Within the past six months, I have seen a few of director Neil LaBute’s films, read some of Wendell Berry’s fiction (and non-fiction), and celebrated with my wife, Nancy, our 50th wedding anniversary. These experiences have led me once again to conclude that if there is one key to living a good life, one simple mantra, it is love.
Simple, yes. It’s been said so often, it almost seems trite. But I can think of four main reasons that so few of us live by this mantra:
- Many of us don’t realize the complexity of love.
- Many of us don’t really believe it is the key.
- Even if we do, it is, as Dorothy Day once wrote, “a hard, hard doctrine.”
- We “take our eyes off the prize”—caught up in life’s many struggles, we forget what is most important.
In my youth I remember reading in the Bible: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” I am no longer a practicing Christian, so no need to fear a religious rant. But these words of St. Paul still strike me as true.
Back, however, to LaBute’s films and Berry’s writings. The most recent LaBute film I saw was The Shape of Things (2003), and shortly before that Your Friends and Neighbors (1998). Years earlier I had seen In the Company of Men (1997). (Hereafter, ST, F&N, and CM.) All three deal mainly with male-female relationships, a subject of eternal and, at times, intense interest. From our teen years to our dying days male-female relationships, or less commonly same-sex ones, are frequently on our minds—another film (by a different director) which I recently saw, Playing by Heart (1999), depicts numerous such relationships between couples of different ages, including those of an older couple, where the husband (played by Sean Connery) has a brain tumor (see Roger Ebert’s review here).
In the three LaBute films, the main reason the relationships the director depicts are so bad is the absence of love. In his review of F&N, Ebert writes that it “is a film about monstrous selfishness—about people whose minds are focused exclusively on their own needs. . . . . His [LaBute’s] previous film, “In the Company of Men,” was about two men who play a cruel trick on a woman. In this film, the trick is played on all the characters, by the society that raised and surrounded them. They’ve been emotionally short-changed and will never hear a lot of the notes on the human piano.” In his review of ST, Ebert writes of the four main characters (two men and two women): “Often they are quite happy to criticize each other, and none of them takes criticism well. These characters are perhaps in training to become the narcissistic, self-absorbed monsters in ‘Your Friends and Neighbors.’”
Before leaving the subject of films, a few words of David O’Russell, director of The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and American Hustle (2013) are relevant. In a recent interview with Jon Stewart he explained what led to the transformation we see in his last three movies. He stated that after losing his way, going through a troublesome time when he got divorced and discovered his son was bipolar, he was humbled and found his voice. “The gates opened up to me, and I said I love these people” (the characters in his films). He and Stewart then discussed the great affection and empathy he feels for his characters.
Love, as well as the affection and empathy that accompanies it, is also frequently found in the fiction of Wendell Berry. The two most prominent lovers of all his fictional characters—also the titles of two of his best novels—are Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter. They are not each other’s lovers, but both live in the small fictional community of Port William, Kentucky, and they narrate their life stories when they are in their seventies. Jayber was the town’s only barber from the time he was twenty-two, and he never marries. Hannah married into two of the community’s most notable families. First it was the Feltners and then, after the death of her first husband in World War II, into the Coulters, when she married Nathan, who had also been a soldier in the war.
The chief love of Jayber’s adult life is Mattie, who is married to the egotistic Troy Chatham, who was a star high-school basketball player. Jayber tries to imagine how the lovely and kind Mattie could have been attracted to such a superficial person. “Suppose this young man, excellently handsome and graceful and strong, out of his unquestioning self-confidence, turned toward you [Mattie] with tenderness, with need, such as he had shown to no one else. Suppose that you could not know that you yourself had made the tenderness in him that you felt. Suppose that within his tenderness you felt rewarded, cherished, and safe. Do you see?” (177)
Mattie and Troy marry when she is 21, and Jayber appreciates young love: “Young lovers see a vision of the world redeemed by love. That is the truest thing they ever see, for without it life is death.” (248) But Troy loves no one but himself, and later cheats on Mattie. But she continued to love him, “however at odds with him she may have been, for however long. She remembered and kept treasured up her old feeling for him. She treasured up the knowledge that, though she was not happy, happiness existed. And so as Troy’s character wore lower and more awry, her own grew straighter and brighter.” (342)
These are Jayber’s reflections on the marriage. He also tells us: “I saw too how a marriage, in bringing two people into each other’s presence, must include loneliness and error. I imagined a moment when the husband and wife realize that their marriage includes their faults, that they do not perfect each other, and that in making their marriage they also fail it and must carry to the grave things they cannot give away.” (193-94)
Jayber, however, never tries to convince Mattie to leave her husband. His contacts with her are friendly, but chaste, even in the many years after it hit him like a revelation that he was in love with her and broke off relations with another woman. (His chaste love recalls that of Dante for Beatrice in The Divine Comedy, a work greatly admired by Berry.) Jayber helps Mattie in various ways, and she appreciates it. He never declares his love for her; and she, until her final word and smile in the book, never gives him reason to think that she returns his deep feelings.
