We are a civilization, whether or not we realize it, obsessed with narrative. We have a desire–I know not if it is inherent or merely deeply entrenched in our collective psyche–to be a part of a story, to write our own stories, to be subject to things like fate, destiny, divine ordination. Being a part of the story, or feeling like the work is being written as we go about our business, gives us a sense of security, knowing that we are congruent with the wishes of a higher order.
Such notions are, by definition, romantic. We are a romantic people, and romance is not exclusively the province of roses and doe-eyed adoration of an ideal partner, living happily ever after. Romance, rather, is the sense that we are a part of something transcendent, part of a story.
That said, ‘romance’ carries many connotations, including the commonly understood boy-meets-girl kind of romance we have pimped to us every 14 February, or the sense some of us have of being a person of purpose or destiny, or the awe one feels when seeing the ocean or the Grand Canyon for the first time. It’s the sense of connectedness with something. With someone.
What is often too overlooked when we think of romance is that, often, what is at its essence most romantic is merely companionship. And mere companionship is much, much more than simply going the same direction for a segment of life’s journey.
“You could come with me.” — the [Ninth] Doctor to Rose Tyler, Doctor Who
“It is not good that the man should be alone.” — God, Genesis 2.18 [ESV]
Even the very creation story–note the noun–has embedded in it the need for a companion. Adam is not complete without Eve, and God is incomplete without a partner in creation. Those who argue for the trinity–umm…that might be another topic for another day–would go so far as to say that the triune God demonstrates the need for relationship as an a priori principle.
Also note that it is not merely enjoyable to have a person around, but there is imperative language in God’s caption: it is not good that the man should be alone. Male gaze aside, when we lack deep, meaningful relationship in our lives, we are not only incomplete, but something less than good. While there is something to be said for the classic American rugged individualist ethos, no one has done anything of meaning, be it historically, mythologically, culturally or otherwise, in a vacuum.
Maris had Mantle, Dr. Frankenstein had Igor, Tristan had Isolde, Brutus had Cassius, Jesus had disciples, Jordan had Pippen, David had Jonathan, Michael Corleone had Tom Hagen, C-3PO had R2-D2.
Great stories are built upon great relationships. Even Chuck Noland had Wilson.
Doctor Who is a great example of the need for companionship. A Timelord whose entire civilization and planet was wiped out, the Doctor travels through time, but is perpetually lonely. He lives forever, but that immortality comes with the curse of existential isolation. While he is a superior intellect on his own, what allows the doctor to persist throughout the ages (and 11 incarnations spanning six decades on television) is who: the companions. He doesn’t fall in love with them–Rose Tyler excepted–but it’s the relationship and the commitment that allows ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
If you’re feeling like you could do more and be more with your life, and you’re not able to figure out why things are in neutral, take a look around and see who’s holding you back. There is no romance to be found in mediocrity.
“Cross your heart to take me when you leave; Don’t go without me.” — C’est la Mort, The Civil Wars
“Just don’t leave.” — True Love Waits, Radiohead
In the moral inversion of modern culture, we do not seek the companionship which would lead to extraordinary things, but rather seek our own gratification. The culture reflects this sea change in relationality: songs and stories as a crude reflection of a pathetic sum of poorly- and cheaply-crafted club anthems, random hook-ups and walks of shame, all under a chemical haze. Even a song about marriage betrays the dispensable nature of a mate. (Looking at you, Bruno Mars.) The story no longer is about anything approaching epic, but about getting from one weekend to the next as efficiently as possible. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The stories which endure, lives which are made extraordinary, are not set in parties or clubs. Even Casablanca‘s pretext is chapters of relationship and co-existence before Rick encounters Ilsa in his Moroccan nightclub. (And Rick never ended up with Ilsa. Not to mention the loyalties formed amongst Rick, Sam, Renault and Laszlo.) If Han Solo never returned, the Death Star wouldn’t have been blown up (and, we would have never found out that Vader was Luke’s father.) Charles Foster Kane dies alone, his life a cautionary tale of pursuing wealth and power while leaving friends and loves behind.
