An occupational hazard of a career of reading English Literature is an almost fiendish doubt in the power of love. Just think of all the novels—serious literary novels—that you have read, and multiply the effect by a thousand. Sure, Jane Austen has something to offer, but seriously, Pride and Prejudice without Darcy’s fortune waiting to bail out Elizabeth Bennet is a tragedy.
Am I a cynic? Here in the early years of the 21st century, it is hard to be anything else. I fight this impulse with every fiber of my being, and yet, there is a quiet, persistent voice that advises, “Have you lost your mind?” Not so quiet after all.
So much of what I have written in these posts over the past several years is illuminated by the tension between the bountiful and generous impulse to love unabashedly and the counter impulse to protect (what is left of) myself. The gift—if there is a gift—I give is to wrestle between those countervailing forces—to recognize the struggle and not to deny the struggle. It would be easy to give in to unbridled cynicism—I would not be alone, might even be called wise to make this decision. But even when I declare “(what is left of) myself,” I couch it parenthetically. I don’t believe that I have dwindled over the years and experiences and wisdom. Somehow I have grown—not just older, but deeper.
I can point to literature for this counterweight—just as I can point to literature for the darker impulse. But not (most) novels. When I read Whitman’s grand declaration of connection—“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”—I know that there is no loss so large that can obliterate me, because there is no loss that can obliterate you—“You, whoever you are.” Or when Creeley writes, “Be for me like rain—the getting out of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-lust of intentional indifference”—what could be worse than intentional indifference—or semi-lust? What good is anything short of Dickinson’s “Wild nights… Done with the Compass—Done with the Chart!”
The secret power of cynicism is that that it has a course. You can navigate to doubt in a straight line. There are doctrines and creeds to guide you to the heart of darkness. Tolstoy be damned—the road to an unhappy family is too familiar, too well worn and rutted. Happiness—not complacency, not mere contentment—but roof rending joy has no book of instructions.
If ever I doubt the power of unrestrained, unbounded, even unfounded love, I have a store of words and images to revive my failing trust. And if literature fails, I have taught kids and children for the past 25 years who give me palpable views of potential. And, if they fail, I have daughters who, even in querulous moments, give me hope. And when I am apart from them, I build one last bulwark against too easy doubt—have practiced building it for decades, and here, it is neither wall nor boundary, but an open road and unlimited horizon. It is a road built by these words, and met, beyond expectation, beyond hope, beyond doubt—met by another who builds a road to me—a road made with words and hands and trust and faith and an eye ever to the horizon.