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Love means never having to say you're sorry

When I was twenty one, there was a wildly popular novel, Love Story.
It became a wildly popular movie with Ali McGraw.
At its heart, however, was a lie.

by William Glenn

We've just celebrated Valentine's Day, formerly Saint Valentine's Day, which made it essentially a holy day. The Feast of Saint Valentine's. There must have been some spiritual wisdom at the heart of red heart day.

When I was twenty one, there was a wildly popular novel, Love Story, by a young Yale professor, Eric Segal. It became a wildly popular movie with Ali McGraw and I can't for the life of me remember the male co-star. Ryan O'Neill?

The movie was on the bestseller list for ever, and it was regarded as a book of some slight wisdom. At its heart, however, was a lie: The book's last words were: Love means never having to say you're sorry.

I loved that.

I was a brand new seminarian, with what I figured was a lot of sorrying to say, and Segal's quasi-theology was very appealing. Love means never having to say you're sorry. I am, nonetheless, sorry to say that summarized a lot of then contemporary thinking about relations between human beings.

This was not the first lie about love and forgiveness that I bought into. I am susceptible to them, those easy outs that lurk around every relational corner. Those shortcuts that allow us to escape one another so quickly.

Such aphorisms abound still. I can imagine hearing today's version: What part of Love means never having to say you're sorry don't you understand?

I went looking for some Saint Valentine's Day cards to send this past week, and I ventured into a place I really never go, the card shop at the local mall. The red section was huge, red cards and red teddy bears and red candles and red hearts filled with I hope not-red chocolates, and red ribbon and red foil. The cards, well, suffice it to say, I left without purchasing a one of them. They were entirely sweet and generous but I found them all a bit treacley, one Ali McGraw might have sent Ryan O'Neill instead of saying I'm sorry.

I went next to the local kinda hip newsstand downtown, near the kinda hip cafes. The cards there were like the newsstand: hip, contemporary, and either a bit too cool or cool's first cousin: a bit too cynical. The card colors included aqua and orange, and while I can do aqua, I wanted something that at least was recognizable. In addition, these cards were peopled with long-bodied, good-hair-day youngsters always in opposite-sex pairings, appropriate for actually very few of my sweethearts: friends who are single, nieces and nephews, my husband, married friends with kids, married friends without kids of several orientational pairings.

I felt stuck. Despairing of finding anything, I ended up at another shop, where I bought a few, some with dogs for all of my dog-loving sweethearts, but again, none that told of the deeper truths of love upon which I have come to rely to navigate life's relational waters.

And where are we not treading those waters, for even our dreams are peopled by those we love and those we no longer love and those we want to love and those we cannot love and those to whom we would say if we but had the chance, I'm sorry.

And then I encountered Jesus' words: Love one another. Love each other. I have one request, I implore you, really, I beg you, allow me to compel you or even demand of you to pay attention to this one thing: love one another.

I think about this a lot, as I know do you, too. It is a pre-occupation for us. How to love each other? How to love you? How to really love you? What could it mean?

I learned a life lesson two decades ago on another occasion when I was stuck, not knowing how to love, and wanting as a result to run away. I was teaching high school theology (now there's a concept), just freshly out, and believing at 32 I was pretty old to be learning how to love, but wanting to.

There was a woman teaching with me, a woman married to a complicated man, a woman of evident personal grace. I sought her out one day, and said Monica, I am afraid to love. And she said: Of Course you are! It is fearsome. And in order to do it, you must have courage and you must come to understand love as work.

I was deflated. The courage part was daunting enough, but the work part sucked. I did not want it to be work. I wanted it to be like, I am totally embarrassed to say, in the movies, and as in one movie in particular, Joy in the Morning, in which the dashing young Richard Chamberlain rescues the beautiful but vulnerable Yvette Mimeux, and they lived on love, alone, I thought, happily ever after.

It didn't quite work out that way for me, thank God.

I am still appreciative of Monica's wisdom, and her willingness to impart it to me. I thought for a while it just applied to one's beloved, or in my case, the good man who would become my husband, but in the subsequent twenty five years, I have learned that the romantic notion that we really only love one person is fallacious.

The Gospel imperative is profoundly different: love each other. This instruction was delivered to a small gathering of deeply observant Jewish men by Jesus, their rebbe, who insisted that the only term they could use for him was friend. To illustrate his meaning, on that particular evening, Jesus proceeded to get down on his knees, and one by one he took their sandaled feet into his hands, undid and discarded the sandals, and tenderly washed their feet as a sign of his love for them, as a sign of his reverence for their very persons.