This is also why betrayal is such a prevailing theme in cultural or religious narrative: the violation of a relationship elicits pathos from the third party. Fredo betrays Michael, Vader turns against the Emperor, Judas kisses Jesus, Absalom revolts against David. Whether we realize it or not, the romance of a lasting relationship is inherent throughout history, and particularly when it is turned on its head by insurrection. We are shocked or offended by betrayal because we uphold and value lasting, committed relationships.
Loyalty, then, is also taken for granted, until that kind of dogged commitment becomes the exclamation point. We are seldom truly committed to each other; more often than not, our closest ‘friends’ are those whom we tolerate the most. That is, until we tolerate them no more, at which point BFFs part company. We are no more companions than those who share the same row of seats in an airplane. When the destination is reached, we get our carry-ons and head for the baggage claim. One of Inception‘s most powerful shots is when the crew has arrived at LAX, and they disperse from baggage claim with little more than surreptitious glances at one another. To anyone else at the airport, it’s a bunch of people ready to get going. The audience knows better.
Finally, it’s not about the longevity of the relationship, but about depth and shared experiences. What convinces a person to not want to leave? What causes a person to stay? Years of knowing a person can and does get readily trumped by authentic understanding or by sharing life together. In fairness, these are not designed to be formulaic: rarely are all three present, while years can bring understanding or shared experience, experience and understanding can happen fairly quickly. Experience and years can go together, but two may never truly understand one another. Two may share years and have deep understanding, but may never share life together, creating a tragedy of ‘what if?’s. The presence of all three creates lives which are truly blessed.
“The pain now was the happiness then.” — Anthony Hopkins as CS Lewis, Shadowlands
And, when the time comes that a dear friend or love is taken from us, we hurt. We feel betrayed by the story or the author. Romance is a double-edged sword, as Hopkins’ Lewis so aptly puts it. Lewis is a tremendous example of all of the above: in a short time, he discovered a person who turned everything upside down. Joy Gresham was a friend and eventual love who deeply understood him off the bat. They shared life for a short while and she succumbed to cancer. The entire experience shook Lewis to his very core.
Loss, like betrayal, is a devastating thing, because the story goes on.
We take our health for granted until it is taken from us. We take our good times for granted because we exist so effortlessly when things are going well. Gratitude, a virtue seemingly non-existent in these times of disposable ecstasies, is only exercised when we’re bailed out of trouble. It is pain which, as Lewis put it, is a megaphone to a hurting world. Things are not right when we suffer: romance, that great and terrible fiction, endures in the loss of a loved one. That state of affairs is not right: companions ought not die. Life, experience, understanding–these things are often taken for granted until they are noticeably absent.
And we want those closest to us to come with us, to share life together in lasting–romantic–community, knowing full well that that which begins must necessarily end. Yet, we are not, in relationship, living in epilogomena but seeking to make the present moment as close to eternity as possible. This is where many Christians stumble, in seeking the blessings of eternal life–born again with the end in mind, mind you–we fail to realize that eternity is right now, and that there is no romantic quality to our relationship to God through Christ. Years go by with no understanding or extraordinary experiences, perfectly mediocre existence. (Bonhoeffer would be mortified at how the cost of discipleship has become thoroughly Walmart-ized: cheap, and cheaply made. And the time in the Sunday morning checkout line drags! I digress.)
We end up heartbroken because, when we love a person, that person becomes a part of one, and one of the other. And the pain of loss only reminds us that we had some wonderful chapters. But the story never ends, we go on, as do those we love, as we are their enduring legacy. Thus, we are to love both courageously and carefully.
So this is a call to reconcile ourselves to companions, to romance and to share life with one another courageously. To rediscover that we are a people capable of extraordinary things if only we bid farewell to the creature comforts of our current mediocre state. This Valentine’s Day, we should remember that the legend of St. Valentine’s is, indeed, romantic: giving his life so that others may live, and never backing down from his convictions. In fact, romantic love then is nothing more than the teaching of Christ: a person demonstrates no greater love than to lay one’s own life down for those whom one loves.
In the meantime, I have one request:
Come with me.