Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What is Love?

Several years ago my aging father made a shocking announcement. He said that when he was dating my mother, and for several years after they were married, he did not love her.  I was so upset by this that I was unable to respond, and my brother and sisters were likewise very uncomfortably surprised. Dad had always been devoted to Mom. Yes, they had challenges in their marriage but it was obvious that they loved each other a great deal. And this love has continued and endures.

How, then, could my father admit to such a thing? I wondered about it a lot. It bothered me for quite some time. Obviously he was physically attracted to Mom from the start. He also enjoyed the love letters he got from her while they were dating – the ones signed Love, Elsa. I was certain that he loved her all those years ago. Was Dad losing his mind?

He did admit that he felt a great sense of duty to take care of Mom. And he asked me years later if this duty might not be a form of love. We both came to suspect that the current fashion of emotional romanticism was a bit provincial – not a bad thing, but not a historically complete one either.

If you look in the dictionary under love, you soon notice that there are a handful of definitions for this very common word. It can refer to an affectionate concern for another person or to God, it can be an enthusiasm for something, it can also be a sexual attraction – or the act itself. Love is a zero score in tennis, a material worn in mourning and a game of chance.

A love apple is a tomato, a love handle is a layer of fat, a lovelock is a bit of hair, a lovebird is a kind of parrot, a love bush is a kind of dodder, a love potion is a kind of charm. And so it goes. Clearly, love is a lot of different things.

Here, then, was a possible way out of my confusion. Dad, who has always been more given to cerebration than to sentimentality, may not have recognized a keen emotional response to Mom at first. But love her he certainly did. My oldest sister is proof of that.

But Dad’s admission implied something more. Something happened after living with Mom, starting a family, and struggling together as a couple with the challenges of life. He learned of Mom’s astonishing compassion for everyone. He learned of her devotion to him, and of her enduring faith that would become tested almost beyond belief. Dad learned that Mom was truly amazing.

I have come to realize that for many people the deep connection that binds us to others is not manifestly emotional. In fact, most of the time we create connections with others that we may not even be aware of. Of course, our experience with romantic love can be emotionally profound. But there are many very important connections that simply don’t fit the category.

Little children, for example, rarely feel emotionally attached to their family the same way that adults do. They still have to learn what their developing emotions mean. But this should not imply that they do not form bonds with their family or that they do not love their family. To a child its connection to its mother is the most profound experience of its life.

In fact, I believe that the connection between an unborn child and its mother – direct from the womb, through the placenta and into the lifeblood of the infant – continues throughout life. Yes the physical tissue is sundered shortly after birth, but there remains an unseen umbilicus that no amount of circumstance can render.

I saw this firsthand a number of years ago while serving in a small church group to help a young man overcome some of his challenges. He had become estranged from his mother emotionally and in a number of other ways. She was very traditional and could not tolerate much of his behavior – some of which was quite improper. For his part, he could not tolerate the guilty feelings that she seemed to always impose on him.
And yet in spite of this very real impasse, the young man could not be helped until he was able to overcome the breached relationship with his mother. Through the years of estrangement, the unseen umbilicus was still there.

In my own life, I have recently come to recognize that this connection doesn’t even go away when a mother passes away. Truly it is a universal umbilicus. It is a bond that never dies. And if I might expand somewhat on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s famous essay – it is a most significant proof that “love abides”.

The Apostle Paul understood very well that love is not always a primrose path or a romantic fantasy. In his unsurpassed description of love (found in the 13th chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians) he compares our experience with love as seeing “through a glass, darkly.”

And recently, Pope Francis has emphasized that love is more importantly tied to truth than to passing emotional experiences.

“Love,” he wrote, “cannot be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity, but in order to open it to the beloved and thus to blaze a trail leading away from self-centeredness and toward another person, in order to build a lasting relationship, love aims at union with the beloved. Here we begin to see how love requires truth. Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time. True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit.”

I believe that love is the value and importance we place on the very significant connections in our life. These connections can be quite different depending on the persons, the cultures and the circumstances involved. In our time, the emotional part of love has taken center stage. This may be fine, as far as it goes. But there is also a danger in this.

When we confuse love with positive emotions only, we can make the mistake (as many people often do) of thinking that we no longer love someone who has let us down. “I don’t love you anymore,” are heart-wrenching words that, sadly, are spoken much too often. And then, paradoxically, after the words are spoken, the confession is followed by the aching of the soul. Clearly the connection was not lost.