I suspect there were some resistances, some You're not washing my feet! some embarrassments, some tremblings. I suspect, too, there were tears, and perhaps not just some. I suspect there were embraces, and sobbings and some whelmings and maybe some over-whelmings, too. I suspect these rough tradesmen, fishers and woodworkers and the like, were transformed by this strange man's expression of love, his request of them that they love each other and call each other friend.

We're not so different from those eleven observant Jews, manual laborers all. We're a little better educated, and we only wear sandals in the summer and our feet are rarely really dusty but otherwise nothing has really changed. Our world, like theirs, still cries out for justice, and human beings still need to be fed, and war still need to be declared bankrupt and bullies still need to be challenged and laws still need to be broken to ensure that all humans are treated with dignity.

I am coming to believe those lofty things only happen because we love each other. We must find the courage and we must commit to doing the work that love requires, as Monica patiently taught me so long ago. There's no one else to do it but us.

Two correlates exist, both from the Hebrew prophet Micah, that can help us track our loves. When asked what is required of a human being, Micah says we are called to do three things: act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with our God. Justice and humility.

If I tell you I love you but treat you unjustly, it's not love. If the intention of my loving you is the inflation of my very inflatable self, it's not love at all. Furthermore, noteworthy in this sloppy, busy-body culture, Jesus' instruction to love does not mean to compensate, nor to obsequiously care-take, nor to gloss over, nor to deny. This love he bespeaks, as far as I can discern, is love demonstrated in behavior that echoes the truth, humbly, yet forcefully.

My taking off your shoes and bathing your very feet demands I place your needs now before mine. It demands at that moment I see you only. It demands I respond to you truly. It demands I receive you gratefully. It demands I forgive you generously. It demands I hold you tenderly. It demands I release you freely. It demands I honor you fully.

I couldn't find that on the Saint Valentine's cards I was seeking, but that is some of what I have come to know of love.

I don't love fully and I don't love everyone and I never will and I never could. And I suspect neither do you. But that does not diminish one bit the necessity and wisdom and grace and beauty of loving those given to us to love, and being always open to whomever is sent to our door.

Last week I spent several hours at San Quentin State Penitentiary, being present in a long-time support group comprised of men who have received life sentences. Maybe a dozen men were in this small room working, like us, to become human beings. It was a particularly important gathering that day for it was the anticipated last meeting for one of those present, a man named S. S has been in prison for twenty three years and six months, now four days from release. When it was S's turn, he spoke of having learned one thing these past many years. He said he was called to be alive, spiritually alive, and that it was not for him to decide where that living was to occur. He said that if the governor withdrew his approved petition for parole, he would be back in the group next Tuesday, still grateful to be living and working to live some more.

The other men began to speak of him in both the second and third person, as if he were a holy man in their midst, which of course he was. There was no removal of shoes and socks nor any and bathing of feet, but the old walls of this prison witnessed tears and embraces and I love you's and Thank you's and I am sorry's and I too want to live a full life no matter what it takes, and thanks to S for teaching me that. And those concrete walls endlessly heard the word friend.

These dozen man have faced shames that have been spared us and they have countenanced parts of themselves we most likely will never meet and they have had to negotiate with themselves and the God they have discovered in a four-by-eight foot cage some treacherous ground unlike any we have been called to walk.

But there they were, in this haunted, bleak building, surrounded each day by others of no good intention, there they were, loving one another, in some fashion that I can only know Jesus would have recognized immediately as his own. Micah, too.

That afternoon, we passed around a smooth Japanese river stone and imbued it with our individual and collective energy for S to take with him out there. He humbly received it, along with the immense love these reconfigured human beings gave him. We formed an arch for him to walk through, each man placing his hand on S's shoulder as a departing gesture of love.

I wondered as we ended the group: How it was it that I got to be here, amidst such real (i.e., hard fought and courageous) love? I don't fully know the answer. I am aware that no alternative offered me comes close to the joy being in the presence of real love brings.

That is the text of my Saint Valentine's card I am sending myself this year: Be fully alive, no matter where you are, no matter with who, do your work, muster a modicum of courage and humble yourself enough to really love, and to really, finally, let love in.

It is a holy day, Saint Valentine's Day, gosh, one whole day out of 365 celebrating the only thing any of us truly ever want: love. And, of course, if we want it, it's ours.

William Glenn is a writer who lives in the United States.

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