Dearest Rachel –
You can’t escape music when you’re out and about it the world. Retailers in particular have decided that we need a soundtrack in order to encourage us to stay and buy, I guess. And restaurants seem to think we’d rather listen to tunes than talk with each other, judging by how loud they tend to have their supposedly ‘background’ music. You’d think they didn’t have any faith in us to hold a proper conversation with each other.
Be that as it may, when we stopped to get dinner for Daniel last night (I had resolved to finish off some leftovers from Sunday instead), the speakers were playing one of those songs that had been a part of our correspondence back in the day. The recording was a more modern one than I remember (Michael Bolton’s, I suppose?), but I’m putting Percy Sledge’s original version here, because it’s the one I think I sent to you those many years ago.
It’s a weird song to be hearing in a delicatessen, if you ask me. I don’t care how good the food is there, there’s nothing particularly romantic about a place like that. But I’m sure the proprietors hardly thought anything of it; from their perspective, it was just another classic pop song, as opposed to the dissertation on the manifestations of love in action that make up its lyrics.
But it holds a certain level of challenge for me. You might remember discussions from back when we were in college together. I had long since had an issue with the word ‘love,’ and the fact that it was tossed around so carelessly by most people. Someone once pointed out to me about how a person can say they ‘love’ oranges, for instance, but once they’re done with the orange, they throw it away. Of course, that’s not the kind of love we want to have with each other as humans, but too often, it does sort of feel like that, doesn’t it?
For all the vast vocabulary of the English language, we do tend to overuse certain words to the point where we run the risk of diluting them and their meaning. Give Greek credit for having at least three or four words (actually, there are apparently seven or eight, but the three or four that show up in scripture are the ones I’m familiar with, and learned to focus upon) that we wind up translating to love; at least, that way, you would have a better handle on what kind of love you’re dealing with.
The scale starts with ἔρως (eros), the word from which we get all things ‘erotic.’ As it comes from the name of their fertility god, there is a natural desire to procreate embedded in the term, but we generally associate it these days with out-and-out lust. It’s not far wrong; even the ancient Greeks (or at least, the philosophers, who were the ones to write their thoughts down for posterity) didn’t hold it in high regard, because it represented a nearly animalian loss of control. Further up the ladder is φιλία (philia), which could be construed as friendship, or brotherly love (hence, Philadelphia’s self description as the ‘city of brotherly love,’ whether the nickname fits is a subject of debate for others to take up); related to this is στοργή (storge), which refers to love within one’s family, and could be extended to certain broader concepts as one’s country, since one could metaphorically think of one’s country as one’s extended family – and, considering how so many families are so dysfunctional these days, it probably still works for us. But I digress.
And then, there’s ἀγάπη (agape). This is the standard we are held to, as Christians, and one that is, as far as I’m concerned, humanly impossible. This is that unconditional, all-sacrificing love that prompted Jesus to endure the worst of humanity (both in terms of what humanity goes through in the course of life, and what humanity dishes out to its fellow humans) in order to save it. And I knew, even in high school and before, that I wasn’t capable of it. So I avoided saying it, lest by doing so, I make a promise to you – or anyone else – that I knew I couldn’t keep.
I may have even spelled it out in that fateful letter I sent you, but whether I did or not, the phrase it turned on was certainly not “I love you,” but rather “I could spend the rest of my life with you.” Somehow, you understood what I was saying with that relatively cold and calculating expression, and took it to be the most romantic thing I could actually say… perhaps because it was.
So, when I listen to this song, I find myself wondering if I could (or even if I ever did) love anyone (read, you) the way this fellow did. Would I be willing to give up all my comforts, and sleep in the rain, were you to suggest I do so? I’ll be honest, I don’t think I could. But I think you knew I couldn’t, and loved me in turn such that you wouldn’t make such a demand upon me. I could trust you not to ask something as unreasonable as that (when it was unnecessary) of me.
But that’s the thing. Would I be capable of that, if the situation called for it? I worry sometimes that I may not be able to bring myself to love again, because I walk into each potential relationship (especially these online connections) with my guard up. Can anything really come of maintaining such an attitude, where you expect to be disappointed?
We’re called upon to be willing to die for those we love. And while I still insist that I don’t fear death – even less so now, since I already feel like I’ve unfairly gotten to live more of my life than you had – most of the ways one would experience it are not such that I’m looking forward to the possibility. Everyone has to go sometime, yes, and there’s something to be said for making that moment meaningful (Pastor Scott, in particular, refers to ‘finishing strong,’ and I’d like to be able to do that. Honestly, who wouldn’t?), but I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to walk toward that moment, especially if it’s likely to be painful. I mean, if I couldn’t bear to sleep in the rain, why would I think I was capable of complete self-sacrifice, for anyone’s sake?
I’m worried that I will never be able to find anyone to love like that. Then again, once upon a time, I didn’t think it would ever happen to me at all.
Interestingly, while I was trying to find the spellings for each of these, I uncovered a few other words that were used by the Greeks to better break down what we only use the word ‘love’ for – none of which, of course, occur in scripture, and so, I wouldn’t have known about nor considered a worthy goal to strive for. The one that struck me was πράγμα (pragma), and you can see that it’s the root of our word ‘pragmatic.’ It’s decidedly unsexy, but sometimes love is just that. It takes work, and sometimes that work isn’t all that pretty. I think that’s a great deal of what we had, and I think it’s the best we can expect of humanity. I can only hope that someday, someone might see me as a pragmatic choice, and we are both able to say the same thing that I once told you all those years ago.
Until then, honey, wish me luck. I’m going to need it.