Walking among the dead with my Dzia Dzia (grandfather) was an oddly inspiring moment. We had just eaten breakfast, after which I took my grandfather to the cemetery to visit my Busia (grandmother). We’d made this trip before, on occasion, and knew it would be difficult, though rewarding for both my Dzia Dzia and me. A vibrant blue sky marked with bright clouds shone upon the green fields and my Busia’s grave as we walked up to her and said a silent prayer, my Dzia Dzia’s voice cracking as he admired the cross my uncle had built for Busia. We returned to the car where Dzia Dzia suggested we go around the cemetery to visit his parents, siblings, and other relatives whom I had never known. *
So we took the trip, and I saw the graves of his parents, the parents of my Busia, his sisters, and other friends and family whom he pointed out. As we made our way through the fields, into and out of mausoleums, I was told stories of a family I had not known. I heard of how much fun Uncle Benny was at sausage-making, about how my great aunt married a dentist, or a tale of a lifelong neighbor and dear friend. Every time we would visit a grave, we would check to make sure the crosses my Dzia Dzia had built were still standing. Though I don’t know or fully understand what this experience was for my Dzia Dzia, I heard the pain of loss and joy of memory emanate from his voice in these stories.
I cannot know what it is like to walk among so many friends and family who went to God. I wanted to push away the thought that one day I would be in Dzia Dzia’s shoes, walking among the dead, the same sorrow in my heart. Still, the thought would cross my mind, and I began to wonder whether it is worth loving someone so much that their departure would cause pain that would never fully heal.
Earlier that same week I had a conversation about the nature of love and suffering. Concerning my own struggles, a friend had told me that, “You are really on your own. No one can understand or care as much as you do, no one can do as much for you as yourself.” It is good advice, very practical and useful for dealing with the myriad of challenges that life can present. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is the point of loving someone, truly willing their own good above your own, if it can bring so much pain when they hurt themselves? It is hard enough to suffer the struggles of one’s own life, but to endure the struggles of others alone is unbearable.
Coupled with my Dzia Dzia’s stories, love seems irrational, inexplicable. Even if a friendship or relationship has a net positive impact, all things will come to an end in death. And to give a part of yourself to another, just to lose it when they depart, to know that we will feel pain, perhaps the worst pain we will ever feel – how can love be rational?
Even worse than that, some relationships produce a net negative impact. Love can so often be corrupted, and even the best people in life will disappoint. St. Augustine opens the third book of his Confessions to this effect, saying of himself and his friends, “we lived seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving, in divers lusts; openly, by sciences which they call liberal; secretly, with a false-named religion; here proud, there superstitious, every where vain” (Confessions, Book 3). In such a world, it makes little sense to give up parts of yourself for another.
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
People will always fail you. Nowhere, except in pursuing deep love, is our sinful nature more evident. This command of Scripture is a road to suffering. Relationships can be beautiful, but our own weakness leads to cycles of anger, envy, outrage, or a variety of other vices that destroy love. At the root exists a fundamental distrust of the other.
The belief that the other is, in one manner or another, against you leads down a dark road. Lack of trust destroys love, and given our fallen nature we all do things, make the mistakes, that give mistrust a foundation. Friendships, families, and marriages are broken every day because of broken trust and a feeling of betrayal. Some respond to this hurt by cutting themselves off from deep relationships, others may persist in the pain and do nothing to improve it, and some seek improvement, but the fight is hard and uphill.
With effort, sacrifice, and forgiveness, however, we can grow only when such love is rooted in God. Unlike other humans, God will not fail or be mistaken. Our trust in God will forever be secure. Paul’s second letter to Timothy states that “if we are faithless, He[God] remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). With our trust in God, we will be always able to endure the frailty of humanity and continue on a path of forgiveness and devotion. In deep friendship, we lose part of ourselves; in full relationship with God, we lose all of ourselves. Everything we cling to in life is to be given to God out of love. To love another is a way in which we love God. The pain of surrendering our own desires and wants in a friendship helps build us to a point where we can give up everything for God, to take up our cross and follow him.
Perhaps love is irrational; this is true in terms of survival alone!** Nevertheless, that push to care for others and truly surrender yourself to God in the process exists in all of us and pushes us on our path in life. I can’t imagine the difficulty of walking among those who have departed this life. I can’t imagine that feeling of loss, but I also do not know the joy of memory and looking back on the beauty of the sacrifices you made and that were made for you in this journey of life. Ultimately, we all desire to love and be loved unconditionally, and complete irrational trust in others (rooted in a trust in God) is the way towards true agapē.
*I would like to note that the following are my reflections and come from a place of youth and inexperience. Yet in my own life and in conversation with those older and wiser than me I have put together these thoughts to express the inspiration and beauty of selfless love that I have been inspired by from so many in my own life.
**Perhaps the term ‘super-rational,’ meaning above reason, is a better term to describe love.