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Sunday, August 07, 2016

“I Love You,” She Said Determinedly

Summer Evening at Skagen Beach
Peder Severin Krøyer (1899)
A man and a woman are going to bed. It’s been a long day — work has been vexing, the children have been demanding, calls and emails have piled up, and best efforts at getting it all done have failed. Irritations have built up; and at times, the couple has actually been a bit snappish.

The husband is middle-aged, and somewhat dumpy and slightly graying. His earlier grumpy mood has subsided only into a plodding weariness as he gets ready to turn in. He’s left his slippers askew in the corner again, and hung his trousers over the chair instead of putting them in the closet.

The wife turns to her husband and says, “I love you”.

Is she lying? For she certainly does not feel at that moment the particular emotions we associate with the feeling of love. She can see what he is, and she knows full well how difficult the day has been for them both. If she were asked, she could frankly tell you she never foresaw the day when she would be in this routine, mid-life kind of relationship, and a lot of the emotions it evokes are quite different from newlywed bliss. In fact, her words are part of a kind of ritual she performs almost every night — she says “I love you” to her husband whether she’s feeling it or not.

Is she lying?

Liar, Liar

Not really, says secular cultural philosopher Matthew Crawford. And his account of why is very interesting. Crawford claims that what she is saying is an act of faith, kind of a prayer [his words, not mine]. The woman “invokes something she values — the marital bond — and in doing so she turns away from her present discontent and toward this bond, however elusive it may be as an actual experience”. In other words, she’s consciously putting into words what she wants to prioritize, not what she happens to be experiencing emotionally at the moment. When she cannot feel the valuing of her husband as a person, she can still redirect her attention to the thing she does value: their bond.

The wisdom of managing one’s emotions by choosing to orient oneself to something better and higher is the key to an enduring relationship. Our society teaches us to be “authentic” by continuously plumbing the murky depths of our own feelings in order to pull to the surface some particular emotion to which we are supposed to be loyal. But feelings are treacherous little things: they shift, morph, appear and disappear without notice, and are very often misinterpreted even by ourselves. There are not a lot of firm answers available by staring within the self. Rather, emotional maturity consists in being able to ride out or “shock absorb” a lot of the erratic things our feelings are prompting, with a view to some more adult goal — like sustaining a committed marriage, or devoting ourselves to the Lord.

Feeeeelings …

However, the feelings often remain problematic. As the world never tires of telling us, “you can’t help how you feel”. So how can we be happy if the feelings we are having are not consonant with the longer-term goals we are trying to achieve?

Oddly enough, we can take a cue from novelist Iris Murdoch on that one:
“When strong emotions of sexual love, or of hatred, resentment or jealousy are concerned, ‘pure will’ can usually achieve little. It’s small use telling oneself ‘Stop being in love, stop feeling resentment, be just’. What is needed is a reorientation which will provide energy of a different kind, from a different source. Notice the metaphors of orientation and of looking … Deliberately falling out of love is not a jump of the will, it is the acquiring of new objects of attention and thus of new energies as a result of refocusing.”
Not a bad point, Iris.

In fact, the scriptures say something quite similar in a whole bunch of places: “Set your mind on things above”, “Seek first the Kingdom of God”, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, “The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” and so on.

This is what Thomas Chalmers famously called, “the expulsive power of a new affection”: you don’t get over a bad relationship by killing your capacity to love, but by supplanting it with an even greater love directed at a different object.

Actions and Words

But how does one direct affection?

The woman in the analogy at the start of this post knows. You take action toward something better. You commit, over and against your feelings, to what you have truly determined to value.

Notice that it would not be enough if the woman were just to think “I love you”. That would not only be insincere, but would not do what she wants: it would not affirm the bond. At the sound of her words, the husband is almost automatically going to be drawn into a reciprocal kind of confession: “I love you too, dear”. And only their mutual engagement in that moment, expressed through their common action, is going to refocus their individual lives on their common bond. And there is a deep sincerity in that: what it really means is, “We are not going to give up on each other just because things are not going our way at the moment. We are not going to be subject to our temporary and confused feelings. We are going to stay together”.

In other words, she actualizes her commitment. She puts it out there in the world, where it’s going to be heard and cause a reaction. She declares audibly her decision to love, but also by so doing feeds the dynamic that sustains the relationship she is wanting to value.

I have a feeling her feelings are likely to come around after all …

Hmmm …

I wonder how many Christians today really understand this. Our relationship with God is not sustained by our feelings, nor even by the level of our contentment with the lives God has given us. It’s sustained by worship: by the willful, deliberate and frequent turning to God to say, “I love you”, and thus to affirming the supreme value of the bond between the Lord and his beloved.

And if we feel our relationship is weak, could it be that we’ve been waiting for the feelings and not investing much in the relationship bond ourselves?

Just asking.

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