Tennyson’s words didn’t mean what your Facebook memes suggest they mean.
“It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
I have observed this maxim on many Facebook walls, unsubtly proclaiming the end of another ill fated teenage relationship. Sometimes it is said with care, but often it is said carelessly. It is said as a transition from one coffee-cup conversation to the next with a flip of the hair and a meaningless sigh. You loved. You lost. You move on.
Have you ever had love kick you in the teeth?
Driving is a time of existential contemplation for me. Recently, while driving under a stoplight in a dozy street of the California suburbs a thought came to me as quick as a slap in the face: Have I wasted my love on relationships that only ended in pain?
There have been times where it seemed to me that there was too much losing in the loving. I have spent years loving imperfectly but with great sincerity. Years praying and apologizing, trying to be strong and trying to forgive, and, at last, finding myself several years down the road with nothing to show but a few heart bruises. Perhaps you have experienced it too. Perhaps for you it was a friend, a sibling, a parent, a partner, or a leader, leaving you wondering…
Is it really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
Those words come from Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam. Contrary to how it is often quoted, it is not in reference to romance. He wrote it after the death of his best friend. It is a deep calls to deep sort of poem. It is a prayer and a wrestling. He grapples with death and life, with love and pain, with doubt and faith. To me the poem is treading water in a sea of grief pleading with God to be kept afloat.
When experiencing pain engendered by love, whether that be grief in death, betrayal, or rejection, the desire to hide is appealing. Instinctively we hear “fooled once shame on them, fooled twice, shame on you.” We feel desperately that we need to build fortified walls to protect us from being that hurt again. We re-calculate, condemning ourselves from being vulnerable enough to be hurt. We cross our hearts and swear to never be so unwise. We say that we will put up “boundaries” to protect our hearts from unhealthy love, but quickly those boundaries become walls of stone with gates of steel. And we do it all because, in our hearts we feel that our love was wasted.
Someone familiar with love and loss, C.S. Lewis wrote of this tension of vulnerability:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even 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 love is to be vulnerable.”
As I’ve pondered the beautiful and truly terrifying reality of the vulnerability in love, I have come to realize that even God is not immune to the pain of love and loss.
The story of God’s relationship to the world is one of unrequited love.
Creation was a lavish expression of a loving God. Beauty, music, green grass, and all the delights the world can offer are God’s offer of love to us. But again and again this love was snubbed by humanity. God, the greatest lover of all, was and is rejected again and again. Perhaps Jesus said it most poignantly as he entered Jerusalem, on his way give himself as an offering for the people he loved:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)
God loves because it is His nature. 1 John 4 says “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us…” Love is in God’s DNA, so to speak; “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
God loves extravagantly, but never wastefully. God’s love is never wasted because it is an expression of his perfect character. When we love, we participate with God and reflect his love. John says “No one has ever seen God;but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
Love is never wasted. The act of loving proclaims the truest thing in the universe: that God is love. Our love may be weak, foolish, naive, unwise, or even unhealthy, but it is never ever wasted. Love is the truth that pulses at the heart of reality. It is the lifeblood of every good thing. It does not matter if love is requited, rejected or abandoned; the true meaning of love stems from the God who is love. When we love we affirm and sing into eternity the marvelous and unfathomable truth that God is love, and we are loved.
But, sometimes we do not feel that deep meaning as we struggle with grief, guilt, and pain. In the words of one who seems to always echo my soul’s truest feelings…
You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that’s not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then. (Rich Mullins, “Hard to Get”)
Even in petty and small attempts at love, we allow our hearts to be shaped by love. Though our love may seem not to touch the other person, it shapes us. Love leaves a mark, and sometimes it leaves scars. The greatest love of all bears scars. In Jesus’ resurrected body, he bears the scars of his extravagant love. In those scars I find a forgiveness that fills the cracks of my broken attempts at love, and I find solace in a God who knows what it is to be spurned.
And so, though my soul wrestled that night under the stop light (and many nights before and after), I have come to believe that It truly is better to love and lose than never to love at all.
Love shapes my soul to reach out in grace, forgiveness, and tenderness.
Love draws me closer to the God of unrequited love.
Love rebells against the hatred so natural to the world.
Love invites me into the love story of God.
Love is never wasted.