The following is the beginning of the eleventh chapter of my book, The World to Come. I watched The Book of Eli last night. Whatever the critics say about the movie, it had a few really good lines. Not least was the one in which Denzel’s character (Eli) says, “We didn’t know what things were precious.” In the World to Come, gold and power will be of little use, but the greatest thing will be love.
Love, so cheaply used here in this present world, will be the greatest thing in the World to Come. “Love can tell, and love alone, whence the million stars were strewn,” said poet Robert Bridges. Love is a great mystery to us. In love we find our greatest heartaches, the most disappointment, and yet the most potential of anything we experience in life. It can be so cheap, so common, so exploited for selfishness, and yet we are drawn to its potential for selflessness. It is true what the poet Samuel Daniel said, “Love is a sickness full of woes, all remedies refusing.”
“Give all to love; obey thy heart,” said Emerson. And sometimes we get a glimmer of that kind of total commitment, faithfulness, and willing submission. “I want to die while you love me, and never, never see the glory of this perfect day grow dim or cease to be!” said Georgia Douglas Johnson, romantic love often motivates declarations of total commitment which rarely endure. Yet we celebrate the thought even if we find it rarely fulfilled.
William Blake, perhaps, said it best:
Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care.
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.
Yet, even he was skeptical and the quatrain he wrote another, in which a skeptic decries the reality of love as it is commonly practiced:
Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to Its delight:
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.
Love can be in the service of God or it can become a terrible god of its own.
Still, love is worth celebrating. For all the pains it causes in its imperfect forms, we sense in love something so grand, something so transcendent, it truly is the closest glimpse of heaven on earth.
Love comes in many forms. The sharp ache of romantic love, or eros, is most celebrated in poetry, movie, and fiction. To one degree or another, few human beings have failed to experience this love, if only for a fleeting moment. The warm comfort of affection, often associated with family, is a kind of love we hope to find if we don’t do something to ruin its possibility. The bright laughter of friendship is an under-appreciated love and once inspired David to say he had loved a friend more deeply than any woman.
Then there is plain love, agape, the ancients called it. It is a word that covers all the kinds of love. It is behind every love and yet it is unique and can be singled out. It is the motive to seek another’s good rather than your own. It is present in romance, affection, and friendship. Yet it can exist even for a stranger. It is, plainly, just love.
The chapter goes on to talk about love as one thing that endures into the World to Come when so many others become irrelevant.