50th Anniversary of the Repose of C.S. Lewis
+ November 22, 1963 +
My first experience of the writing of C.S. Lewis was through his theological and cultural treatises. He made me a fan of theology when I was the ripe age of only 14. I still have yet to read any of his famous fictional work from start to finish. But the book which made the biggest difference in my life bridges those genres of fiction, culture, and theology. I picked up a copy of Lewis’ Four Loves when I was an undergraduate in college, and it changed my outlook on love and human relationships forever.
Affected as all of my peers were by the popular culture’s never ending mantra that “Love bites… Love bleeds,” I was caught up in the alluring nature of tragic love triangles, others’ and my own. Certainly had my heart broken as many times as I was the one doing the breaking, but it didn’t matter, as it all seemed to end with the same disconnected, jaded feeling. How did “Maybe we can just be friends” provide the necessary consolation when the last thing a person needs at that time in their life is friendship with someone who has rejected them seemingly at their deepest core?
Lewis claimed that at least part of the problem lay in the poorness of the English language for expressing the many varieties of love. The premise of his book is an uncovering of the meaning of four distinct Greek terms for love and their rough English equivalents. Without these subtle distinctions of meanings in love’s many varieties, there is a tendency, says Lewis, to reduce all of the loves to just one, leading to a demonic distortion of their true nature.
In the above example of romantic attraction, what starts as a Need-love (“I want her and cannot live my life without her”) never matures or steps back into an Appreciative-love, the ability to gaze at someone without calculating what they can do to fulfill our desire. Lewis writes:
Need-love says of a woman “I cannot live without her”; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection— if possible, wealth; Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist even if not for him, will not be wholly dejected by losing her, would rather have it so than never to have seen her at all.
Or as G.K. Chesterton puts it, “Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman.” The reason that our loves have bitten us back so hard and caused us to bleed is that we have lost the ability of disinterested appreciation for something beautiful. It’s always about “what’s in it for me”, and so, in the end, there is nothing left but the “me”.
And this “me” gets worn out and tired of always getting hurt. We seek for refuge in escaping from people; we wish to relate to anything, anything that does not entail the risk of human relationships. Our pets become “man’s best friends”, and instead of being their master, we wish to claim them as children and us as their “parents”. But Lewis warns of the dangers inherent in this extreme pulling away from human society:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.’
And so Lewis taught me that to love involves not only risk but great sacrifice. It bleeds not from self-inflicted wounds of self-pity but from the fearless courage of a romantic adventurer, one who is truly free to choose and not merely to fall passively into one love triangle after another. For the final teacher of human love is none other than the ultimate sacrifice of divine Agape which commands and fulfills all of the other loves by teaching us to lose ourselves so that we can find ourselves again in others and in God.