The truth of these tragic situations is that emotions between estranged lovers can become predominantly negative, even though connections remain. And it is because the connections remain that estrangements like separation and divorce are always so painful, despite the fact that this so-called emotional love has long since dissolved.

It is this modern confusion that makes Kierkegaard’s insistence that love abides so counterintuitive.  After all, people fall into and out of love all the time – or so we believe. If, however, we were to ask ourselves if connections between people were to commonly disappear, we might be less certain.

There is only one way for the true connections of love to be broken, and that is through selfishness. In fact selfishness, in this sense, is the refusal to form or to recognize the importance of connections at all. To be this selfish is to live in a cloistered sensual existence.

Many years ago, I fell in love with Kathy Vernon. We had dated off-and-on for many months before she agreed to accept my second proposal and marry me. We made our formal vows in the Salt Lake (Mormon) Temple in the spring, when the Utah foothills are covered with fresh grass, when new oak leaves are still glossy green, and when sego lilies are young and unblemished.

We knew so little about life and had to learn many basics of human relationships. We inevitably used each other as Guinea pigs as we struggled together, in the laboratory of life, to learn how to make a marriage work. We had to figure out money matters, marital roles and how to stay strong for each other when our first child lingered for months on the brink of death. Sometimes we managed OK. At other times we didn’t.
We learned that Kathy was used to a staid and practical masculinity. She had to adapt to a new husband who was neither of these. We learned that I was used to open and sentimental femininity. And I had to adapt to a new wife that kept things to herself and wasn’t comfortable looking into the deep emotional lives of others.

Often she felt overwhelmed and I felt misunderstood. But through all of the challenges we discovered something early on. We discovered that we needed each other very much. And we discovered this during those times when the connection between us was strained. Sometimes it was strained because of misunderstandings. Sometimes it was strained because school and work took me away from home for a while. In either case, the estrangement hurt each of us a lot. I came to realize – for the second time in my life – that these connections are very real.

The first time I realized this was while Kathy and I were dating at BYU. On one particular day we had been together for much of the afternoon (doing something that I no longer remember). I do remember, however, saying goodbye to her at the outer door of her apartment complex.

I said goodbye to Kathy and proceeded to the parking lot. I no sooner had opened the door of my car when I realized that Kathy was inside the complex standing by her front door locked-out of her apartment. How, exactly, I knew this is beyond me. I could neither see her nor hear her. But somehow I knew anyway.
I decided to act on this unusual insight and proceeded back into the complex. And, just as I expected, Kathy was standing outside her door – locked-out – wondering what to do next. She was surprised to see me. I decided not to go into details right then. I was still trying to figure out what my little mystical experience meant.

I have since come to understand what was unclear to me then: my connection to Kathy goes far beyond the visible and audible. It is a deeper thread that is forever unbreakable.

You may find this admission a bit over-stated.  After all, no one can be sure that love will last forever? Please notice, however, what I actually said. I said that the connection between us would never break. I do believe with all my heart that I will always value this connection greatly – in other words, that I will always love Kathy.

But even if the unthinkable happened and we were separated, for any number of reasons, the connection we have with each other would still exist. We have shared too much of our lives and our hearts. Dissolving this bond is no longer possible.

I do not think that every connection we have with others implies a loving relationship. But I do believe that everyone we love involves a connection. And we would do well to remember that the straining of these connections only ends up hurting everybody, ourselves included.

Which brings me to my final point; which is, that the loving connections of our lives are gifts from God. And as such, they are not ours to create or destroy on our own account.

“God is love,” declares the Apostle John (1 John 4:8). And as the Prophet Mormon indicated, this special kind of love – the love called charity that is defined as God’s love – is a gift that must be bestowed on us from above (Moroni 7:48).

We have not been entrusted with the disposition of loving connections. This is a privilege retained by a greater power than our own. And this should be obvious to anyone paying much attention to the world we live in. We are not just animals that interact with others of our own species purely by instinct, and then proceed on our merry way. Neither are our interactions with others the mere unconscious calculations so favored by evolutionary psychologists.

We interact with others, and in so doing, we form lasting bonds. And if we follow the direction of Heaven and lose ourselves in the service of others, we cannot help but form a vast network of relationships that will bind us to others forever. And like a grove of giant redwoods that withstand the storms of centuries because of their interlocking roots, we can bind each other together in divine ligands that were made for the eternities.

Maybe you feel that you cannot love or be loved. Perhaps you have convinced yourself that you were born unattractive or are not the romantic type. If you have ever thought this way, you had best think again. Whether or not you love or are capable of being loved is not your decision.

