What do love stories tell you about your own heart? 3 questions to ask yourself.
Plus, "news from a country we have never yet visited".
Our next Sunday Candlelight Chat is on January 14, at 1 pm ET/10 am PT/6 pm UK: with special guest, the bestselling novelist Angie Kim, who writes on the relativity of happiness and how our society equates oral fluency with intelligence. We’ll discuss her writing; how Angie went from lawyer to author; and our long-ago past as law school classmates! You’ll be able to ask questions, too. Angie’s latest award-winning mystery is HAPPINESS FALLS. You’ll enjoy our chat either way, but you might like to read it before then.
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“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born.”
Dear ham-del (read here to know why I call you this),
I want you to think about all those love stories you’ve sighed over – the ones where the couple shares an incandescent moment of union, before they must part. Romeo and Juliet. Love Story. Or Bridges of Madison County, where a married woman named Francesca falls in love with a soulful photographer, but renounces him for the sake of her family.
What do these stories mean? Why do we love them so much, given their sad endings? And what are they trying to teach you about your own heart?
Think for a moment of your own love life - whether or not you’re currently in a relationship. Either way, at one time or another, you’ve probably felt deep longings - maybe for “the one that got away,” maybe for the one yet to appear, maybe in a current relationship that falls short of your dreams. When this happens, you’re going to think there’s something wrong. And maybe there is, maybe there isn’t; I don’t, of course, know the details of your relationships.
But I do know that the most confusing aspect of romantic love is that most enduring relationships start with the conviction that your longing has now been satisfied. The work is done, the dream is realized: the perfect and beautiful world embodied in the object of your affections.
But. You know, deep down, don’t you, that this was the courtship phase, the idealization phase, the phase in which you and your partner were united in reaching, for a marvelous moment in time, that other place.
During this phase, there’s little distinction between the spiritual and the erotic. This is why so many pop songs concern the first consummation of romance. But these songs should be heard not only as a depiction of love, but also of our longing for the transcendent. (According to the Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan Lee, the Western tradition of love songs comes from the Troubadours, who were inspired by Sufi songs of longing for the divine. The Sufis used imagery of a woman’s cheek, eyebrows and hair as metaphors for divine love. The Troubadours adapted these metaphors to serenade maidens under moonlit windows.)
In everyday love, real life will intervene, in the daily negotiations of managing a partnership and possibly a household, and in the limitations of human psychology: sometimes, in the challenges of incompatible attachment styles and interlocking neuroses. You might find that he instinctively avoids intimacy, while you anxiously chase it. You might discover that you’re a neat freak and she’s a slob, or that you’re a bully and he’s a doormat, or that you run late and she’s punctual to a fault.
Even in the healthiest relationships, the longing often returns. In these unions, you can raise children, if you want. You can share inside jokes, favorite vacation spots, mutual admiration, cozy companionship, a bed. In the best relationships, you can still, every so often, go to the moon and back.
But most likely, your relationship will be an asymptote of the thing you long for. As Vaughan Lee says, “Those who search for intimacy with others are reacting to this longing. They think another human will fulfill them. But how many of us have actually ever been totally fulfilled by another person? Maybe for a while, but not forever. We want something more fulfilling, more intimate. We want God. But not everyone dares to go into this abyss of pain, this longing, that can take you there.”
If you’re an atheist or agnostic, such talk probably makes you uncomfortable or impatient. If you’re devout, it might seem obvious – of course we’re all longing for something, and the something is God.
Or you might be somewhere in between. C.S. Lewis, who heard the call of existential longing all his life, and became a committed Christian in his 30s, eventually concluded that we have hunger because we need to eat, we have thirst because we need to drink; so if we have an “inconsolable longing” that can’t be satisfied in this world, it must be because we belong in another, godly one.
“Our commonest expedient,” he wrote in one of literature’s most gorgeous passages – please sit down with a cup of something warm and light a candle and SLOWLY READ THIS INCREDIBLE GEM from Lewis --
“is to call [the longing] beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.…[But [t]he books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
As for me, I believe that the very nature of existential longing — of longing for a perfect and beautiful world of unconditional love and everlasting life — extinguishes these distinctions between atheists and believers. The longing comes through Yahweh or Allah, Christ or Krishna, no more and no less than it comes through the books and the music; they are equally the divine, or none of them are the divine, and the distinction makes no difference; they are all It. When you went to your favorite concert and heard your favorite musician singing the body electric, that was It; when you met your love and gazed at each other with shining eyes, that was It; when you kissed your five-year old good night and she turned to you solemnly and said ‘thank you for loving me so much,’ that was It: all of them facets of the same jewel.
And yes, at eleven p.m. the concert will end, and you’ll have to find your car in a crowded parking lot; and one day your daughter will announce that she hates you and fail eleventh grade; and your relationship won’t be perfect because no relationship is.
But this is to be expected. And this is why Romeo and Juliet had to fail; it’s why the Ali MacGraw character had to die in Love Story, it’s why Francesca couldn’t live happily ever after with her photographer: because he represented not an actual man, not even the “perfect” man; he represented longing itself.
Our favorite love stories, then, are about the moments when you glimpse your Eden; they’re about the transience of these sightings, and why they mean more than anything else that might ever happen to you.
And so we must treasure these moments; they are the pathway back to your own heart.
You know I always love to hear your thoughts, so please do comment below. And, here are some questions you might like to think about privately, and/or comment on:
Can you think of a time you experienced a moment of pure love?
Or a time you experienced a moment of pure beauty?
Or, simply, the last time something moved you to goosebumps?
And, finally, if you’d like to receive more like this, and to participate in or just watch our Sunday Candlelight Chats & Interviews, please do consider subscribing, or simply sharing with a friend. We are very glad you’re here!
P.S. The above is adapted, with brand-new thoughts woven in, from my book, BITTERSWEET. I’m best known for my book QUIET (which don’t get me wrong I regard as one of my precious children) but to me, some of the most important work I’ve ever done is on spiritual and existential longing. So, during this holiday week, I thought I’d share with you two newsletters, adapted from Bittersweet. (Yup, that’s Oprah in the photo below. :)) This is the first one; look for the second one, coming soon!)