Our Capacity to Love
Although I haven’t heard this sentiment from other than Christians, I suspect they are not the only religious people who find it hard to imagine how an atheist copes. This makes sense. After all, if you find comfort in your relationship with God, you might conclude that peace comes from this connection alone, yet I have known many atheists, and from them, I have learned that the ability to cope with hardship, to find peace in the midst of adversity, has less to do with the specifics of one’s belief than with the capacity one has to love.
Of course, this begs the question, what is love? The obvious answer is, it is many things.
For instance, love is passion. We see it in the fevered coupling of bodies or in athefervent loyalty to country, ideal, and faith. Love clouds our reason and inspires us to resist, to attack, and, if necessary, to die. Love may be expressed in the steady presence of a grandparent, the tenderness of a caregiver, the succulent meals of a cook.
Biology has a role in our feelings of love. Dopamine and norepinephrine give us that giddy, excited feeling we connect with romantic love. Oxytocin fuels attachment. Because it spikes during sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding, it does a great job helping us bond. 
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to all of this. When these chemicals get out of control, we become jealous, we find it impossible to concentrate. If separated from our beloved, we pine. Though attachment may feel good, it also encourages us to overprotect our friends and distrust strangers. Often, the greater the intensity of our love, the stronger our hate. Loyalty for one breeds contempt for the other. In this way, love can tear nations apart.
It seems no love is pure. The grandparent, caregiver, and chef are all invested in the outcome. Perhaps they desire praise, long to see their descendants thrive, or thrill with the satisfaction that comes with success. How much of what we do comes from love and how much from our need to receive?
On the other hand, such powerful surges of love can frighten us. We may become overwhelmed by the ferocity of our bonds. Doris Lessing, for instance, abandoned her children in part because she felt stifled by the “invisible navel string,” as she put it, that connected them one to the other, a string through which an immense love flowed. 
Most every parent has felt that kind of love, the besotted pleasure that comes from gazing into an infant’s eyes. The strength of that love may depend on how much oxytocin we release, but it is there, and Lessing chafed against it.
As Lara Feigel explains in her article, “The Parent Trap,” her chafing, her longing for freedom, may have had less to do with her children themselves than with her marriage to “a resolutely conventional man.”  Lessing longed to be a writer. In the 1940s, a woman in Southern Rhodesia would have a hard enough time doing this without living with a man who obstructed her. Perhaps she was not so much leaving children as leaving him. According to Feigel, she was also finding herself. Love of self and love of other sometimes conflict.
Human Love is Broken
Such human failings, such ambivalence toward our beloved, may be what motivated Henri Nouwen to write, “There is no human love that is not broken somewhere.” 
Even so, we long for that unconditional, ever-present, fully accepting love. As Gerald May put it in his book, The Awakened Heart, “Every person on this earth yearns to love, to be loved, to know love. Our true identity, our reason for being, is to be found in this desire.”  It is for this, he says, that we were made.
May is referring to these lines in “Little Black Boy,” a poem by William Blake, “And we are put on earth a little space,/ That we may learn to bear the beams of love,”  when he explores what it means to bear something like love. To bear means to endure an ordeal, to support the weight of a burden, to spread an experience to others, “as children carry laughter and measles.”  We must “bear” love because, while we long for it, its enormity can overwhelm us.
Yet while love can be turbulent and terrifying, agonizing and confusing, it is meant to be enjoyed. Relish its quiet moments, those times as comforting as hot cocoa with marshmallows, as tender as baby’s breath. Surrender to its bliss. When we come to know this side of love without protecting ourselves from the risks, then we will be able to spread love into the world.
Reflecting God’s Love
This spreading of love is the third meaning of “bear” that May describes. It is also our purpose. We are here in this space of the world to bring forth love as women bring forth children, bearing them in our bodies and expelling them as an offering. This expelling is itself a kind of love, for it is not easy to set free what is part of us, to relinquish, to let go. If this brings us grief, then we bear this, too. We endure it and share it, for freeing our beloved is another aspect of love.
