Love and Longing

Love and Longing

By the time I was fourteen, most of my friends were college students.

I grew up on a university campus, sort of a fundamentalist Baptist enclave. The school had an elementary and high school as well as the college, and I graduated from all three.

From third grade on, I was what I now think of as the class scapegoat – my classmates cast all their fears upon me and drove me outside the camp. At best, I felt tolerated.

My seventh grade year I struck up an unlikely friendship with a junior who was new to the school. We both read through lunch hours, and soon found ourselves reading through our lunches companionably together. When she graduated, my social world moved with her to the university.

I will always be grateful to those college theater majors who welcomed an awkward teenager in and never made me feel like an outsider.

And of course, I had crushes on most of the guys. Talented, good looking college men who were more than kind to me – what teenager wouldn’t?

I was so full of longing.

Romantic longing, yes. But also longing for affirmation, for belonging. Longing to be seen – not to be invisible. Longing to be valued for who I was, not just tolerated out of obligation.

My longing, however innocent, was deep. And good. Longing tells us we’re alive to the world.

I remember sitting in the kitchen at some point in those years, talking to my mother about it. I’d realized that a crush was about who I wanted someone to be, rather than who they really were. If I wanted to get beyond a crush, I was going to need to really get to know them and love them.

We only ever get to love someone for who they are, where they are.

Love may come to see possibilities, may hope for more for someone (or even with them), but it can only live in the present. In the reality of here, now.

I’d like to say I’ve gotten good at it, thirty years later. That it’s easier.

Those years have certainly given me lots of practice, and it’s become, at least to some degree, part of who I am.

But if anything, it’s only gotten more complex. Loving doesn’t always diffuse the longing. Sometimes they coexist, and often in circumstances that make that coexistence less than comfortable. Sometimes they are even intertwined.

I still try, though. I still think about it. And with every date, every encounter, I try to own my longings and let loving surpass them.

It never quite feels the same. Sometimes the longings rage with the power of a summer storm over the Lake. Other times they are more like my cat when I wake him up in the morning – sleepily insistent on making his presence known.

Loving means listening to something other than the longings. Or more accurately, someone. We only really get to love someone for who they are, where they are.

That listening is so hard, and I get it wrong. I wish I were better at it than I am most of the time, but I keep trying. I hope the trying shows.

And even when I think I’m doing it well, there’s probably nothing in my life that’s harder. To let loving surpass longing – oh, dear God, it hurts sometimes.

But I keep choosing it. For the first date that will not turn into a second, as well as for the relationship that is developing. For the attraction I cannot return as much as for the one not returned to me. For all the possibilities that won’t be.

I do not believe that the love I give, whether it’s returned or not, whether it’s even spoken, has ever diminished me.

It hasn’t diminished my longing either.

Hope Comes

Hope Comes

Hope comes last.

Do you have any idea how much that bothers me?

In Romans 5, Paul says that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character, hope.”

Sometimes I don’t know what kind of world he lived in to say such a thing. Not the part in the middle – “perseverance produces character.” That can make sense. Practice and exercise, sticking with it – I see that producing character in myself and others.

But “suffering produces perseverance”? No. It doesn’t. Not on its own, at least. Unrelieved suffering without hope produced despair. Then numbness. Deadening. Unrelieved suffering produces the realization that one can actually get through the unendurable, but not intact.

I’ve lived with enough suffering myself, and alongside the suffering of others, not to spiritualize it. Abusive relationships, abusive systems. Suffering kills.

Persistent suffering teaches a person that it won’t matter what you do. It kills agency. You feel like a placeholder in the world, but something knows you’re meant for more than that.

Suffering produces silence.

Without hope.

Hope can change everything.

Hope is a gift we can give each other, but we have to receive it, or give it to ourselves, first.

Hope says, this can change. I – we – can do something different.

Hope says, this world can change. We can grow and learn, and it can be filled with beauty, love, and peace. We can choose that.

Hope says, I can change. My life can change. But I have to choose to change things.

In so many ways, I was taught to wait for things to change. To “wait on the Lord” – for direction, for a date, for a calling, for life. I remember the day, Easter Sunday in the parking lot after church, when I first said it (to myself as much as to my friend). “If I want my life to be different, nothing is very likely to change unless I make some changes.”

That was the day I began to find my agency. When I began to go out to find direction, a date, a calling, a life. And it turns out, they are there for the finding (though not without that perseverance).

Suffering will happen – the result of wrongs done both intentionally and accidentally, by both ourselves and others. The result of death, that final enemy. The result of life that just is, changing seasons and moving ever onward with little regard for our three-score-and-ten.

But we have today – really that’s all we have. And we can chose beauty and love and generosity today, even if we know that choice will bring suffering tomorrow.

That’s the hope – that there is always beauty and love and generosity to be chosen.

