Last weekend, my husband and I went away to celebrate our 22nd anniversary. Twenty-two years! This sometimes stuns me; the only other thing I’ve done for 22 years in a row is draw breath. It doesn't help that I spend most of my life feeling like I’m late for study hall, and my homeroom teacher is really going to write me up for it this time.
Love and marriage, love and marriage—the song says—go together like a horse and carriage. So speaking of love, it was interesting to come across two lines of poetry recently that seem to say conflicting things about it. The first is from Edgar Allan Poe:
Years of love have been forgot in the hatred of a minute. (To--)
The second from King Solomon:
Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. (The Song of Solomon)
But which is true? Is Poe right: is love like a tree that, rooted and grounded by decades of slow, sure growth can nevertheless be ripped from the ground and swept away by the flash flood of a moment’s hatred? Or, as Solomon says, is love more like a boulder, settled square in the middle of a river that, though it may disappear when the waters rise, is still there once they recede? Well…having been legally tied to the same person for this long, I think they’re both true. Twenty-two years of anything usually has a lot of love and a lot of hatred bound up in it.
But why does the first kind of love seem so instinctive to me, and the second so impossible? And here I’ve jumped planets and I’m not even talking about romantic love anymore: I mean the kind of love you’re supposed to have for anybody: children, relatives, friends…humankind. Even there, I know the first kind of love far better than the second kind. I’ve been on both ends of it: the hater as well as the hated. Both are miserable, and though I can’t say which is worse, I know that being the hater—the one who lashes out, rejects, pushes the other person away feels…if not better, than at least more powerful than being the one lashed out at, rejected, pushed away.
It’s not the way I want to live. I’d like to think I’m a loving person. It’s just that I’ve been—we all have been—so very wounded by life. Taken down, beaten up, kicked again and again. Left bleeding on the floor. It’s the story of any parent who’s ever been rejected by a child; of any child with a parent who couldn’t love him. It’s the experience of the cheated-on, the betrayed, the abused, the underestimated and marginalized and overlooked. Of the poor. In most parts of the world, of women. Of anyone who has ever lived through middle school.
Wounded, we go about surviving the way a viper protects her clutch of eggs. We curl, fetal, around the tender, hurt parts of our hearts, ready to drive a vicious elbow into the face of anyone who threatens to touch that sore and throbbing place. Maybe it’s a brittle self-esteem we’re protecting; maybe a tenuous sense of our own value. Or perhaps we have offered the very best and most precious thing we have, only to have it called not good enough.
We learn self-defense like an art. Someone does something mean and in an instant, life is a fight scene from a superhero movie: the hero (that’s us) somersaults into the room and comes up with bulletproof bracelets flashing. A shot deflected from the right! And the left! The right again! Then a roundhouse kick to the head as we reach for the knife strapped to our leg and fling it, blind, across the room where it finds its mark and pins our attacker to the wall.
We dust off our hands: our job here is done.
So what if the attacker—the mean relative, the condescending colleague, the critical reviewer—is left bleeding and whimpering as the dust settles? A girl’s gotta survive. Someone touches that wounded place in us, and we don’t care how many years we’ve loved them. That minute of hatred can wash it all away. Because what else are we supposed to do? Lie back, arms flung wide, and let the world just…crucify us?
Well…maybe. That's what Jesus did.
Then again, look where it got him: his back whipped to raw meat; his beard torn out; spit on, and nailed, naked, to a post and hung up to die. (Are there any lengths to which we will not go to wound one another?) Jesus might have known about love, but his survival skills sure could have used some work.
Still, I don’t know…all that self-protection I do; the defensiveness; the hating back of people who hated me first… I’ve done so much of it in my life, yet none of it has ever actually healed me. It’s all just been damage control: the holding of a bandage to the bleeding wound in order to keep the pain manageable.
I should know better: I am a nurse. I should remember that sometimes, it takes a wound to heal a wound. Any surgeon can tell you that. In order to fix what is wrong under the skin, you have to cut deep. Sometimes, in order to save a life, someone else has to die or be willingly wounded. Transplanted hearts, kidneys…how else can they happen? The Bible says this is also true of Jesus: “By his wounds we are healed.”
By his wounds we are healed?
Is it possible that my willingness to bear wounds could also be part of someone else’s healing?
Yes. Sometimes, yes. I know because I have seen it work.
Like when you answer a harsh person with kindness; you quietly absorb the acid because their need for nice matters more than your own need for it. And under your blow of kindness, you watch them soften.
When you respond to that belittling boss with respect because sometimes a good example comes from lower down the ladder instead of higher up. And somehow that boss begins to act…respectable. Sometimes, people live up to what we believe about them.
Or you watch your prodigal child set off down the road toward certain disaster, and instead of flinging arrows at his back, you let him know there’s warmth and love waiting at home when he’s ready. Then, you go sit by the fire and bleed a lot while you wait.
If you practice this, then after a while you get brave enough to take off the bulletproof bracelets; throw away the knife. Take the blows because you choose to: because you believe that real love—the kind that actually does anybody any good—shouldn’t be swept away by moments of hatred, or by rivers of it. It takes practice. At first, you do it badly. But you get up and try to do it better the next time. Gradually, you learn.
You still bleed a lot. But somehow, bleeding willingly is more powerful than bleeding pointlessly. And once in a while in the middle of it, you get a glimpse of someone else’s healing: healing that happened because you loved when you could have hated instead, and were willing to be wounded when you had every right to protect yourself.
And finally—sometimes soon, sometimes looking back over decades—you realize that there’s love and then there’s love. And although Poe and Solomon both used that word in their poems, they were really not talking about the same thing at all.