I don’t know where we went wrong, but the feelin’s gone and I just can’t get it back!
(Gordon Lightfoot, “If You Could Read My Mind,” 1969)
Love never ends.
(St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:8)
To an alien traveler just sauntered in from a far distant part of the universe,it would be quite clear that our two speakers above were not talking about the same thing. In fact, it would be quite reasonable for our peripatetic alien to believe that Mr. Lightfoot and St. Paul were talking about two completely opposite things. He will be surprised to find that Mr. Lightfoot, in singing a tale of feelings lost, is talking about love also, but of a love that does end, as all feelings do. On this contradiction, between the feeling-based love of Mr. Lightfoot and the never-ending love of St. Paul, hangs the future of true love.
Two generations past, the sixties seduced old and young alike with a cry of “free love.” I am a member of that generation. We thought we could change reality by re-defining words. We were a generation that thought we could “diss” our parents, their parents and every parent past as archaic, repressed and downright boring. High on hubris, we thought we could re-define love itself. We thought we only had to make love to not make war. And we changed our lives to conform to our new definition of love.
The new “love” was certainly well intended. We meant no harm. Our love centered on simple good feelings. We wanted our love compatible with our drugs. Love was a feeling we got “hooked” on. And when we became unhooked, we simply moved on and didn’t look back at the damage in our wake, because, after all, that would not have made us feel good. We equated love with validating the desires and feelings of our fellow-man or fellow woman. That was a twofer. It made us feel good. Where these feelings and desires led and who they might hurt was not worth considering. As we pursued good feelings we found that love is here today, gone tomorrow, and off on another quest the day after tomorrow. Our quest for a love that made us feel good took us from one bedroom to another, from one marriage to another, and from one jumbled family of mixed relationships to another. We became “love” addicts, looking for one high after another. When one “love” ended we simply looked for another. We clearly crossed over the line from St. Paul’s love that never ends to Gordon Lightfoot’s feeling that won’t come back.
Sadly, in crossing this line, not only did we seldom make real love, we made war on the very meaning of love itself. We turned the meaning of love from something that began with consideration of the other to absorption with ourselves. We converted love from something exceptional and permanent to something ordinary and unstable and, for many, to something vulgar and pornographic that leads from moment to moment on a journey without end. Our quest for non-violence through so-called “love” led to violence unprecedented, only this time it was on children not yet born whose cries we would not hear. We rendered the word “love” meaningless while using it more and more in our art, music, movies, and public discourse to put our hearts on our sleeves for all to see and to justify ourselves as a people who cared, because caring felt good.
When we changed the meaning of love, we divorced it from the creation of new life, because we no longer saw children as the natural outcome of a love between a man and woman. We now saw children not as a gift we received but as a gift we gave ourselves to fulfill ourselves at a time of our choosing and not before. Whether this was best for the children involved was not our concern. When we took the child out of sex, we took the love out of sex, and that took the meaning out of marriage. When marriage ceased to mean the life-giving creative union of the marital act, it then meant…. Well, it meant nothing at all. When we took the meaning out of marriage we also lost the definition of parent. A parent was no longer part of an unbroken trinity of love with spouse and child but merely an interchangeable member in an arrangement of convenience between any two or more well-meaning adults and any combination of children.
When we lost the meaning of parent, we also lost the very meaning of sex as a simple scientific term to define the means by which living things procreate. We redefined sex as something that everybody needs and as anything involving our sex organs that even remotely felt good. Its procreative potential did not matter, nor did the hazards sex imposed on us. We redefined sex to include actions that people in an earlier day would never do to someone they loved. Sex no longer was a choice we made but background noise that merely happened in the day in and day out of our lives. The consequences were not our fault, but simply the way life was. There was no longer any reason to see our moments of physical “love” as a love that never ends, because with new life discounted, “love” could simply end when the morning came and be picked up anew at another time. Our “love” pushed the love of St. Paul into its grave and on it, with our ever-sandaled sixties feet, we kicked dirt.
If we are to bridle and reverse from the fast-approaching cliff before us, my generation must acknowledge its legacy. Those who do see the wreckage find themselves fighting a losing battle over the words love, marriage, parent, and sex. The very words we now need to defend ourselves, we have rendered meaningless because, in our moment of hubris, we thought love was ours to define. We have become dogs barking at roaring lions. Neither side knows what the other is talking about, because every single person can now associate the words, love, marriage, parent, and sex with any passing fancy.
Though the battle lines are drawn between the old love St. Paul describes and the new love Mr. Lightfoot sings of, those who defend St. Paul stand on undefined ground. On Mr. Lightfoot’s side, Hollywood and Madison Avenue saturate our senses with an endlessly alluring and seductive “love” that usually ends with two very attractive people of very brief acquaintance in a bedroom. On St. Paul’s side we gather in our churches, talk of a fuzzy, undefined “love” and go home undisturbed and unchallenged, except for the feeling that we should smile a bit more at our evermore broadly defined neighbors. We are left to further define “love” as we see fit. A battle so waged can only be lost to advocates of the new love.
Whereas the love St. Paul described truly embraced all, the new love cannot tolerate the old. Love that ends on a cross cannot be understood by those hooked on a feeling. The love of Jesus that St. Paul understood, the love that endures and suffers, will be called hate, and those who rally to it will be called haters. A love that places the other first cannot be first concerned with whether it will feel good. A love that places the other first can always love any other, but a love that seeks good feelings can only see as an enemy a love that subordinates feelings to choices that lead others to ultimate good. The advocates of the new love have turned the very word “love” against us. Through our own actions, we have recreated the confusion of Babel, where one man could no longer understand another. Our space alien visitor was right. The love St. Paul describes and the love Gordon Lightfoot describes are opposites. One cannot be the other.
My generation made a mess of love. We lost its very meaning to an emotionally appealing ersatz replacement based on a self-congratulatory “I’m okay, you’re okay” mentality, even as the growing debris of dying human relationships proved otherwise. We have left our children so deep in the muck that they no longer see a sky blue but accept a dull overcast gray as the normal light of day. The beauty of love based on subordinating our desires for the good of another, the beauty of the love of Jesus, we lost in a morass of sexuality that actually has nothing to do with sex properly understood. We must somehow reclaim the meaning of love as a gift of self, a gift we give always and not only when it feels good, a gift that sometimes leads to a cross. When John the Evangelist spoke of God as love, he spoke of a love that is larger than us, is constant and is eternal. It never was nor ever will be ours to mold to our times.