nThe relationship between people and stars is a strange one. We depict them as symbols of hope and aspiration: “Reach for the stars”; “You are a star!”; “stars in her eyes”. Gazing up at them is both a terrifying and a comforting experience for me. The knowledge that the starlight has traversed trillions of miles of nothingness before it reaches me is simply astounding. I know that what I am seeing is the star as it was millions of years ago, and that it may well not even exist anymore. But I will never know. My lifespan is but a vapor in the wind alongside the life of a star, so I understand why people are entranced by them. One cannot but marvel, as David did in Psalm 8:
“When I consider the heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You care for him?”
Psalm 8 speaks to the mystery of our significance. More particularly, how strange it is that we might be special to God when we are so tiny, fragile and transient. Strangely, I find comfort in my insignificance. If I am but a very temporary and utterly invisible speck in an insignificant corner of an incomprehensibly vast universe, then I cannot conceive of my shameful actions, my odd physical characteristics, or my personal weaknesses being preoccupations in the mind of the God who holds all of that in His hand. I do not need to be driven by guilt or fear. Those would only matter if I did.
But the Psalm also speaks to the mystery of love. It speaks not only to our yearning for significance in a metaphysical sense, but to our desire to matter to somebody else. Do we not hold “love” in the same regard as stars? Not only as Christians, but as a species. All too often the stories we tell ourselves, in our art and literature and music, in the fantasies we fashion in our hearts for our lives, the dominant thread is the pursuit of love as a higher goal. Only find love, we convince ourselves, and nothing else matters. We make sense of the nothingness through clinging to love. Whether that is knowing God’s love or the love of another person, we look to love to keep us from the horror of the void:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach)
We persist in the belief that when we experience true love’s kiss, we will wake from a terrible slumber into the light of a happily ever after. Only life is not a fairytale. It never was. And we are already awfully awake. Is love truly a magical doorway to something better?
I suppose that depends on what we are expecting on the other side and on what we think love is. Love may well be the key to something greater, but if we are led by a faulty understanding of it, or our expectations are mistaken, it can only end in disappointment. I would say that is true of both spiritual and human relationships.
We expect love to answer our questions about our significance, to provide a reason for our afflictions. We want the pain to end – the pain of injustice and loss – and we cling to the hope that love will somehow restore us. We seek reassurance that in the midst of all this senseless suffering, that somehow our lives have meaning and purpose, that our sorrows are not in vain. Prince Charming will banish the evil queen and the Kingdom will be whole again. To reference another tale, we long for a kiss to restore us to royalty, for the curse that imposes on us an amphibian identity – always trapped between two worlds – to be broken, so that we may be transformed into a higher state of being. Surely, we tell ourselves, this is not all. Surely we were meant for more than this squalid existence? So we linger by the pond, desperate for the day when a princess with a frog fetish should wander past.
Embedded in these stories are problematic conceptions of what love is. Any true acts of love are not depicted in the stories. The kiss is not an act of love. How can it be? The Prince has never met Sleeping Beauty; the Princess has no idea that this is no ordinary toad. Neither even realised that there was a curse at all: Prince Charming (though goodness knows what is charming about snogging a corpse) simply saw a sexy woman incapable of resistance and presumed to kiss her; who knows what drove the Princess to smooch a random frog. No, the true act of love would be if they were to form a strong relationship afterwards, once the Princess had grown to understand and respect the fact that the prince, after years as an amphibian, had questions about self-worth and struggled to interact appropriately in social settings, that he still felt peckish every time a fly landed on the windowsill; if she were to adapt her expectations of him to allow for human behaviours too, more than the amphibian ones that fuelled her initial desire. True love would be if Prince Charming started to see past Sleeping Beauty’s physical attractiveness and repressed his urges in order to respect her boundaries.
An act of love is always sacrificial. And love is always an act. The impulses to which Prince Charming and the Princess yielded when they felt compelled to violate others’ personal space cannot be construed as loving. Those were merely chemical urges; love is more deliberate than that. Love is what we do to make a relationship work. We can only claim to love people in as much as the sum of the choices we make in the way we act towards them bears that out. An act of love always requires us to give up something in order to make a relationship function. At the very least we give up time and energy. But we may well be required to give up our right to remain angry, our comfortable position on the moral high horse; certain dreams and aspirations; certainty; comfort. Love is uncomfortable. And Love always implies a loss. The trick is how to sacrifice without becoming resentful of having to do so. The fairytales never show us that.
So when Jesus commands us to love, both God and others, he is essentially saying: “Do what it takes to make those relationships work”. Otherwise how does one explain the command? One cannot command another to feel a certain way, but a framework that prescribes how we ought to act is a reasonable demand, assuming that He has more insight into the consequences of our actions than we do. I don’t think that his command to love him is an egotistical expression of an attempt to fill a void in his own sense of self-importance. I think he knows that in doing what it takes to make our relationship with him work, we are grafting ourselves into life itself – true fulfilment found in the author of life. Similarly, the command to love one another. If we all do what it takes to make our relationships work, everybody’s quality of life would be better. If we were truly able to act in love, we would become aware of the losses others incur in loving us, and we would do what we could to mitigate those. The quest for love ought to imply a lot more than having our needs met so that we can live happily ever after.
That’s the dream. That is what David saw in the heavens when he marvelled at the light from a billion stars, gleaming through the void of space like a beacon to guide us home. That is the mind of God, so much higher than our own, reaching across infinity to touch us. But infinity is a long way away. The immediacy of our longing, the sometimes overpowering proximity of our loneliness and despair, get in the way. And sometimes when the starlight kisses us, we don’t see the reassurance of a happily ever after, but the tragic certainty of a billion dying wishes.