In imagining how he would be a better husband to Mattie than is Troy, Jayber is not unrealistic. He asks himself, “would we not have bickered and battled at times . . . . Would she not at times have been as incomprehensible and exasperating to me as most men’s wives appear at times? But all he can answer is that he did “love her all her life. . . . Love does not answer any argument. It answers all arguments, merely by turning away, leaving them to find what rest they can.” (247-48)
Anticipating readers’ curiosity, Jayber writes, “What good did I get from it? I got to have love in my heart. . . . I had entered, as I now clearly saw, upon the way of love . . . and it changed everything. It was not a way that I found for myself, but only a way that I found myself following. Maybe I had always followed it, blunderingly and uncertainly. But now, though it was still a dark way, I was certainly following it. (247-48)
He begins thinking much more about love and its many varieties. Although always a little doubtful about the wisdom of local Protestant ministers and organized religion generally, he ponders the meaning of different Bibles verses. Thinking partly of Jesus, he concludes that “God loved the world . . . he loved it as it was, with all its faults. . . . But his love can contain it only by compassion and mercy.” (251) “To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow. To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart.” (254)
Jayber asks himself why hate often succeeds, why “this world gives plentiful scope and means to hatred,” why it repeatedly fails “to transform the world that it might yet redeem,” why we often fail “to love one another and our enemies.” He has no easy answers. But he thinks that
love, sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit. . . . Love is always a little more than strange here. It is not explainable or even justifiable. It is itself the justifier. We did not make it. If it did not happen to us, we could not imagine it. . . . It is in the world but it is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. . . .
Maybe loves fails here . . . because it cannot be fulfilled here. . . . I saw that Mattie was not nearly desirable, but desirable beyond the power of time to show. Even if she had been my wife, even if I had been in the usual way her husband, she would have remained beyond me. I could not have desired her enough. She was a living soul and could be love forever. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity. . . . That is why, in marrying one another, we mortals say, “til death.” We must take love to the limit of time, because time cannot limit it. A life cannot limit it. Maybe to have it in your heart all your life in this world, even where it fails here, is to succeed. Maybe that is enough. (249)
Reflecting further on the pains that often come with love, Jayber tells us: “It is not a terrible thing to love the world, knowing that the world is always passing and irrecoverable, to be known only in loss. To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain. It is a terrible thing to love the world, knowing that you are a human and therefore joined by kind to all that hates the world and hurries its passing—the violence and greed and falsehood that overcome the world that is meant to be overcome by love.” (329)
Try as he might, for many years Jayber cannot love Troy, but finally he becomes a friend to this unlikeable man. “I stood facing that man I had hated for forty years, and I did not hate him. . . . For finally he was redeemed, in my eyes, by Mattie’s long-abiding love for him, as I myself had been by my love for her. (360-61)
Like Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter often thinks about love. After she discovers that her first husband, Virgil Feltner, is missing in WWII, she remembers that she and her in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Feltner, were held together by the love and kindness they show toward each other.
It was a kindness of doing whatever we could think of that might help or comfort one another. But it was a kindness too of forbearance, of not speaking, of not reminding. And that care of not reminding reminded us, every day, always, of what we felt we could not mention without being overpowered and destroyed. That kindness kept us alive, I think, but it was a hardship too. . . . Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery
Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after.” (50-51)
After the discovery of Virgil’s death, Hannah and his parents, with whom she still lives, continue to grieve, and she is now a widow with a small daughter. But gradually a light “shines in darkness” calling her “back into time.” (63) And she falls in love with Nathan Coulter, who has returned from fighting in the Pacific.