The Hollywood and dime novel version of love is not the whole story – or even the most important one. Most love is very different. A good neighbor loves. So does a thoughtful employer, or neighbor, or friend. A parent loves and so does a teacher. You are loved in more ways than you know. And surprisingly, you love more people than you realize.

It no longer bothers me that Dad didn’t have deep romantic feelings for Mom. He spent most of his life devoted to her. For many years, when Mom was often sick and confined to her bed, he cared for her and never complained. Dad and Mom have been profoundly connected from the start. And they always will be. God has promised that they will. He has promised that Love Abides. 


For a good overview of how love has been understood in the great books, see Chapter 50: Love, in Mortimer J. Adler and William Gorman (eds.) The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World. My copy of Love Abides is in Jaroslav Pelikan’s (ed.) The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. Published by Little, Brown and Company, 1990. The paragraph written by Pope Francis is found on page 48 of The Light of Faith, Lumen Fidei, published this year (2013) by Ignatius Press.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Uncommon Encounters

When was the last time you stumbled upon something uncommon? I mean some thing or some event that is (or was) unlikely? It happened to me just recently. I was travelling along a winding back-country road just east of California’s Salinas Valley when a bald eagle flew over my truck. The sight of its strikingly white head and tail feathers is not an everyday occurrence in these parts, and I got a little excited.

It was obviously intent on where it was going. Its flight was direct and descending. I pulled off of the road to take a closer look just as it swooped down on a juvenile coyote that I just then noticed.

Wow! I thought, as I began fumbling for my camera. This is great. As it turned out, the eagle decided against grabbing the coyote. The young canine saw it coming and was ready to put up a fight. At the last minute, the eagle flew off in another direction and both of us – the dog and I – watched it fly away.

For several minutes after that, the coyote canted back and forth across the narrow valley. It was clearly agitated and, despite my proximity, it continued looking back in the direction of the eagle. It kept acting this way for several minutes, even after I could no longer see the eagle in the sky. I felt a little guilty being so happy when the poor coyote was so upset.

The truth is that I get excited over every coyote that I see. I might see half a dozen or more every year but it still gives me a thrill. And seeing a bald eagle is even more exciting. I am lucky if I see one or two a year. I knew that seeing them both together, in such an unlikely juxtaposition, was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I have also come to appreciate that such rarely experienced moments make life so much more enjoyable. Experiences of the uncommon and the rare remain in our minds and hearts. They are the stories we tell at parties and to our children and grandchildren. Sharing them with others very often creates a bond between those experiencing them together. Is it any wonder that sacred texts insist on the fact that holiness is uncommon – or that God Himself requires us never to refer to His handiwork as common?

The Apostle Peter, referring to the dietary restrictions in the Law of Moses declared that, “I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” And then the author to the Epistle to the Hebrews states that (referring to Christ) He is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens…”

What is there, exactly, between these apparently unrelated things – I mean between the uncommon, the clean and the holy? For starters, maybe it would be best to look at what it actually means to be rare or uncommon.

Scientists have come up with a fairly precise vocabulary for unlikely things.  Here is Kevin Gaston’s rather formal definition of rarity: “Rarity is merely the current status of an extant organism which, by any combination of biological or physical factors, is restricted either in numbers or area to a level that is demonstrably less than the majority of other organisms of comparable taxonomic entities.”

This is fairly complex way of saying that, for living things, something could be rare in a couple of different ways. A species could be rare because there are only a few individuals left in the wild. Or it might be rare even though there are still many individuals alive in the wild if they only occur in a restricted place.

An example of the former kind of rarity would be the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) – assuming that it still survives. It probably disappeared from the United States several decades ago, although reports in the Deep South occasionally raise our hopes that some may still survive there. The more realistic possibility, though, is that if it survives at all, it does so only in small numbers in the remote forests of Cuba.

An example of the second kind of rarity might be the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata). This tree is restricted to a fairly small area in coastal California, although it has been bread for lumber and grows, in modified form, in a much larger area. There are still quite a few truly wild Monterey pines left in the tree’s native habitat, but they only occur in a fairly restricted area.

When should an animal or plant be considered rare, or just uncommon? The answer to this apparently simple question is not simple. There is a broad area of overlap. But it isn’t the academic definition of rarity that I wish to discuss. Of course the definitions and the philosophical clarity are important. But this understanding does little to explain the thrill of actually running into something unusual.

