In her novel, Brief Lives, Anita Brookner makes this observation: When we are young, she says, and hear sad love songs we think that the sadness and disappointment are a prelude to the experience of love rather than the result of experience in love. This happens, she suggests, because we are young and still aspire to sublimity, but when we get older we realize that sublimity is in devastatingly short supply, that the act of love is finite, that we are disappointed about this, and that what we long for is permanent transformation.
I’m not sure that I agree completely. Most certainly, sadly, sublimity is in devastatingly short supply and this brings more sadness to our lives than we ever consciously realize, but I’m less certain whether the sadness expressed in sad love songs speaks of love’s finitude or of something else.
Most sad love songs do in fact express a frustration or disappointment that is a prelude to love. Of what do sad songs speak? Frustration, betrayal, impossibility, jealousy, regret, separation, death: The frustration of loving someone who doesn’t love you; the heartache of longing for someone when the situation is impossible; regret over some mistake; the bitterness of being betrayed in love; the anguish of separation; the death of someone before the love could be complete; the pain of jealousy. All of these in some way are a prelude to love, at least to full love. All speak of the sadness that comes from not being able to fully actualize love.
But Brookner speaks of something else. The sadness and disappointment she names come from the experience of a love that isn’t frustrated, betrayed, impossible, jealous, separated, or cut off by death. The sadness and disappointment she articulates come from the experience of love’s finitude, from love’s congenital inadequacy on this side of eternity, and from the realization that anyone that we love on earth, no matter how good or wonderful he or she might be, isn’t God and can never, all alone, be enough for us.
What Brookner describes is what we feel at the death of a honeymoon. All honeymoons end, some for bad reasons – disinterest, boredom, over-familiarity, lack of emotional discipline, or flat-out infidelity by one or both of the partners. But honeymoons end too for good reasons. A honeymoon can have done its work, served its time, and the disillusionment and disappointment that set in are then a positive invitation to move the relationship to a deeper level. How?
Disillusion can be good or bad. To be disillusioned is have “an illusion dispelled”. The love that we feel when we are on a honeymoon is not an illusion. It’s real, massively real, sometimes to the point of suffocation. But something isn’t real on a honeymoon and that illusion must eventually be dispelled. What isn’t real?
When we are in the honeymoon stage of love with someone, we aren’t so much in love with that person (though we think we are) as we are in love with love itself, with the experience of being in love, with what being in love is doing to us. We’re in love with a wonderful, powerful, fiery energy inside of us. We’re in love with an archetype: When John falls in love with Mary, initially he is not so much in love with Mary as he is in love what she is carrying, all of femininity, the feminine side of God. That’s why when we are first in love with someone that other person alone is sufficient to take away our restlessness and loneliness. It is enough just to be with him or her. Functionally, he or she is God for us. That’s why obsessions in love can be so paralyzing.
But always, even if we are wonderfully faithful to each other, this feeling eventually disappears. No matter how good someone is, eventually he or she will not be enough for us. A certain necessary disillusionment sets in and, with it, a certain disappointment and sadness. We discover that we have married a human person, not God. Only God is enough.
Our disillusionment is an invitation to move from being in love with an archetypal energy (with God as manifest in a human person) to actually loving and caring about a concrete, singular, human being. This is akin to what the apostles felt at the transfiguration when, after the beauty that Jesus had displayed in his transfigured body disappeared, they realized that what remained “was only Jesus”. Many is the man or woman who, at the end of a honeymoon within which they had been looking at a transfigured partner, realizes: “It’s only Mary! It’s only John!”
Initially this is felt as sadness, disappointment. But it’s not an invitation to lowered, stoic expectations. On the contrary, it’s an invitation to a deeper journey into that relationship, one within which eventually, without illusion, we will again see the other person as transfigured, as we first saw him or her on the honeymoon – as eternal, as Godlike, as enough.