In her old age, she recalls: “Watching him and watching myself in my memory now, I know again what I knew before, but now I know more than that. Now I know what we were trying to stand for, and what I believe we did stand for: the possibility that among the world’s wars and sufferings two people could love each other for a long time, until death and beyond, and could make a place for each other that would be a part of their love, as their love for each other would be a way of loving their place. This love would be one of the acts of the greater love that holds and cherishes all the world” (67-68).
Hannah also has other wise words to say of love.
But to know you love somebody, and to feel his desire falling over you like a warm rain, touching you everywhere, is to have a kind of light. When a woman and a man give themselves to each other, they have a light between them that nobody but them can see. It doesn’t shine outward into time. They see only each other and what is between them.” (71-72)
“We had differences. . . .There were the differences of nature and character that were sometimes happy and sometimes not. Some of the things that most endeared Nathan to me—his quietness, his love of his work, his determination—were the things that could sometimes make me maddest at him.” (107)
[On the relationship between her son Mattie and husband Nathan:] They weren’t always at odds, but when they were the space between them was occupied by, of course, me. And of course they complained to me about each other. And of course, loving them both, I tried to defend them to each other. (122)
I have this love for Mattie. It was formed in me as he himself was formed. . . . When he gets out of the car and I meet him and hug him, there he is, him himself, something of my own forever, and my love for him goes all around him just as it did when he was a baby and a little boy and a young man grown. (123-124)
My mind, I think, has started to become, it is close to being, the room of love, where the absent are present, the dead are alive, time is eternal, and all creatures prosperous. The room of love is love that holds us all, and it is not ours. It goes back before we were born. It goes all the way back. It is Heaven’s. Or it is Heaven, and we are in it only by willingness. (158-59)
My steadfast comfort for fifty years and more had been to know that I was on his [Nathan’s] mind. Whatever was happening between us, I knew I was on his mind, and that was where I wanted to be. (160-61)
You can’t give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering. You can’t give yourself to love for a soldier without giving yourself to his suffering in war. (171)
[Hannah, thinking of Nathan’s war service fighting in Okinawa:] What saved it from utter meaninglessness and madness and ruin was the love between you and your friends fighting beside you. . . . In loving, you see that you have given yourself over to the knowledge of suffering in a state of war that is always going on. And you wake in the night to the thought of the hurt and helpless, the scorned and the cheated, the burnt, the bombed, the shot, the imprisoned, the beaten, the tortured, the maimed, the spit upon, the shit upon. (171)
I want to leave here openhanded, with only the ancient blessing, “Good-bye. My love to you all.” (185)
[Hannah, remembering a scene with Nathan after his death:] I know that when he comes to where I am he will give me a hug, and I want him to. I know how it is going to feel, the entire touch of him. He looks at me with a look I know. The shiver of the altogether given passes over me from head to foot. (186.)
It would be a mistake to read too much into Berry’s two novels. In a “Notice” at the front of Jayber Crow, he states, with a touch of humor he often displays, “Persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it [this book] will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.” In depicting Mattie’s remaining with Troy, rather than divorcing him, Berry is not trying to tell us that couples should never get divorced. In a 2012 interview he said, “In some circumstances, I would justify it [abortion], as I would justify divorce in some circumstances, as the best of two unhappy choices.” (See here for more of Berry’s thoughts on women and feminism.)
The two novels discussed above are by no means his only stories dealing with love, but it is time to move on to a few additional ideas which we find in his essays. In “Word and Flesh” (1989) he declares that the only way we can save our planet is by love.
Only love can do it. Only love can bring intelligence out of the institutions and organizations, where it aggrandizes itself, into the presence of the work that must be done.
Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, “the least of these my brethren.” Love is not, by its own desire, heroic. It is heroic only when compelled to be. It exists by its willingness to be anonymous, humble, and unrewarded.
The older love becomes, the more clearly it understands its involvement in partiality, imperfection, suffering, and mortality. Even so, it longs for incarnation. It can live no longer by thinking.
