Yes, I know, how slight and sentimental—a story of love, while the wolf devours the world.
That sentence appears on the first page of my current novel, which I just finished. It captures not just my hero’s world view, but my own. And since it’s Valentine’s Day, it seems appropriate to talk a bit about that curious experience: love.
In the aftermath of my first wife’s death, I had to find not just a reason to live but a way to do so.
The reason came quickly enough: I wanted to live for the sake of the companionship of the people—and three wee dogs—I had come to cherish. Don’t laugh—the dogs proved crucial. (Tilly, the last of the three, is pictured above.) It wasn’t just in connection but care that I found my way. I wasn’t terribly good about caring for myself for a while, but the dogs needed me, and that kept me going even during the darkest days.
Once I decided not to jump ship, the next question rose to the fore—if I’m going to live, what matters? How can I make that guide my life?
I decided on three key virtues as my compass: love, honesty, courage. I knew, given my innate capacity for over-complication, that I should keep it simple. And I quickly learned that living up to a mere three virtues proved far more difficult than I imagined.
More importantly, I quickly discovered they were interconnected.
The word courage, of course, has its roots in the Latin word for “heart,”though the evolution of usage is never as simple as that. This, from the Online Etymology Dictionary, brings that point home:
1300, corage, “heart (as the seat of emotions),” hence “spirit, temperament, state or frame of mind,” from Old French corage “heart, innermost feelings; temper” (12c., Modern French courage), from Vulgar Latin *coraticum (source of Italian coraggio, Spanish coraje), from Latin cor “heart”…
Meaning “valor, quality of mind which enables one to meet danger and trouble without fear” is from late 14c… Words for “heart” also commonly are metaphors for inner strength.
In Middle English, the word was used broadly for “what is in one’s mind or thoughts,” hence “bravery,” but also “wrath, pride, confidence, lustiness,” or any sort of inclination, and it was used in various phrases, such as bold corage “brave heart,” careful corage “sad heart,” fre corage “free will,” wikked corage “evil heart.”
“The saddest thing in life is that the best thing in it should be courage.” —Robert Frost
Though we often think of courage as persistence in the face of fear—worse, the absence of fear, which is abnormal—this automatically begs the question: why? Why persist? Why not succumb to the fear—run, hide, compromise, surrender?
The answer typically lies in something or someone the individual values with her whole being, or feels she must defend at all costs. Something or someone cherished. Loved.
And yet how easily we fool ourselves in our affections. I’d be amazed if more than a handful of people reading this post haven’t had at least one relationship that didn’t deserve the epitaph, “What was I thinking?”
Misguided love is a kind of self-betrayal, a denial of what one truly believes and wants for the sake of something else more glamorous, more exciting, more dangerous—or less glamorous, safer, easier to manage, etc. One way or another, we’re selling ourselves short. We lack in self-love.
To live the way I wanted to live I had to be honest about what I loved and what I was willing to suffer for, and muster the courage to do so. There it was—all three virtues entwined.
Honesty is always humbling. It requires not just acceptance of who we are, but who we want to be, and why we have not yet become that person. Our lack of clarity as to who we want to be and how we want to live often results from fear of having to admit how far they remain outside our reach, and what it will take to change that. But how we want to live also by necessity includes who we want to share that life with—who we want to love and want to love us. Again, there’s no untying the knot binding these three virtues together.
As in life, so in fiction. We all have heard how much conflict lies at the core of a gripping narrative. Janet Burroway, in her hugely influential Writing Fiction, stated baldly “a story is a war.” However, she qualified this statement in later editions, noting that a story’s “pattern of connection and disconnection between characters” provides “the main source of its emotional effect.” She even suggested birth as an alternative metaphor to battle for story structure. Though birth also suggests struggle, “there is no enemy.” Rather, the story’s forward movement resembles a “struggle toward light”—understanding, experience, wisdom.
And yet, again the question: why? Why do we struggle toward the light? Why aren’t we content to live out our lives in twilight—or even darkness?
I believe the answer lies in the fact that by struggling toward understanding, experience, and wisdom, we are trying to achieve our best selves. And we do that to make ourselves worthy of love. For as important as it is to love, it’s equally important to know love, accept love. Be loved.
Later in the same opening of my novel that I referred to at the top of this post, I respond to the possible belittlement of the importance of love in a world on the brink of cataclysmic ruin with this:
Scoff if you like—if not love, then what? Power, vengeance, wealth, fame—pursue them if you wish. Feed the illusion.
I find them lacking overall, gaudy recompense for the job of survival, a ploy to stand out at the funeral.
And that brings me back to an earlier point, about how it was my wife’s passing that prompted this bout of introspection. For given the unflinching awareness of our mortality, how can we not ask: If not love, then what?
I’ll be teaching at the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference today, and will likely have limited access to the Internet. Please feel free to comment, however—especially, please offer an example from your own writing or reading that demonstrates how “connection and disconnection,” as Janet Burroway would put it, not conflict, provides the “main source of [the story’s] emotional effect.”