by Pat Nogoy SJ
“How does love change? The better question is: how do we change because of love. The answer is simple: Continuously, Foolishly, Endlessly.”—Ann Packer, A Dive from Clausen’s Pier
Seated on a vast lawn overlooking the valley in one humid afternoon, a recent graduate whom I have guided was sharing her difficulties about her relationship. She was narrating incidents, though seemed small, were powerful enough to affect her inner self. There were many incidents of small arguments, significant instances of not being there when needed or not being “impactful” despite her presence, and of important occurrences of uncomfortable silence. After her sharing, she asked me a simple but very difficult question: “What do you think?” I asked for time and, in this instance, it took me a lot of time before I could speak. What was going through my mind was a little examination of those moments that I have thought and wrote about love given these instances. It dawned on me that I never really began with and explored the reality of conditional love. It was scary for a moment since I chose to enter an unexplored viewpoint. But it was a good scare.
Looking at those several incidents my student shared to me reveals a story: the history of the beloved unraveling itself moment by moment given the lover’s frequent interaction. The beloved narrates her tale through words and deeds. She undoubtedly reveals herself and this revelation is the boon and bane of her relationship with the lover.
The lover receives this revelation and, for the most part, struggles with it. The beloved’s revelation shows how she is a total Other (Levinas), very different from the lover (if not the opposite). Her ways and means, dislikes and likes, abilities and disabilities, gamut of emotions, levels of imagination and thought, latitude of dreams and the longitude of wounds—her very self—is too much for the lover to receive and handle. The beloved appears to be a double-edged sword, the one that cuts the lover in beauty and madness.
Any excess is dangerous. One can never have too much.
Here lies the rub. The beloved’s revelation also discloses the lover’s capacity or boundaries (to his surprise) of receiving. He acknowledges his own limits in light of the beloved’s revelation. He has his own story—likes and dislikes, levels of imagination, gamut of emotions, wounds and dreams. His own story “limits” his responses of love in given situations especially in, what Karl Jaspers calls, limit situations. The lover realizes he can only take so much. He can either retreat or charge.
Slowly surfacing is the reality of boundary. A boundary is a demarcation. It sets one’s limits. It identifies space. It enables to distinguish me from the other. Both lover and the beloved have boundaries. There are risks in facing boundaries. One that is often avoided with much effort, reason, and will is pain. The possibility of getting hurt is more than enough to respect each other’s boundaries.
When the lover decides to charge, he pushes his own boundaries. Like an athlete, he finds out that he can extend his patience, deepen his listening, and set aside his prejudices and interests to accommodate the beloved. He discovers that his boundaries are not that fixed and hard. He realizes that his so-called limits are flexible. He learns to adjust.
Adjust comes from the Latin adjuxtare which means to bring near. The beloved’s presence is the asymptote—the line that is never crossed but desired—that defines the adjustment. The nearness to the beloved is the goal guiding the lover in his push of boundaries. The pushing of boundaries is none other than self-giving. The lover is a self-giver. However, self-giving happens not without hurt or even pain for it demands change.
Change is a movement from point A to point B. Change asks the lover to move: set aside his comforts, tweak his dream, yield his preferences, expand his horizon, and compromise his ideals and beliefs. The movement in order to be near the beloved entails the lover to lose his self. At the beginning, the beloved’s presence and revelation requires space. The lover loses himself already by making space for the beloved. As time goes on, the beloved not only creates spaces but also pulls the lover in the nearness of her. Thus, the lover chooses to lose again by changing—moving toward the nearness of the beloved.
In changing by losing himself, the lover discovers how his boundaries are elastic. This elasticity enables him to grow by discovery and assimilation through the beloved’s revelation. Yet, this is done not without hurt or even pain. To set aside one’s comfort is irritating. To not be acknowledged for one’s efforts in yielding is hurtful. To be charged for lack of impact is unfair. To be asked again and again to adjust is unjust. One can only take so much. At this crucial point, the lover and beloved realize that what they have is practically too human, too impossible to be eternal or divine. The beloved becomes, at a certain point, impossible. However, these limit situations can surprisingly be defining moments. When the lover chooses to adjust in spite of the seeming impossibility, his choice breaks the boundaries of conditionality. The choice to adjust—to move toward the beloved—becomes unconditional. The moment is indeed defining—love becomes the reason. The moments of adjustment can appear as little or even belittled yet behind every adjustment lies a story of the lover deciding against himself, thereby losing himself for the beloved. These elastic moments are divine.
Holding hands remind the lover and beloved of the tension of boundaries and union. Spaces lie between the fingers; they demarcate the lover’s hand from the beloved’s. When the lover and the beloved hold hands, this space is filled with each other’s differences. The union is ironically borne out of loving exchanges of different selves despite their dissimilarities. The I can only be united with an Other. Yet, for the most part, there is the push and pull, the varying degrees of rough grips and tender caresses that mirror the struggle to stay together forever. In certain points the lover needs to be tender, to be a warm comfort for the beloved, but, because of his history of insecurities, idiosyncrasies, and limits, he delivers a hardened grip to fill his need. Or, at boiling points, he refuses the hand of the beloved.
Holding the hand of the other tells a remarkable tale of reaching out despite the gravity and boundary of differences. Holding hands require adjustment of space and self, of continuous striving to resemble the other in the context of self-donation. Holding hands form a bridge where the self-giving of the lover and beloved transpires. The desire for union only happens in an open hand. One cannot reach out and hold a closed fist.
Reality of Fatigue
Movement, not inertia, opens up capacities within the lover that are undiscovered or unimagined. The lover becomes and the beloved helps shape his becoming. Drawing near to the beloved means resemblance. The lover and beloved resemble one another as they choose to adjust and push their boundaries, as they continue in freedom to lose themselves in their self-giving. The lover and beloved change as they persist in their love for one another. The image of union is drawn up by their resemblance to one another. I become who I love.
However, for most days, the lover and beloved experience the hardness of boundaries, the exasperation of giving, and the inertia of the self. Oftentimes (and it is justifiable at that), the choice to protect one’s self prevails, leading the lover to negotiate with the beloved. Compromise (which is not equivalent to adjustment) becomes a more practical and human solution in order for the relationship to carry on. Compromises nurtures hardened stances, safeguarding one’s own interests, dreams, and space. Movement becomes infrequent until the lover and beloved reaches a standstill. They face each other’s boundaries that have become brick walls, asking the question: maybe it is enough?
Adjustment can degenerate into compromise. Compromise leads to the exposition of limits. Here, both the lover and beloved confronts the reality of finitude, awakening to the reality that what they actually have is too human, fallible, and conditional. Enough opens the reality of a standstill where one is justified in his leaving. Leaving is completely rational. One has given much if not all. Hans Urs Von Balthasar explains in Love Alone: The finite limits of human existence seem to be a permanent justification for the finite limits of love. Isn’t this true?
There are certain points in human experience, especially in limit situations, where love seems to manifest its limits (that it is perfectly justifiable to retreat and remain to be self-concerned). What we can actually have is finite love drawn up by the power of the will (Nietzsche). The varied life experiences that test the lover and beloved’s self-giving makes it possible, rational, and “just” for closed fists. A concrete example is a situation where both the lover and beloved are exhausted from the constant adjusting and re-adjusting. They reach a standstill. They face the brick walls of their own boundaries. They suddenly find that their open hands became icy fists. And what is more burdening is the compelling evidence to stay inert and closed. I have to take care of myself since I have been used up. I have already given everything.
What happens when the lover and beloved both honestly admit that there is no more left to give?