In college, I took ancient Greek for my required language because I was in love with the professor and a boy. So while other folks were learning practical languages like Spanish and French, I was translating Sappho fragments. The fist bit of ancient Greek I learned was the Sappho quote from above. It sounds weird in English because in ancient Greek, you can add a kind of “-ing” to a word and make it a noun–as in, “the loving,” “the fighting,” or “the losing.” The full poem goes like this (absent the weirdness of what Greek forms sound like in English and taking into account that I memorized this poem over 14 years ago now):
It is difficult to love
And it is also difficult not to love
But the most difficult thing
Is to have loved and lost.
I’ll confess when I was 18 years old and in my first year of college, my knowledge of love was, well, partial. Childlike, in retrospect. I very much liked the feeling of falling in love. I didn’t want to experience much beyond that. In fact, in the rare instances when it seemed like there might be the possibility of having a serious relationship with another human being, something that went beyond a few good-natured hook-ups in the frat house, I felt an actual physical force of terror that prevented me from going any further. I remember this terror vividly, and can even picture the exact location on my undergraduate campus where I sat trying to process what the hell this meant. Some parts of me very much wanted to have a sustained relationship with this person, but some other part of me was screaming no in a visceral way that at that point in my life, I couldn’t get past.
In retrospect, I can reconstruct what that terror was. A fear of intimacy. Fear of losing control. Fear of my soul being crushed by love. I can’t say I truly got past that terror until about five years ago when I met my husband. At about the age of 32, I was finally able, not to rid myself of that terror altogether, but to acknowledge its existence and not run away from it.
Here’s the ugly truth that you won’t find inside any Valentine’s day card–I was right to be terrified. Love is scary and hard. Most every important thing I’ve ever done in my life has been just those two things at various points–scary and hard. And at 18, I was completely ignorant of the things that were really scary and hard about love; I had only the slightest inkling. Once you’ve fallen in love, and had your oh, so, exciting ups and downs, and settled into the long haul of being together…that’s when most of the scary and hard stuff starts. How do you love someone whose always rearranging the kitchen drawers, hiding the toothpaste, and snoring? How does someone love you when you don’t close the clothes drawer all the way, leave smudges on the wine glasses, have razor sharp toenails that cut you in the middle of the night? How do you love someone and make decisions with them about where to go on vacation, whether or not to fix the furnace, how to live on a budget, whether or not you should dump the two cats who are clawing up your furniture along the side of the road, and then on top of all that, how to raise a child together? There’s a humor to be found there, because you have to be able to laugh at yourselves, but the truth is that in the face of all these things, love is the equivalent of being in the front of the line for the charge of the light brigade or the storming of Normandy beach. It is an act of enormous courage, and perhaps, stupidity. And it’s worth it.
I know many beautiful and wonderful people in my life who are deeply loved by friends and family, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. But for some reason, they seem to have not attempted the charge of the light brigade, call it what you will. Romantic love or monogamous love. They have not made that tremendous leap of faith that comes with saying, “We are for each other,” and everything that follows. Like a new convert, I want them to join the church. It seems many times like they want it for themselves, as well, but maybe not everyone is meant for this particular experience. I can’t say for sure that it’s terror that holds them back, but I can certainly understand if it is.
Our culture has a lot to say about love, and quite frankly, most of it is crap. This seems especially apparent on Valentine’s Day. I think the association between being shot by an arrow and falling in love is appropriate, but only if I picture it as someone standing still and asking to be shot with the arrow, and then having to stand there and wait for it, flinching. You know it’s coming, you know it’s going to hurt, and yet you don’t run away. That would take courage, and loving is a courageous thing. What we should do on Valentine’s Day is give each other little medals of honor for loving each other in the face of things like flossing and hair in the bathroom sink and listening to the same story again. “I hear by award you this medal of valor for not dumping me along the side of the road for acting like a petulant child when it took all day for your car to get serviced” “This pink heart is for never complaining about how late I sleep.” “This medal for service above and beyond the call of duty is for being courageous enough to love and waking up every morning and deciding to do it all over again.”