In “Health is Membership” (1995), we read “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”
He recognizes, however, that our world “is also a fallen world. It involves error and disease, ignorance and partiality, sin and death. If this world is a place where we may learn of our involvement in immortal love, as I believe it is, still such learning is only possible here because that love involves us so inescapably in the limits, sufferings, and sorrows of mortality.”
Berry believes that love is not only the key to saving our planet from environmental destruction, but also from war, a rapacious economy, and harmful politics. He has written often on the tragedy of war and other sufferings humans have endured. After the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing, he stated, “It is hard to speak of the ways of peace and to remember that Christ enjoined us to love our enemies, but this is no less necessary for being difficult.” In stories he has described the sadness of seeing loved ones in hospitals, but in “Health is Membership,” we read: “When this love enters a hospital, it brings with it a terrifying history of defeat, but it comes nevertheless confident of itself, for its existence and the power of its longing have been proved over and over again even by its defeat. In the face of illness, the threat of death, and death itself, it insists unabashedly on its own presence, understanding by its persistence through defeat that it is superior to whatever happens.”
Berry’s fiction brings to life the depth and complexity of love discussed not only in his own essays, but in the writings of other wise commentators on it like St. Paul and Dorothy Day. Before closing several paragraphs on the words of these two already mentioned individuals seems appropriate.
Jayber Crow refers to “St. Paul, that clarifying and exasperating man,” and indeed some of Paul’s words frustrate most of us today. But the passage where he writes of love, a portion of which appeared early in this essay, have seemed true to me throughout fifty years of marriage.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
In the twentieth century Dorothy Day, whom President Obama once referred to as one of the “great reformers in American history” and whom the Catholic Church is still considering for sainthood, also wrote insightfully of love. And much more than Paul, she appreciated the romantic and sexual aspects of love—before her conversion to Catholicism she had a child with a man she loved but who would never marry her.
In 1938 she wrote, “It was human love that helped me to understand divine love. Human love at its best, unselfish, glowing, illuminating our days, gives us a glimpse of the love of God for man. Love is the best thing we can know in this life, but it must be sustained by an effort of the will. It is not just an emotion, a warm feeling of gratification. It must lie still and quiet, dull and smoldering, for periods. It grows through suffering and patience and compassion. We must suffer for those we love, we must endure their trials.”
In 1948, she wrote: “What is God but Love? What is a religion without love?” She also stated, “To love with understanding and without understanding. . . . To see only what is lovable. To think only on these things. To see the best in everyone around, their virtues rather than their faults. She quoted these words from a Russian philosopher: “The true significance of love consists not in the simple experience of this feeling, but what is accomplished by means of it, in the work of love.”
In 1958 she wrote: “If we could only learn that the only important thing is love, and that we will be judged on love—to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mothers-in-law, to husbands, to children—and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury—not to see them, not to hear them. . . . not judge, not do anything, but love, love, love.” (See here for sources of Day quotes.)
I like good love stories, whether on pages, stages, or screens. And I have indicated this appreciation of the various kinds of love, of people of different ages, in such pieces as “Interracial Love in Alice Childress’s Wedding Band,” “The Greatness of Les Misérables and Anna Karenina,” “Amour: A Different Kind of Love Story,” and “Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Men, Women, War, and Love.” Too many stories, however, especially on screen, treat love falsely or too simplistically. Rather than enlightening us, they lead us, if we are not careful, down false paths. If, in our days of confusion amidst the pressures of everyday life, we seek wisdom regarding love, we are more likely to find it in the words of St. Paul, Day, or Berry than from any popular mass media source. (See here for a detailed treatment of love and wisdom.)
At least that is what my experiences, including 50 years of married life, say to me. When I first married I was both similar and dissimilar to the young Troy of Jayber Crow. Similar in that my ego was too big. Dissimilar in that I was not an outstanding athlete or “handsome and graceful and strong.” Yet marriage to a loving woman has given me the opportunity to grow in love. I sometimes think that in life we are meant to proceed by shrinking our egoism while broadening and intensifying our love. After discovering his love for Mattie, Jayber Crow states, “I had changed, and the sign of it was only that my own death now seemed to me by far the least important thing in my life.” (252) I’m sorry to say, I haven’t reach that point yet. But I hope to someday.
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