is something profoundly broken in the tree’s giving: it breaks itself to give to the boy, and never lets him know that slowly but surely, her heart is breaking. Of course the Giving Tree is a love story. The tree resembles a mother, or a tireless lover, whose love is unrequited or at least unmatched by the one she loves. The Bible warns us against being unequally yoked. Paul said that in the context of not marrying a non-Christian, but I think it also points to the fact that love has to be equal. Perfection, I think, is a cube – Equality in three dimensions. The Love of God – three-pointed, the spirit issuing forth between the Father and the Son.
The Giving Tree is an impossible love story for this reason: She is a tree! He is a boy! Of course he will go and fall in love with some human girl. Of course he will want to see the world, for who wants to remain in a garden with a tree all their life? But aside from all that, the tree also makes it impossible for the boy to love her, because she never makes any equal demands of the boy. She never protests. Their friendship was appropriate when it was limited to swinging from branches, from giving apples, and from resting in her shade. But when the boy grows up, her love for him becomes inappropriate. She wants him to remain a boy forever, and she will not accept that he has to grow up, and will have different needs – needs which she cannot meet, and should not meet. She encourages his dependence on her, and turns him into a selfish taker by her reckless indulgence. In the end, the old man and the stump are equally depleted, because of her indiscriminate acts of giving. For all her giving, the boy has not grown up well. He’s grown into a twisted, selfish man, completely oblivious of the tree’s love, unable to hold down any other love. And for all her gifts, he comes back empty-handed.
And you know what? She is equally culpable in the story. If she had not given her branches, she would still flourish. If she had not given her trunk, she would still grow. If she had not given her heart, she would be able to love all the other children who exist in the universe and need trees to swing from. She tries to be all things to this boy, and ends up being the enabler of his selfishness. She may even feel self-righteous for giving, and we know that pride comes before a fall. She wants to be the boy’s one true love, but she is a tree, not a human. She becomes Daphne, a woman stuck in the form of a tree. And she cannot become fully human until she admits that human beings are radically dependent and out of control. Humans, unlike trees, cannot even make their own food from the sun. They cannot bear the whole weight of the world. They cannot save everyone they meet. They have limited energy – their passions are governed not just by their will, but a complicated amalgamation of the weather (how humbling!), whether they’ve had a square meal (how sobering!), chemicals like alcohol or drugs or medication (how terrifying!), their stage in life (let’s not forget that age matters), their relationships with their family, the state of their friendships.
Real friendship means accepting someone for their flaws as well as their strengths. We are not Atlas – we cannot hold the whole weight of the world. I try to do this sometimes. Or rather, it is my instinct. When I feel my pain, I go into the dark, and I cry. Because not only do I feel my pain, I push down the imaginary boundaries between me and other people, and somehow extrapolate to the world’s pain – If I, who am so privileged, so coddled, so well-fed, can feel this earth-shattering pain in my breast, then what of the world? What of the world – that is destitute, that is diseased, that is hungering for a God they do not even know to need? And I weep (I swear), for the world. And in that moment I am Atlas, trying to bear the brunt of all sin and all horror. But you know what? I can do that for an instant, but almost instantly I forget, and am my self again. And that is a blessing, because to presume to bear the pain of the whole world is the greatest blasphemy there is – it is the devil’s lie, to think that I can save the world. Because only One Man has ever done that, and will ever do. Only Jesus can bear the full brunt of Sin. Only Jesus holds the world in his pierced palms. I need only deal with the consequences of my own sin – and even then, the wages have been paid – so long ago, time out of mind – even before the dawn of time, I have been redeemed. Because if I think I am Jesus, there is only one solution: that is, to be crushed utterly, and to die. And O, I would die rather than kill! But it was I who hammered in the nail – and because He died, it has been given to me to live – the most unfair exchange under the sky. I’ve been commanded to live – I know not why.
In the deepest pits of my despair I pray this prayer to God, the Creator of all. I think of Him as the Cosmic Poet, if you like. As a poet I understand Him this way, because when I create a person in my head, I love him. And it is my love and my attention – my loving focus, that keeps this man alive. The moment I forget about him because my attention is elsewhere, he disappears. I imagine that we are all little flames in the mind of God, fueled only by the gas issuing from the kitchen stove of His Consciousness. The gas, perhaps, is composed of words – words, words, words – like Homer, reciting the Odyssey, around a fire. When the words stop, the men of the Iliad disappear like ghosts at a cock-crow, leaving not a rack behind. In my despair I yell at God and say, turn off that gas for me Lord. Stop uttering me. Just turn it off, I don’t want to burn anymore. It is given to You, and You Alone, to turn off the flame of my life. Extinguish it, for I do not want to exist anymore. It is a terrible prayer, but a true one.
And He says to me, very gently, every single moment I pray for it, No. No – you have work to be done. No – it is a sin to kill. It is a sin to hate, and as bad a sin to hate another as to hate yourself. And look, all the saints whom you love intercede for you. They love you through the words they’ve left: Donne, Herbert, Shakespeare; David, Solomon, Mary, Elizabeth, Paul, Peter, John. If you are worthy of their love, how can you hate yourself? If you are worthy of My Love, how dare you denigrate yourself? The whole cloud of witnesses whom you know and love say it is not possible, not possible at all that I AM not, because if I didn’t exist, then every truth you have loved which you have known instinctively was Truth uttered by them, or embodied by their actions, was a Lie. And while you can deny yourself, you cannot deny them. No – little one, you have been given to Love, and the world does not have enough Love, and your great Love is needed in the world.
With these words he comforts me and by these words he bids me: Live. And so I get up out of my bed, and go. My God, I have loved you with a passion. Teach me the government of my tongue.