To understand the complexity of love, to hold it within us without flinching, to spread it without prejudice, does not come easy. Indeed, according to May and Nouwen, unless we first experience that perfect, divine love, it is impossible. However, if we can “claim that eternal love for ourselves,” as Nouwen puts it, we might be able to bear this sacred love, after all. We might learn to bring it forth so that “our temporal loves” might live “as reflections or refractions of God’s eternal love.” 
As we read in 1 John, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19-20). If we haven’t felt the kiss of unconditional love, how can we express it?
Cherished by the Rain
But perhaps this unconditional love need not come from a deity. May describes a day when he was young and stood in a field, gazing at the sky, “just being in love.” Rather than being in love with a thing or a person, he experienced a love that “was more like being immersed in an atmosphere of love.” He felt fully present and wondrously alive, “intimately connected with everything around” him. 
This love requires no friend, no animal, no god to fill us. It vibrates in the air, settles like pollen on the grass, and is available to us all. In his book, Raids on the Unspeakable, Thomas Merton speaks of sitting alone at night in the forest, hearing the rain fall, listening to it speak among the trees and in the hollows, feeling “cherished” by the stillness, the presence that lay within the music of the rain. 
Is this not a kind of love, this deep connection to source that has no name and no religion? It is life touching life. Can we claim a love like this, a love that is wholly other and wholly the same?
Perhaps, though, we need not so much claim love as allow it. As one of our recovery church members pointed out, love is there even if we’re not aware of it. All we must do is awaken to it. Within the beams we are to bear lies love. We need just let it in.
Blake’s poem shows us how difficult that is. Not only do we struggle to wake up to the truth of enduring love, but if we do awaken, we still misunderstand.
The poem starts with a little, black boy who, in his sweet innocence, has soaked up the messages of his culture that tell him his blackness is bad. He compares himself to an “English child,” a boy “[w]hite as an angel,” while he, with his black skin, is “bereav’d of light.”
Seeing his despair, his mother tries to teach him how wonderful he is. She says:
Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.
The sun shines on everyone and everything, proving that God loves us all. In particular, God loves a little black boy who doesn’t understand that his “sun-burnt face” is “but a cloud” that will disappear when God calls him home. In her effort to explain this, his mother adds:
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice.
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.
There both the black boy and the English boy will be “cloud free.” They will run together round God’s tent in great joy.
Turning Pain into Holiness
Yet the poem is not yet complete. Blake ends it with this sweet, innocent child’s promise:
I’ll shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our father’s knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.
The boys seems not to comprehend what his mother tells him. Though he believes that he, along with the English boy, will soar to heaven when they die, he cannot get past the idea that he needs to protect this white child, bear the brunt of God’s heat until the other boy has acclimated to the presence of the divine. After all, the black child is used to the bright light of God’s love, to the intensity of the heat life sheds. Has the harshness of that love not turned his skin black? We must bear these beams of love, for though they can be tender, they are not painless. Along with our joy, God brings us suffering.
Perhaps it is some sort of consolation that the boy has learned kindness from the difficulties of the world. Compassion so often arises out of tragedy and trauma. Yet compassion cannot bloom in us unless, as one of our members said, we first “give up our sense of fairness and justice and retribution.” Most of us refuse to do such a thing, yet here is this child who is so holy and innocent, he has transformed his pain into forgiveness.
We All Turn Brown in Heaven
Yet though he holds no grudges, and though he feels compassion for this white boy who has known little misery, who has been sheltered from the worst of God’s heat, the black boy does not extend that same care to himself. His mother would have him revel in his outer skin as well as in his inner heart. But how can he undo a lifetime of conditioning, turn the hatred the world has thrown at him into self-compassion?
It seems he cannot. In a deeply poignant moment, the boy imagines that once in heaven, he will protect the white boy, “stroke his silver hair,” and if he is good, if he is very, very good, perhaps then he will become like the English boy, white and beautiful. If he is good, perhaps the other child will love him.
