All relationships end in tragedy. We all know this of course but choose to ignore it since we so badly need our key relationships while we have them and focusing on the cold fact of their temporality is painful and debilitating. Just how is it that we consider “till death do us part” to be an acceptable premise to begin a relationship on? How awful. Jacob, the biblical patriarch seemingly began his relationship with his beloved wife Rachel in a more appropriate fashion — he bitterly wept upon meeting her (after falling in love at first sight) realizing that the two of them were destined to be separated.
Given these unassailable circumstances, how is it that we manage to get by? From where do we derive the strength to watch as the clock runs down on our time with our spouses, our children, our friends and our parents? We must think that whatever we get is intrinsically worth it — as they say “it’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.” But is it? I’m not so sure. This is what Solomon had to say about the level of satisfaction that humanity is capable of achieving in this world:
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Love, the root of our precious relationships, valued in life above all else, sought by all like gold, craved in all times and in all places, is a bottomless pit that can never be filled. There never will come a time when we say “ah, I’ve had the last interaction I’ll ever need with this person.” Even if we lived 1000 years we’d still want more — if only our beloved could just be around us — just a little more.
That’s why I ask the Lord in Heaven above
What is this thing called love?
— Cole Porter
Despite the universal, fundamental need of all of humanity for the experience of love in all of its varieties, how many of us have any idea what it is? What use is it? There are those who suggest that it’s a chemical illusion created by the brain and “designed” by evolution to promote the survival of our species. If so, I’d say evolution did a pretty lousy job. If anything, love is a great hindrance to us. It causes us to make crazy and rash decisions (Romeo and Juliet), to have less offspring so that we can pay more attention to each one and to lay down our lives – often for the weaker, less-viable portions of the population. Other life forms do a perfectly fine job of reproducing in a loveless manner – salmon do not carry a torch for “the one that got away” and mosquitoes do not endlessly pine for their departed fore-bearers as there’s nothing productive in that. No, it’s something else – something quite different.
The film Interstellar has a fantastic scene in which two astronauts (Cooper and Brand) are trying to pick which world to explore for possible life as the Earth was slowly dying. With limited time and resources, the decision was critical — but how to make it? Brand was in love with another astronaut who had preceded them to one of the planets and who had placed himself in a state of hibernation. She suggested that love was enough of a guide to chose that world:
COOPER: It [love] means social utility — child rearing, social bonding.
BRAND: We love people who’ve died … where’s the social utility in that? Maybe it means more – something we can’t understand, yet. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen for a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t yet understand it.
These lines, written by Christopher Nolan, strike me as extremely profound. Perhaps love, the prime directive of all human life, the un-useful yet massively powerful force, is not part of this physical world at all. If so, then perhaps it is the only way to remain connected to those who have departed this material existence — and the only hope of plugging the desperate, insatiable hole that opens whenever true love is generated between two people.
David Gelernter has an extraordinary chapter in his book “Judaism: a Way of Being” that’s entitled “Veil.” In it he outlines the Jewish concept of human separation from the spiritual realm. We are blocked from accessing it directly though can come as close as we like – our noses almost pressed against the surface – to discern its contours and to make inferences about what lies just beyond. The veil both separates and connects but only one thing in this universe is capable of creating that connection beyond the veil — love. Love is the key that unlocks “the other side.”
Only one thing can penetrate the veil. ‘The People of Israel are beloved,’ says the Talmud…God is hidden like the mezuzah text, separated from Israel by a sacred screen that is like a bridal veil — opaque except to love.
What about our dead who we miss so dearly and the love of them which can never be requited? In truth they are not so very far away — they are separated from us by only a thin screen. Sharon Stone, in describing her near-death experience, gestured in front of her and said “[the other world] is so close. It’s right here.” In Gelernter’s words:
When someone dies…we ask that God grant the departed “perfect peace beneath the wings of God’s presence.” We ask that the departed be gathered to God’s side beyond the veil. The phrase recalls cherubim’s wings screening the Ark of the Covenant, curtains screening the Holy of Holies, Moses’ veil…or the blanket spread over a sleeping child on a cold night. Judaism has developed many doctrines about death over the millennia but the simplest and deepest is this: our dead are beyond the veil – which is opaque, inviolable, and impenetrable, except by love.
In what ways should this knowledge affect us? It would seem that the generation and enhancement of love between individuals is conceivably the single most significant activity that a person can engage in. Most cultures and religious systems acknowledge this – few of us actually follow through. How many of us proactively worked on this today or the day before – or ever? Nonetheless, it is part of the definition of a successful and fulfilling life. As far as we know, we only have one shot at this. How many of us are consciously engaged in it? What is our plan to carry it out? What are the steps and the time-table? Do you want an authentically good life and true peace of mind? This is how it’s done. We have to teach ourselves how to love. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once wrote:
I’m going to talk with you about love today, which is life, and death; it is all the same thing. If you live well, you will never have to worry about dying. You can do that even if you only have one day to live. The question of time is not very important; it is a man-made, artificial concept anyway. To live well means basically to learn to love.
Love therefore, is the singular, wholly unique property of existence that is insatiable and angst-generating when applied to material reality but is nonetheless capable of generating eternal, soul-level bonding with those whom we love that can never be extinguished by distance, time or death itself. It’s something we would all do well to contemplate deeply.
It’s you and me
This love will open our world
From the dark side we can see a glow of something bright
There’s much more than we see here
Don’t burn the day away…
Wash out this tired notion
That the best is yet to come
But while you’re dancing on the ground
Don’t think of when you’re gone
Love love what more is there?
— Dave Matthews