The following essay is taken from my book, The Famine of the Human Dream. Thanks for reading!
The most important lesson in life I learned from romance. I learned that the paramount battle of life isn’t a battle between good and evil, or right versus wrong. The paramount battle of life is between strength and weakness. A simple search for the word ‘strength’ in the new testament will reveal this. The new testament writers were always admonishing the early church to ‘be strong’ to ‘take heart’ to ‘fight for noble things.’
Before learning this truth, I had always thought that the goal of life was to find happiness. But this is not so. The true goal of life is not to find happiness. The true goal of life is learning how to fight for things worth fighting for – to find the courage and resolve to throw off petty comforts and pleasures, and all manner of trifling things, in search of something more. In essence, to become strong. The Bible says this of righteousness:
Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again.
The righteous one is by nature a fighter who grates against the easy flow of what society claims life to be, who won’t become mired in the apathy of good enough. The greatest temptation in life is to settle for what is right before our eyes, and live in ignorance of all the wonderful possibilities that could come true, if only we would seek them. No other temptation corrupts the heart so fully as this one. I know of nothing sadder than a person resigned to the cheapest things of life, convinced that people were made for nothing more than what their appetites dictate, one who has nothing to fight for. For when our hearts believe truly that life is a mundane thing, what then is left worth living for? Happiness? Success? Boredom with the world is a burden I hope never to carry again. As the ancient poet Rumi has said:
You are born from the children of God’s creation,
But you have fixed your sight too low.
How can you be happy?
I was struck with this truth when I first encountered the ideal of selfless love. This happened when I first experienced love at first sight. I was completely unprepared for the experience, unaware of the forcefulness of romance in the human heart. As I saw her, very instantly, I felt a perceptible change come over the world, indescribable, but which awakened me to thoughts and feelings beforehand foreign. In describing her, I can only say that she was somehow violently beautiful. For almost instantaneously the former things were wrenched from my heart and new ideals thrust themselves forward in their place.
Prior to that instant, I had been steeped in the ordinary, the mundane. But now, I felt forced to answer those ancient questions of life that all hearts encounter in rare moments:
Will you be the kind of man who truly strives for great things? Or will you settle for the selfish ambitions of a vain and callused heart?
I felt called out in that moment, that something indefinable was demanding to know what kind of man I was, and what kind of man I ought to be. That same instant I saw her, I felt a sudden contempt for my own small ambitions – that I had been wasting my time wallowing in the mire, when truly great and inexpressible things lay waiting to be found. I felt ashamed for not perceiving beforehand that such things existed, and because of that feeling, I was convinced that I could have but one response: that I ought to be a better man.
In those few moments, I felt a strange contempt for my own happiness. Though I did not know her, my heart convinced me that she was someone truly special and worth fighting for, and that to come to know her would be a manifold and inexpressible treasure. In that moment, I felt a contempt for my own need for meager happiness, and instead, was filled with resolve to become the kind of man that a girl like her could truly need, though it cost me my own search for happiness. I felt that to be a better man was more important than to be happy, and that often, the two are mutually exclusive. As the ancient poet says:
Whoever sees you and doesn’t smile.
Whose jaw doesn’t drop with awe,
Whose qualities fail to increase in a thousand ways,
Can only be the mortar and bricks of a prison.
It was then that I leaned that the true battle of life is not a battle between good and evil, but it a battle between strength and weakness. Will I be the kind of man who fights for noble things? Or will I settle for the good enough right before my eyes.
There’s a passage in the Psalms that speaks powerfully to this:
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and take heart
And wait for the Lord.
Once you have seen what is truly beautiful, you cannot help but fight for it. Be strong and take heart, the Psalmist says. Wait and fight for the good you have seen. For you will see it in the land of the living, if you do not give up. To experience genuine love, one must first become strong. As the ancient poet says:
Love isn’t the work of the tender and the gentle.
Love is the work of wrestlers.
Love should teach us to become wrestlers, and once the heart learns what real love looks like, it should transform into a fighter, one who is willing to do the difficult and throw off simple and trifling things in search of something more. We don’t need morality or good deeds. We need a force that transforms us into fighters, those who do the difficult and forsake the broad road before us, who care little for finding that elusive happiness promised by society, but carry within us a longing to become better men and women than we have thus far been. Love teaches us to be bold and courageous, to seek simplicity and need less for ourselves, to take risks, and ultimately, to live in freedom. Love impels us to become people who effect genuine blessing into the lives of those around us.
And it’s not just one type of love which inspires us this way. CS Lewis wrote a powerful book called The Four Loves. In it, he describes how the Greeks had not one word for love, but four. And each was distinct. ‘Storge’ is an affectionate love, as you would feel for your pet. ‘Phileo’ is brotherly love. ‘Eros’ is romantic love. And ‘Agape’ is unconditional love.
Romantic love ought to awaken us to a new reality, as I talked about in a former essay. It ought to convince our hearts that selflessness, discipline, and courage are better than seeking my own wants, needs, and pleasures. But sadly, romance is often bound up by our lower nature. Consider this solemn declaration from Solomon:
I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains.
More bitter than death. A sad statement. Romantic love was created to enliven the human spirit, to break it free from the mire of the flesh and come into freedom. Lust keeps us in chains to the flesh. Solomon said that this kind of bondage to the flesh is a life more bitter than death. He goes on to say:
Many are the victims she has brought down;
her slain are a mighty throng.
Her house is a highway to the grave,
leading down to the chambers of death.