Paul’s equation only works as a cycle. It only works when, in the face of suffering, we can share hope with each other. When we can choose together beauty and love with generosity in the middle of suffering. When we can fight alongside each other for the agency to right the injustices that so often trap us in suffering.

Then suffering can produce perseverance, and perseverance can produce character, and character can produce even more hope. Enough to infect the world.

Coming Undone

Coming Undone

We are growing less and less intelligible to each other. Republicans and Democrats. “Liberals” and “conservatives.”

That’s hard for me.

My first brush with politics came in 1976. I was four and the Democratic National Convention was on TV. I remember seeing a large group of men in dark suits moving through a huge crowd. At the center of that group was a warm, smiling face I immediately liked. My mother told me it was Jimmy Carter.

It wasn’t just that his was the only smiling face (it was), but it was the quality of that smile. Warm and and gentle and personal and welcoming – something a four-year-old instinctively recognizes. I knew he was a loving man, and I think forty years has only proven that intuition true.

At the same time, a beloved great aunt was a long-time volunteer for Jesse Helms, and for years my favorite sleepwear was a yellow, extra-large t-shirt that dragged the ground and read “Student Leaders for Jesse Helms” on the front and “Give ‘Em Helms!” on the back.

Before I started school, I’d spent hours at a travelling Lincoln exhibit that came to our mall – I remember his glasses, and a plaster cast of his huge, gnarled hands. I asked endless questions. FDR and Eleanor fascinated me as well, after I watched a miniseries about their life together (and apart). We visited his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia when I was in first or second grade, and I soaked in the paradoxes of his life.

I wasn’t fascinated by these men as presidents, but as people. As history that I could somehow reach back and touch. My earliest encounters with politics weren’t about division.

But I also grew up alongside the Moral Majority, and in my family, as the 70s became the 80s and 90s, it was increasingly a given that there was only one right position on anything political.

In college, I worked for a Republican candidate for Congress. He was a warm, genuine man of integrity and conviction, and while I’ve come to reconsider many of the positions we fought for, I do not regret our friendship or my support of him.

I remember spending one long Election Day holding a sign outside a polling place. The older gentleman doing the same for the opposition and I struck up a collegial conversation and eventually came around to the topic of abortion. As we talked, I realized we were really talking about two different things. That one act – a woman walking into a clinic to get an abortion – had totally different meanings to each of us. Both of us were motivated by love for people we didn’t even know, and the conversation undid something in me. I listened, and he made me think about things more broadly. Love began to have more complicated implications.

Twenty years later, the lesson I learned that day has only held and deepened. My own politics have changed, not because I found out most of the things I believed then weren’t true, but because as I’ve continued to listen to an ever broader diversity of people (love always begins with listening), I found out lots of other things were also true.

The thing that changed most for me wasn’t truth; it was priority. What has shifted most for me is what I believe is most important. What I love.

Caring for and protecting the vulnerable – those on the social or economic margins. The orphan, the fatherless, and the widow. The stranger and immigrant. The refugee. The person treated with suspicion because of the color of their skin. The prisoner. The poor. The worker being taken advantage of. Those who’ve been ostracized because of who they love, or mocked because of their gender expression. Those whose voices are dismissed.

Giving love, creating beauty, and finding peace for all of them.

And I don’t know one conservative who would disagree that any of that is important.

What we have come to see differently is what comes first. How to go about it. What the necessary foundations are that will result in the care and protection of the vulnerable. That will bring more goodness into the world. What it is that gets in the way.

Some of that difference stems from a theological and political commitment to the principle of either individual responsibility or communal responsibility, and which takes precedence – a tension rooted in the founding of this nation.

But we no longer see those who hold the other position as equally committed to the common good, as equally committed to love.

As I sit writing this in my favorite neighborhood sidewalk café, an apparently homeless man called to a waiter and asked if he could order a cup of chili, some cornbread, and a slice of onion to go, which he had the cash to pay for. (The slice of onion is a detail that sounded like home to me.) The young waiter started to say yes, when another employee told him no, he couldn’t.

I was upset, wondering why this man, however unconventional, couldn’t be allowed to order his meal.

Then I saw someone else from the restaurant, not the wait staff, come out and sit down beside the man. He spoke to him respectfully and with kindness for several minutes, and when he got up to come back inside the restaurant, it was clear the order was coming.

And I am ashamed of how quick I am to doubt another’s commitment to the common good, to loving the uncomfortable other.

It seems it’s who we’ve become: so ready to believe the worst – of those we disagree with, in particular. So afraid of what our world might become (or maybe of really seeing what it was all along). So slow to love and quick to reject.

Our differences are real. Our fears are real (even the ones that don’t turn out to be so rational).

Love is stronger, if we can let it undo us.