The thrill itself is not rational. It is visceral. It starts with a rational awareness, it is true. But then something beyond reason happens when one experiences a real encounter with the uncommon. Let me give an example.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have followed the plight of the California condor. For some reason it’s rarity and its unusual Latin name (Gymnogyps californianus) captured my imagination. I worried about it becoming extinct and followed with great interest the stories of the captive breeding efforts to save it.

In 2010, I was travelling with my friend Steve along Highway One in coastal California. Steve is an accomplished birder and we were hoping to finally spot a condor. At the time of our trip, the breeding program had been successful enough that several dozens of birds had been released into the wild. And some of them were known to be living along the coast.

At one point we had pulled off to the side of the road to look for seals when Steve spotted a couple flying high above us. We got a fairly good look before they disappeared behind a small mountain to the west.

We now knew that we were in the right area and so continued on the lookout as we managed the winding coastal highway. At one particularly steep curve we noticed a small group of cars suddenly stopping just as another condor flew overhead. Then we saw another one, and a third.

We stopped quickly, I grabbed the camera, and we both stumbled out of the truck onto the road, staring at the sky – thankfully there were no other cars passing just then. Something had attracted the rare birds and we found half a dozen of them perched on a rocky outcropping not far down the steep embankment between the road and the Pacific Ocean.

This was an unimaginable thrill for both of us. For me personally, having believed most of my life that I would probably never see this impressive bird, I was both thrilled and half dazed. Could this really be happening? And then, as if to make the moment even more unreal, Steve exclaimed incredulously, “Sam, look, there’s a peregrine falcon off to the right.”

This truly was incredible. The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is another uncommon bird. It had been devastated by the excessive use of DDT years ago and was considered rare throughout my youth. Thankfully, its numbers have been increasing in recent years. But still, I had only seen it one other time, many years before, when an unlikely pair decided to nest on a tall building in downtown Salt Lake City. To see it at that very moment only made me giddier than I already was. It was a sensational experience. 

I am convinced that it is the combination of awareness, and of personal immediate experience that can make uncommon moments sacred. This may seem a bit sacrilegious to those who would restrict sacred things to the purview of religion. My belief is that encounters with the Created world should often be religious experiences of a sort.

Consider the word sacred itself. It comes from the Latin sanctus meaning consecrated, holy, sacred, inviolable. It was used anciently to describe such things as deities, liberty, the dead, emperors, even the Roman senate. 

But our word sanctuary also comes from the same root. While it’s true that we often think of a sanctuary in a temple or a church, it can also be used to describe a place for animals and plants. A sanctuary is a place to protect these creatures from hunting and fishing, etc. It is perfectly proper, both from religious and historical contexts, to refer to created beings as sacred.

And what is maybe even more unusual, there is precedent for considering all of God’s creations in the same light. And the way that this is to be done is to gain a perspective that even common things – like human beings, for example – are really quite unusual after all.

In her book, The Rarest of the Rare, Diane Ackerman writes, “Sometimes it is difficult for us collectors of rare artifacts such as paperweights or buttons or paintings to understand that we ourselves are rare… We are among the rarest of the rare not because of our numbers, but because of the unlikeliness of our being here at all.”

Ackerman is not arguing from a religious context. Biologists that may not recognize any creator other than Mother Nature can still talk about the unlikeliness of mankind. Steven J. Gould (the late evolutionary biologist and essayist from Harvard University) was fond of pointing out that all of life’s many branches were caused by chance events, and that if our evolutionary past were to be replayed, nothing would turn out the same way again.

But of course this is only one perspective. The reality is that we have no first-hand knowledge of much of the Creation. Nor can we rely on scientific inference to provide us with unerring guidance about the past. Some things we will never know as sojourners here below.

But consider the further words of Peter as he recounts in greater detail his vision of why the gospel should be taken to the world: “but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”

I know this seems odd. How can a relatively large mammal (ourselves) numbering in the billions be considered uncommon? Yet if Ackerman can imagine our human uniqueness and call it rare among living things, is there not something to Peter’s realization that all of God’s children are worthy of special notice?

Another way to look at this is to consider the words vulgar or profane. Most of us think that vulgar refers to something crude or boorish. And in fact, these are legitimate definitions of the word. But they aren’t the only ones. In fact vulgar originally had reference to masses of people, or to the language spoken by the common man. The Latin Vulgate – or the Biblia Sacra Vulgata – is an early translation of the Bible into the common language of ancient Rome.

