No one who has ever stubbed a toe against something in the dark while trying to make their way to the bathroom in the middle of the night has ever seriously questioned the existence of their external reality. If there is one thing that reminds us that we are indeed trapped within the soft, tangible sponge of our human flesh, it's a sudden and unexpected jolt of stabbing pain. In the dark whenever a traumatic sting of reality creates a brief flash of throbbing fireworks within our heads, the philosophical question that bursts into our consciousness is not whether the thing we banged into is imaginary or concrete, but rather why does it hate us so much that it would attack us when we least expect it? While there may be times when after waking in the middle of the night, we lie awake in the silent comfort of our beds and contemplate who we are and what we're doing with our lives; when the whiny demands of our bladder force us to leave the safe confines of our sheets to navigate the nocturnal quagmire of our homes, we know exactly who we are: we are the vulnerable victims of inanimate objects that are waiting for just that right opportunity to hurt us.
Do inanimate objects really hate us and want to hurt us? Of course they do, I don't know a single person who has not at some time in their lives been smacked, whacked, or bashed by a devious, lifeless thingamajig that took precisely the most opportune moment to snap, break, or splinter. Show me someone who doesn't believe that nonliving things hate us, and I'll show you someone who has never had to start a lawnmower. If you want to believe that our physical reality is not filled with sharp objects that are yearning to poke us or heavy objects that are craving the chance to fall upon us, then that is certainly your prerogative, but I would remind you that the word “prerogative” comes from the Latin pre meaning “before” and rogare meaning “to ask” so, in other words, if you go through life expecting not to get hurt by inanimate objects, then you are – in the immortal words of Charles Darwin – “asking for it.” Okay, maybe Charles Darwin never said that, but he would have said it if he weren't so afraid of something falling on his head. Or maybe that was Sir Isaac Newton who eventually learned not to sit under apple trees and who was also a pretty smart fellow even if he did use far too many vowels to spell his first name.
Although you may be wondering if I have a point to all of this, (and trust me, you're not alone in this as I have spent the last half hour wondering the same thing myself), the crux of it all is if the physical world doesn't care all that much for us – icing up our car windows to make us late for work or spilling hot cups of coffee on our clothes fleeting moments before important meetings with people who then have to wonder if we might make it a habit of going around looking like scruffy refugees – then it is vital that we try our best to love one another, stains and all. If the world is determined to send spiteful clods of goo and gloom into our lives, then we need to recognize just how important it is to look out for each other and love each other regardless of our imperfections. All of us are stuck with the same menacing gravity looking to trip up our feet and the same winter clouds hovering above our heads looking to darken our perspectives. It's not a coincidence that we celebrate Valentine's Day in mid-February; if we didn't have little cardboard hearts to remind us that it's the love we have for each other that brings meaning to our existence, then we might not make it to March.
I'm not just talking about the Big Romantic Love, either. I've been married for more than a quarter of a century, and I am truly blessed to be able to say I have that Big Romantic Love. No one has it better than I do when it comes to having a supportive, affectionate spouse. The love I feel for (and from) my wife, Ruth, has saved my life more often than all the safety belts in America has saved the lives of automobile passengers in the past fifty years; nonetheless it's the Bigger Love, the love for what happens to all of us, that provides the spark that inspires the internal desire to keep moving forward when the world keeps offering reasons to retreat into solitude and despair.
While it's easy to argue that love means a lot of different things to lots of different people, the Bridge of Love spans everything from momentary affection to lifelong ardor, what it really comes down to, however, is our ability to communicate that we care for each other. The love I feel for others – my family, my friends, my neighbors, my co-workers, my students, and those kind-hearted strangers who are willing to let me know that we are safe in each other's presence – may not equal the depth and intensity of the love I feel for my wife, but it's the totality of our mutual love that makes life worth living. While it's often tempting to surrender to cynicism and chalk up all expressions of fondness to the marketing forces of florists and confectioners, let's remember that a simple post-it note can be as powerful as a diamond in letting someone know that you care about them.
A story: Years ago, in the early decades of Christianity, a man was imprisoned for marrying Roman soldiers who were forbidden by the empire from wedding their sweethearts. The commanders of the legion in those days believed that soldiers who left wives behind were less willing to risk their lives in the heat of battle. While in prison awaiting the day of his execution, the man became friendly with one of his guards, a jailer whose name was Asterius. After they grew to know each other well enough, Asterius asked his prisoner if there were any truth to the stories of miraculous healing that were sometimes attributed to conversion to Christianity. Asterius had a daughter who had been born blind, and he was willing to bring his girl to meet with the prisoner if there were any chance that he might be able to help her. Before long the prisoner and the daughter of his jailer became good friends. She brought him food and he gave her the feeling that there was more to life than merely surviving from one day to the next – even though as a man whose execution day had been set, that pretty much summed up what he should have been doing. On the day of his execution, the man gave Asterius a note to give to his daughter that said she should never give up hope and that his love for her would survive well beyond his actual physical death. “She won't be able to see this,” Asterius told the prisoner. “I believe she will,” he said. He had signed the note, “from your Valentine,” and this, of course, was the first Valentine note ever given. She did see the note; her eyesight had been miraculously restored. Although Valentine, the prisoner, had been put to death, his affection for the daughter of the guard who would take him to his doom continued to live on and still continues to live on in the small acts of love we do for each other in his memory.
Anyone who would say they need a story to be literally and historically true in order to believe in it entirely misses the point of St.Valentine's Day. It's not facts that sustain us in the cold dark days of February; it's love. You can't “prove” love. You can only share love. And, perhaps, hope the next random sharp object to poke you in the chest is the point of Cupid's arrow. This week, in honor of Valentine's Day, I'm even going to try to love the people I don't care for very much. To paraphrase John Lennon, imagine everyone doing that.
Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back next week.