We must guard love in this world of easy pleasures

July 25, 2009
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This Credo article was published in The Times on 25th July 2009

One day I was called on to officiate at two funerals. The families involved were old friends of ours, but they lived in different parts of London and did not know one another. In both cases, the wife had died after a long and happy marriage. One couple had just celebrated, and the other was just about to celebrate, their diamond wedding.

What was striking was that both husbands said the same thing to me, in virtually identical words: “I loved her as much as the day we first fell in love.” To hear that once, after 60 years of marriage, would have been rare. To hear it twice on the same day seemed like more than mere coincidence.

Both couples were religious. Prayer and going to the synagogue, celebrating Sabbath and the festivals, and giving time and money to others, were integral to their lives. They knew that in Judaism the home is as sacred as a house of worship. Did these things, I wondered, have something to do with the strength and persistence of their love?

We tend to think that emotions, especially one as capricious as love, are simply what we feel. We don’t choose our likes and dislikes, our fears and joys. They catch us unawares. They can hold us helpless in their grip. The words “passion” and “passive” are related. So we conclude that we can’t help feeling what we feel.

Recent developments in psychotherapy suggest otherwise. Cognitive behavioural therapy is based on the premise that what we feel is influenced by what we think, and we can change the way we think. Positive psychology has had success in turning pessimists into optimists by reframing people’s perceptions. Martin Seligman, the pioneer in this field, calls pessimism “learnt helplessness”, and what can be learnt can be unlearnt.

So it is with love. Someone who believes that marriage is “just a piece of paper”, that sex comes without commitments, and that pleasure is the measure of all things, will have one range of emotions. One who believes that marriage is a sacred covenant, that love is inseparable from loyalty, and that what we love we make sacrifices for, will have another. Because they think different thoughts, they will feel different things.

What we think is shaped by our culture, and whole cultures can be sensitive to some things, tone-deaf and mind-blind to others. In the delightful novels of Jane Austen, for example, who you can fall in love with depends, to a degree we find strange nowadays, on the size of their annual income. In her world, marriage and social class were almost inseparable. Love is not just an emotion. It has a social and cultural history.

Hillary Clinton is fond of the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”. Sometimes it takes a culture to sustain a marriage. Jews were traditionally known for their strong marriages because much of Judaism is focused on the home, and because the Jewish week and the Jewish year make sacred space for family time. When many Jews lost these rituals, divorce rates rose until they became similar to the rest of the population.

In any culture, some marriages work, others don’t. Some last, others split apart. That’s how it is. The failure of a relationship shouldn’t induce in us a feeling of guilt. We tried, we failed and we move on, hopefully with a minimum of acrimony and a maximum of mutual respect. But that does not mean there is nothing we can do to give love a better chance.

To see love as the force that moves the Universe, to love God and know that God loves us, to celebrate love in ritual and song and know that it means constancy and faithfulness, to understand that love gives and forgives, and to see in the birth of a child the love that brings new life into the world: these give love a better chance. And in a world of easy pleasures, short attention spans and fragile relationships, love needs a better chance.

That is what faith does. Sanctifying love, it protects it from the thousand temptations to which it is daily exposed. That day when I heard two old friends in the midst of grief speak of a love undiminished over time, I thought of Dylan Thomas’s famous words, “Though lovers be lost, love shall not; and death shall have no dominion”, and knew that loving God helps us to love one another.