Doubtless when we reach heaven we will have no skin to carry color, no bodies to label good, bad, or indifferent. But let us imagine for a moment that the English boy, with his pale skin, might become like his black admirer, his flesh growing dark while his heart grows pure. Maybe in heaven everyone’s skin is brown. Such a thing would not have occurred to little, black boy, though, for he so cherishes his white friend that he would sacrifice himself so that he might become as pale as light.
We do so long to be loved. As May says, it is our deepest desire. Unfortunately, as Nouwen says, our human love is broken. We condemn one another for the color of our skin and the shape of our bodies, for the religions we choose or deny, for the presidents we elect. We judge our age, our gender, our abilities, our dreams. Is there really a god who condones such pettiness? If so, it is not a god of love.
We Will Not Be Afraid
No matter what we do, we remain broken. We turn God into an image of ourselves.
How can we claim love from the imperfect being we think is a god? Even the mother who feels that cord binding her to her son, who feels a passionate longing to ease her son’s burden, must fail. If God does not take our suffering from us, what hope do we have of erasing one another’s?
Yet learning to “bear the beams of love” is not about avoiding pain. As another of our members pointed out, when we claim the love that is everywhere, “it doesn’t turn the light on.” It doesn’t relieve the loneliness, or emptiness, or ugliness. Bearing love is not about taking anything away, not even hurt.
Yes, sometimes comfort is called for. Sometimes wounds bleed so much, we need to staunch the flow so we don’t die. Some horrors are so terrible, we cannot face them all at once.
Yet to bear love’s beam, to birth love into the world, we must learn to tolerate pain. We must practice holding up against the heat. We must stand steady when love’s power overwhelms us, when it distorts and twists into hate before us. If we can do this, we will be able to face the distortion and ugliness in others. Instead of thinking that is the truth of who they are, we will see into their souls, into the seat of where love lies. We will understand that they are not separate from us. The “other” does not exist. Then, we will not be afraid.
Bearing the Beams
By bearing his own pain, the little black boy had learned something of love, but even he failed in the end. Even he was broken. It is the human condition, after all.
Even so, it is not hopeless. With prayer and meditation, with stillness and rain, we can build our capacity to witness, see, love. In those moments when bliss threatens to blow us apart, when despair for the failures of the world grips us, we can remember that we are part of everything and everything is part of us.
Love is. Whether it comes from a god or it does not, it is there, and it is eternal. When we open to this love, something in us shifts. Suddenly, we will understand what the rain is saying. We will feel the truth that whatever touches us, whatever breathes in us, whatever moves us, though it be terrible and wonderful, it is love.
Yes, we are broken. Yes, the bliss of feeling that love scour and shelter us does fade. We will return to striving, to meditating, to praying, to stroking the hair of the white boy, to hoping we might be accepted and cared for if only we are good enough. But that’s okay, for when we have tasted love, we never forget. It will always be there for us. We need only allow it in.
Once we know love, and once we learn to birth love into the world, we can endure anything. Then we can help others endure. That is why we are here. The beams of divine light are hot and holy. They burn. Yet we are put here on this earth so we might learn to bear them, for we are meant to love.
In faith and fondness,
- Wu, Katharine, “Love, Actually: The Science Behind Lust, Attraction, and Companionship,” Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, February 14, 2017, https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/love-actually-science-behind-lust-attraction-companionship/, accessed 5/8/21.
- Feigel, Lara, “The Parent Trap: Can You Be a Good Writer and a Good Parent?,” The Guardian, February 24, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/24/writers-parenting-doris-lessing-lara-feigel, accessed 5/5/21.
- Nouwen, Henri, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith, New York: HarperCollins, 1997, March 4.
- May, Gerald, The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself to the Love You Need, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, p. 1.
- Blake, William, “Little Black Boy,” Songs of Innocence, self published, 1789, in public domain.
- May 1.
- May 2.
- Merton, Thomas, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” Raids on the Unspeakable, New York: New Directions, 1966, 9.
Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved