Senior Year. High School. Creative Writing Class.
I walked hand-in-hand with my girlfriend as I headed for class. My Creative Writing teacher looked on as we said our goodbyes as we went our separate ways, already counting down the minutes until we’d see each other again during the next passing period. The bell rang and I sat down at my desk. There were seven of us in the class. To say we were an eclectic bunch would be an understatement.
Mr. Hughes (of the Great Celebrate the
Lord Love Debate) completed his hall monitoring duties and began class.
“Was that your girlfriend?” he asked. At least, I think that was what he said. To be honest, I didn’t really think he was talking to me so I wasn’t really paying much attention because it felt like I was eavesdropping. But he was talking to me.
“She’ll break your heart, you know.” Thanks for the vote of confidence there, I thought. Then he clarified, “Because all relationships end in heartbreak.” And then he went about his business, opening up some kind of discussion about writing or storytelling or something along those lines.
I was really bothered by that statement. It felt so…dark. So…defeatist.
I guess there was a small nugget of truth to what Mr. Hughes said, though. Even if you’ve been married for 75 years, one of you is going to pass away before the other. So, from a certain point of view, it could be argued that even the strongest of relationships will still end in heartbreak and loss. I get that. But…man, ….that sure feels like an awful cynical outlook on live, love, and community. Doesn’t it?
Sophomore Year. Milligan College.
Less than two years later, I was returning to my Alma mater in Tennessee’s fair eastern mountains for my Sophomore year. I had a pretty close group of friends during that first year. For one reason or another, a good percentage of them did not return for a second year at Milligan. I was bummed. In fact, I was pretty close to devastated. I even told my youth minister as much when I had returned home for a weekend.
“I don’t even see the point of making more friends if they’re all going to wind up leaving me,” I told him. Maybe Mr. Hughes was right after all. And if he was right, why even bother putting yourself in a position like that again?
Todd suggested he had gone through something similar. I should keep at it. It would be worth it.
“What does it mean to be human?”
Humanities was the core of Milligan’s educational philosophy. It was a required program that consisted of 24 credit hours during Freshman and Sophomore years. It covers art, history, philosophy, literature, and poetry in one all-encompassing overview of the development of civilization. The key question that the program challenges students to answer is, “What does it mean to be human?” I don’t know if we really answered that question during our two year journey through the Humanities program. But we tried.
Theologians have explained our purpose: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. And that’s a good answer, I guess. But it doesn’t really tell us what it means to be human. Does it? It defines our purpose and it looks good on paper. But when the rubber hits the road, I’m not convinced that it really explains the messiness of the human experience.
After many years of wrestling with the question, I think I finally have a small hint at a piece of the answer. In order to fully explain what it means to be human, I’d probably have to write a book. And maybe I will at some point. But that’ll have to wait. There are three other books in the queue right now.
But here’s what I can tell you today about the human experience. One of the key components to the definition of humanity is our ability to love deeply.
Loving like that, however, requires risk. There is always the possibility of rejection. There’s always the potential of loss. There’s always the chance of heartbreak.
But you know the old cliche, right? ‘With great risk comes great reward.’
We can try to minimize the risk. We can try to avoid pain, rejection, and heartbreak. And in an effort to minimize all pain, diffuse the hurt, and deflect all heartache, we also choose to make our experience a little less human. It dulls our senses. It hardens our hearts. And it isolates part of our humanity. In a somewhat ironic way, our attempts to pursue only pleasurable experiences actually minimizes our capacity to love. So we don’t fully experience what it means to be human. Because part of the human experience means going through loss. We only suffer loss if we have loved deeply.
I’m probably not saying this as well as I’d hoped. But I think it makes sense. And if it doesn’t make sense, I hope my Humanities professors don’t stumble upon this post and figure out a way to somehow revoke my Humanities credits, thereby unceremoniously vacating my Bachelor’s degree. That would be a bad thing.
Perhaps this is part of what Alfred, Lord Tennyson meant when he said, “Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.” Making yourself vulnerable to someone else, opening yourself up to potential rejection, facing potential heartbreak…this draws us deeper into the human experience. It’s part of who we are intended to be.
But here’s the deal. We aren’t created to deal with heartbreak, loss, and disappointment simply for the sake of heartbreak, loss, and disappointment. We encounter these painful experiences because the reward is so great. And sometimes the rewards come unexpectedly. Jody has faced some difficult situations. And her daughters are stronger because of it. Andy encountered rejection and became a better person.
Me? I had all kinds of friendships dissolve in between my Freshman and Sophomore years of college. But I listened to Todd. And I kept at it. I made myself vulnerable. And I ultimately met my wife in the Fall of my Sophomore year. We’ve had some incredible mountaintop experiences together. We’ve also walked through some pretty deep, dark valleys. Through it all, and maybe even because of it all, I love her more deeply every single day.
Was Mr. Hughes right? Does every relationship end in heartache? I guess you could look at it like that. But it’s a risk that I think is worth taking.