As a pastor, I used to get so tired of people jumping in and out of marriage just because they fell in love or fell out of it. I said to one, “You sure are doing a lot of falling!”
The best thing I’ve read on the subject of love in ages is a small booklet which Margaret and I have used for our newlywed (and nearlywed) Sunday School class. “Romantic Love” has as its subtitle: “Using Your Head in Matters of the Heart.” Since it’s by Psychologist James Dobson, you know it’s filled with straight talk and biblical common sense. And a great story, which I’m saving for last. (No fair scrolling to the end!)
The trouble starts, says Dr. Dobson, when boy meets girl and the entire sky lights up in romantic profusion. “Smoke and fire are followed by lightning and thunder, and alas, the starry-eyed couple find themselves knee-deep in true love.”
At least, that’s the modern perception.
Adrenalin pours into the bloodstreams of the two smitten victims of Cupid, while electrical charges surge up and down their backbones. Their mouths go dry, they swoon, they have eyes for no one else in the room. For days, they want to do nothing but spend time together. If they could, they would metamorphose into a single organism. They talk endlessly on the phone, the sound of the other’s voice is magical, they’ve never felt this way before.
Except for the last time. And the time before that.
But this time it’s for real, no doubt about it. How could anyone feel this way and not be in love.
“This feels so good, it can’t be wrong.” That’s how it works. (Ask the Debby Boone song from a few years back if you doubt it.)
Now, the news from headquarters which needs to be broadcast on every frequency and plastered on every human brain is: THAT IS NOT LOVE. It’s a lot of things, but love is not one of them.
It’s a chemical reaction, an electrical jolt, a great feeling. It’s sexual attraction, infatuation, puppy love. It’s an emotional high, a heady impulse, magic. And, according to this generation, it’s proof positive that we were meant for each other. If you don’t believe that, well, you just haven’t been watching enough movies about love.
“You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle”–both creations of Nora Ephron–are fun movies to watch, but they and a thousand just like them perpetuate the myth of romantic love. If you feel it, then you’ve got it, and if you don’t, you haven’t, and therefore don’t have a chance for a real marriage.
I think about my friend Charles who married Mary Sue forty years ago. He was a young professor and she was the cheerleader adviser for the college. They made a striking couple. They loved each other, I’m confident, and were active in church. In time they became the parents of a son and a daughter. After the children were grown and married, Mary Sue came down with a strange disease that slowly sapped the life out of her. For the last decade of her earthly existence, she did not know she was in the world, but lay on the hospital bed in her bedroom while Charles took care of her. He taught his classes while a sitter watched over her, then came straight home to tend to her. No one dared ask Charles if he “felt” love, if he had now “fallen out of love” with Mary Sue since she could no longer respond to him. We know without a question that what they had was true love.
Sue Ellen and James are in their twentieth year of marriage. He has grown children from a first marriage; they have no children together. James is within a few years of retirement and Sue Ellen works in a medical office. Five years ago, James had a bad fall that left him with some minor brain empairment. He is still able to work and drive his truck, he carries on normal conversations, and looks the same. But Sue Ellen says he is a different person from the one she married. And he is slowly getting worse. “I’m now living,” she said to me recently, “the ’til death do you part’ portion of our marriage vows.”
I did not and shall not ask her if she “feels” love for James. He devotion to him makes the question an insult.
Love is not about feeling. It is about commitment. The feeling, the emotion, of love is like the caboose on the back of a train. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s absent, but the train rolls on. The locomotive is commitment.
Whenever James Dobson encounters people trying to build a marriage on nothing more substantial than an emotional reaction, he tells them of his mother’s high school in the year 1930. Located in a little town in Oklahoma, the school had produced some terrible football teams, year after year getting beaten badly by all the surrounding schools. Their morale was as low as it is possible to get.
One day a local oil man decided to do something about their terrible football team and the town spirit. After another embarrassing defeat on a Friday night, the businessman asked the coach if he could address the team. What followed, says Dr. Dobson, was one of the most dramatic football speeches of all time. This businessman made these high school boys an offer that staggered their imaginations.
If their team would simply defeat their arch-rivals in the next football game, the oil man would give each boy on the team and each coach a brand new Ford automobile. The team went ballistic. They stomped and slapped and jumped and yelled. This was too bizarre, too unheard of, too wonderful. Right in the middle of the Great Depression, in the heart of the Dust Bowl, something good is finally happening to these kids.
Soon the entire school caught the fever and the campus was electric all week. It was all anyone talked about in town. Players went to sleep at night dreaming of scoring touchdowns and driving new cars. They had no trouble making practice after school and staying late to learn the plays. This game was going to be one for the books.
Friday night, the excitement was at an all-time high. After the coach’s comments, the boys rushed out of the locker room to face their foes from the town up the road a few miles. They won the coin toss, and flowed onto the field ready to make history. They were demolished 38-0.
Dr. Dobson says, “The team’s exuberance did not translate into a single point on the scoreboard. Seven days of hoorah and whoop-de-do simply couldn’t compensate for the players’ lack of discipline and conditioning and practice and study and coaching and drill and experience and character. Such is the nature of all emotions, particularly romantic love. It has a definite place in human affairs, but when forced to stand alone, it usually reveals itself to be unreliable and ephemeral and even a bit foolish.”
Emotions of all kind, not just “love”, must be accountable to the faculties of reason and will. How we feel is important, but never the most important thing. What you know and what you do will always carry the day, regardless how you feel.
Like a good piano, love is grand, but it must be upright.