My youngest brother, Elie, has a passion for the Axis & Allies board game. He is now the proud owner of four versions—1914, 1941, D-Day, and the 50th anniversary edition—and has been strategizing continually, spread out on our living room table among the miniature plastic biplanes and battleships, ever since his school closed last March. Elie turned eight years old in August, has striking blue eyes and a brand-new gap-toothed smile, and wears his bathing suit or camouflage cargo shorts as pajamas whenever he can get away with it.
When I am away from home, I call Elie once a week to read to him. In the two and a half years since I started college, we’ve read through Le Petit Prince, all five volumes of La famille aux petits oignons, and at least four Le Petit Nicolas books. He constantly interrupts me to laugh, ask questions, and repeat jokes. He is unabashedly joyful, endlessly curious, and—even when my phone calls pull him away from the Battle for Caen or an alternative-history Italian counteroffensive—always ready to give of himself, resplendent with the indissoluble love of a little boy for the sister who sang him to sleep and still holds his hand when crossing the street.
Elie once admitted to my father that he wishes he were the middle child. He, like me, is deeply aware of his place in our family of five siblings. If I carry the weight of leading the way, then Elie, trailing six years behind the second-youngest, brings up the rear. He is coddled and doted upon, yes, but he is also our safety net. Often, he reciprocates our affection only because he can sense that we need to give and to receive it. In the face of a disappointing exam score, a fight with our parents, or a difficult breakup, Elie never fails to remind us that we are unconditionally loved.
There have been times in the past eight years when I hugged Elie and, his cheek pressed against my shoulder, hid from him that I was crying. In high school, when I put him to bed, I sometimes lay with him in the dark, holding him like a life raft while he fell asleep playing with my hair. This fall, in a time zone six hours away from home, I called my mother once during a sleepless night and asked her to put Elie on the phone.
“He’s the family comforter,” my mother told me afterwards. “He knows it.”
I wonder whether Elie knew, then, that I needed him. I wonder whether he knows how much he can give of himself, and how much we take. I wonder whether he ever feels that weight on his shoulders.
I once thought that it was possible to love any person in the way that Elie loves me, no matter how much it cost me to do so. I thought that time could not erode the strength of what I felt for someone else—on the surface, perhaps, in my fleeting feelings—but not deep down, not at the level of what C.S. Lewis calls the highest love, agape, the selfless love of God for humankind.
Two years ago, I wrote a short piece in which I explained such an experience of love:
“’I love you,’ then, may be terrifying, but it is neither inevitable nor unreacheable. It may not necessarily mean “happily ever after,” and the risk of saying those three words simply cannot be avoided, but it should imply a level of commitment that has just begun to brush unconditionality. To me, this means that I recognize in someone else an intrinsic, transcendent sort of humanity, a love that is totally independent of their actions and of my transient emotions. Their existence, irrespective of my relationship to them, brings me immense joy.”
I still resonate with this imperfect definition, particularly its emphasis on joy and unconditionality. And yet love, as one of my best friends often reminds me, is not just a noun but a verb, an action—praxis. When we “give” love, we really are loving, not merely demonstrating an ideal. There is no difference, no veil or degradation, between the idea of love and the act of loving. Love, then, is not made known through a secondary action like “recognition”—it is in itself a noun and a verb, self-evident and self-realised. We feel and name and know love only by freely loving.
So how can I love any person in the way that Elie loves me, if I sometimes feel incapable of giving love? If I am so hurt that I feel repulsed, is there really a higher level at which I still love? If, despite my best efforts and intentions, I struggle to appreciate and understand someone else, can I ever say that I love them? If, in time, I feel nothing but indifference for someone I once loved, what did it mean to say that I loved independently of action, time, or circumstance?
My baby brother, my own, human example of agape, pushes me gently in the right direction every time he sets down his tanks and soldiers to hug me or say hello on the phone. He is a little boy; the way he loves me is not deliberate or theoretical but spontaneous, often clumsy, and undeniably real. He gathers the four of us in the kitchen to dance with him uncontrollably to Christmas music; he (sometimes) patiently helps me set the table; he fiercely defends his team’s honor by racing through our muddy backyard grass and throwing himself on the soccer ball before it crosses the goal line. Elie’s love is deeply incarnate.
This kind of love is made known to every one of us through the perfect, capital “I” Incarnation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John 3:16). Love itself was made living flesh through God’s first human breath. It was made known to us through God surprised at the loss of his first tooth, God learning to help his mother set the table, God running on sore, bare feet, God weeping at the death of a close friend and praying quietly in a garden before being betrayed by another. God coming into the world as a wailing, mottled newborn boy covered in blood in a derelict farm building is just as powerful a gift—an act of love—as his death at the hands of his own creation.
What we celebrate now, at Christmas, is that Godly love was made human flesh, giving us free and direct access to it. When we love, Christ—love incarnate—acts in and through and with us. When Elie loves me, however imperfectly, however clumsily, however humanly, I see Christ.
Realising this two years ago was what prompted me to think that I could love any person in the way that Elie loves me. I tried to channel my relationship with my little brother in all of my relationships. But I fell short. I did not actualize my ideals. I fell out of touch with old friends. I was not always able to give new ones the affirmation that they needed. I said that I loved unconditionally, but I did not always feel or give love. And for a while, I felt guilty. What had gone wrong? I was trying to act in and through and with love incarnate, so why was I not always enough?
This guilt is as much my own as it is each of ours. It is the experience of our tainted nature—the human inclination to search for fulfillment apart from God. If we say that we love, but we do not act in love in the time and space that we have been given, then we are deceiving ourselves and failing to pursue the only worthy endeavor in a human life. Confronting this reality requires awareness, courage, and humility. It requires us to come face to face with our own impotence. It requires us to accept the Fall, and to move forward in love with the understanding that we are not and cannot be perfect.
Ever since I began to come to terms with my own imperfection, I have no longer felt guilty. I know that I will fall short. I am not God. God is infinite; I am finite. God is infinite love; I only experience this love in a finite space and time. I will not be able to love just any person in the way that Elie loves me; the love I feel for another will sometimes fade; I may find it impossible to love certain people and easy to love others. But I continue to try, to the best of my ability, to enact the Incarnation. I choose to use words like “unconditional” and “endless” because they are full of beauty and hope and remind me of the world towards which incarnate love guides us. I experience agape in human moments that, like the Incarnation, open windows and draw paths to a world beyond space and time where Godly love is the only reality.
If you ever read this, Elie, know that caring for you was the first real window in my life to that world of endless, unconditional Godly love. It is no accident, I think, that Jesus is God’s son. And I also want you to know, Elie, that you are only the “family comforter” if you are able to be. You do not ever have to give me anything, even if I need it. Sometimes, someone else will need you more. Sometimes, you will not be able to give at all.
You are, after all, only human.
Aliénor Manteau ’22 studies English and Philosophy and is a member of Dunster House.