The other evening I babysat my nieces and nephews while my sister and her husband had a date night. Their littlest guy, who is 17 months old, took their departure remarkably well (it helped that he didn’t notice they left). But when I was getting him ready for bed a couple hours later, he was captivated by the picture of his parents that hangs above his change table: “Mommy,” he said, “Daddy.” “Yes,” I responded, “They’re at Costco,” knowing he was familiar with adventures there (and yes, my sister and her husband consider that a date night; go, Costco!).
But as Carl kept repeating “Mommy” and “Daddy” and reaching up to the photo, his eyes began to fill with tears. You could see that his little one-year-old heart felt the special connection any child should feel to his parents. He felt desire for the presence of the two people he has the deepest bond with. Because of that, he also felt the profound ache of separation. As I reflected on this, I thought about both the joy and pain of love.
That concept is brought to light in the 1993 film Shadowlands, the real-life story of author C.S. Lewis finding love. Upon a friend’s recommendation I watched it last year and was profoundly moved by its message.
Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, didn’t marry until his fifties. At that time, an American woman came into his life and initially their relationship was a non-romantic friendship based on shared intellectual interests. In fact, although Lewis civilly married Joy Davidman Gresham it was simply so she could legally remain in Great Britain. At that time they did not live as husband and wife. When Joy was diagnosed with cancer, however, Lewis realized how he truly loved her and, in the presence of a minister, they married around her hospital bed. In a mercy, Joy recovered—unfortunately, though, for only a few short years before cancer would take her from this earth.
In one poignant scene where Lewis and Joy travel around the scenic countryside of England, they discuss what inevitably will come:
Joy: “I’m going to die. And I want to be with you then too. The only way I can do that is if I’m able to talk to you about it now.”
Lewis: “I’ll manage somehow; don’t worry about me.”
Joy: “No. I think it can be better than that. I think it can be better than just managing. What I’m trying to say is that the pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.”
The pain then is part of the happiness now.
There is a trade-off inherent to love—to truly embrace it means to also embrace loss. One can only avoid the suffering of loss by refusing to enter into love—but the experience of not loving is much worse than the experience of loving and losing. Lewis explains this in his book The Four Loves, which was published just months before Joy died:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
To be deeply happy with Joy while she was alive, Lewis had to let his heart deeply love. Yes, what would await him at her death was the tragic loss that only a heart that loved would feel. Certainly, no love would mean no loss. But no love would also mean no life.
I have written before about John Paul II’s statement that “Suffering unleashes love” (here and here). And when someone is loved, it unleashes life, whether literally or figuratively. But in our imperfect world, life will also end, which will lead to loss, which will lead to suffering, which can lead to unleashing more love and life if we let it. Perhaps that’s what the person who penned these words had in mind: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”
Could a situation be created where my nephew Carl would not have felt the (temporary) loss of his parents? Yes—but that would mean ensuring he didn't bond, ensuring he was not loved. And we know where a story like that leads: the orphans from Ceausescu’s Romania say it all.
Does separation from those our hearts have loved, whether through death or life circumstances, result in anguish? Yes, but as Joy wisely observed, “The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.”