The word profane – referring to irreverence or blasphemy – can also refer to common or vulgar things. In many ways, profanity is the improper relegation of sacred things to common use – speaking of deeply meaningful religious realities in an offhanded or disrespectful way.

Given this religious and biological perspective, it soon becomes clear that most of us are guilty of a chronic and of a crass profanity. I mean that we look upon sacred beings – I mean other people and even sadly upon ourselves – as if we were just so many warm bodies.

This happens because of our failing to grasp the first part of the two-fold path to the sacred (I mean that we fail to be aware of what we see). When I pulled off to the side of the road to watch a bald eagle, I did so because I knew that I was seeing something unusual. While the remarkable natural scene was being played out, a few other cars drove by without noticing anything at all. It is this lack of awareness that makes us miss the sacred – that makes our world so profane.

Years ago, while driving along Highway 40 in western Colorado, Kathy and I happened upon a crackle of Mormon crickets. Many of them were engorged from feeding and their bodies were full of nutritious morsels that would be allocated to their offspring.

The adult females, in particular, were fat and each carried a long egg-laying blade (called an ovipositor) at the end of its abdomen. As a group they hopped and scuttled over the ground and into the tender vegetation that covers the high Colorado Desert in the spring.

Some of the crickets had started to cross the road only to be run-over by passing vehicles. Other crickets, eager to benefit from these flattened storehouses of food, were then moving into the road to eat them. Many of these crickets would also get run over, and soon the highway became slick with dead cannibalistic crickets.

Kathy and I stopped to see what was going on. When I discovered the crickets, I quickly grabbed a few and plopped them into a bottle of alcohol. They were fairly easy to catch because they don’t have wings. I was thrilled (I guess you can sort of see the pattern here). Mormon crickets are not very commonly seen.

They have become part of the history of the Inter-Mountain West because of the damage they caused to the crops of the Mormon settlers. There are a handful of accounts from the mid-19th Century telling of millions of these crickets devouring the sorely needed crops of pioneer families. 

In desperation, these inexperienced farmers prayed for relief whereupon hundreds (perhaps thousands) of gulls descended on the crickets en-masse. Accounts tell of the birds engorging themselves to the point of regurgitation, only to return to the arthropod feast and eat some more. There is a monument to these avian miracles on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

And, for whatever reason, the efficiency of the gulls seems to gain even more traction because nobody sees the crickets anymore. Most members of the Mormon Church know the story of the Mormon crickets, but very few could ever recognize one of the insects even if they saw it. The reason seems clear enough. Almost nobody ever does see one.

They are primarily restricted to the tops of high mountains – above tree-line. I have seen them on a few occasions as I have climbed some of the peaks in Colorado and Utah. But it seems that they only come down into cultivated areas rarely or in a few isolated places.

I have come to look upon the time of our lucky encounter with these insects with soberness. It combined the discovery of an uncommon creature with a sacred tradition. And the result somehow made the whole experience much more poignant.

I don’t believe that we have to be in the presence of something rare to experience this thrill. If this were true, very few of us would ever experience it. Some people may never experience it with living things. Perhaps they know the thrill from seeing an original Rembrandt painting or a rare golden coin. These can all be very exciting.

Finding an uncommon being, however, should be an extra meaningful experience among followers of the Judeo/Christian tradition. The Creation, after all, is part of our theology. A rare painting is not. Seeking them out can be one of life’s great pleasures.

It can also be addicting, although finding them can hardly be predicted. The hope, however, that I might find something unusual often compels me to start looking through maps and planning my next trip only days after I return from my last junket into the wild. I can never get enough. And I think we are made this way for a reason. We are supposed to be inspired by sacred things.


The New Testament references to Peter are in Acts 10:14 and 28. The reference in Hebrews is in Chapter 7, verse 26. On Gaston’s definition of rarity see, What is Rarity?; in, Kunin and Gaston’s The Biology of Rarity, Chapman and Hall, 1997. Ackerman’s quote on rarity from The Rarest of the Rare is in the introduction (on page xviii). You’ll have to excuse me for the phrase “a crackle of Mormon crickets” but I couldn’t resist the urge to use James Lipton’s interesting phrase (and a very appropriate phrase in our case of treaded insects). His book, An Exaltation of Larks, is a wonderful collection of nouns of multitude – or terms of venery as Lipton prefers. For a detailed account of the “Miracle of the gulls” see William Hartley’s “Mormons, Crickets, and Gulls: A New Look at an Old Story,” Utah Historical Quarterly 38 (summer 1970): 224-239.