Becoming Romantics Again: The Hope of Love

In my last piece, I wrote of the endless loop of modern romantic cynicism. Increasingly, our culture has come to doubt love, doubt our own ability to love, and doubt others’ ability to love.  So we go around the hopeless circle.  But how do we exit that circle?  How can we rediscover the love our culture has lost and develop faith in romantic love?

You may be stuck in a marriage darkened by addiction, betrayal, or another ongoing struggle. You may have tried all you can to overcome these problems, to no avail. The purpose of this piece is not to accuse anyone of not being loving enough, or of not being a true romantic.  Romantic sentiment sometimes crashes against harsh realities. Many good men and women find themselves in difficult relationships.  Nevertheless, even in a cynical age, we can keep the hope alive that love exists in the world and we can be touched and inspired by observing it and desiring it.   

My favorite romantic movie is Far From the Madding Crowd (2015 version), an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s famous novel.  Bathsheba Everdene is an impetuous and independent young woman who, while working for her aunt, meets a young and promising shepherd, Gabriel Oak.  He soon proposes to her. She rejects him – desiring to live free and unburdened by marriage. She soon inherits a prosperous farm, moves away, and becomes a woman of some influence. Gabriel, who falls on hard times, happens upon her farm and asks to become her shepherd. The story details Bathesheba’s trials in love with two other men: a passionate and ruinous marriage to Sergeant Troy and a reluctant but useful relationship with Bolwood.  The viewer can’t help but become frustrated by Bathsheba as her pride and vanity lead her to make poor choices. However, she is also the victim – of the deceitful Sergeant Troy and possessive Bolwood.  Gabriel Oak stands in the background of her life – a strong and stabilizing force of unfaltering love.  At the end of the novel, we see that Bathsheba is a changed woman, humbled by her experiences and able to appreciate the virtuous man Gabriel. 

Perilous Romance

“See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.

O, that I were a glove upon that hand

That I might touch that cheek!”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous works of literature. It calls to us as the standard of true romance. But why?  It was irrational and risky and doomed, but even cynics are still drawn to it. Perhaps, subconsciously, we know we have to adopt the same attitudes as these lovers to retain romance and love in our relationships.  We must be willing to throw the world away to maintain our love. These young lovers faced the anger of their families and their ending was tragic. We face a culture full of temptation, crumbling morality, and human weakness, yet love can conquer all.*

Romeo and Juliet

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.

1 Peter 4:8 

Gabriel Oak, to me, stands as a greater standard of romance than Romeo and Juliet. His silent devotion and moral strength endure despite his beloved’s imperfection, and when all hope seems lost. When the passion of Sergeant Troy proves false, Gabriel Oak’s quieter love proves true.  He stands as the one true romantic of the book. Bathsheba becomes worthy of his love as she deepens in her tribulations.

″‘I love you,’ he whispered, and kissed my brow. ‘Thorns and all.‘” 

Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd

To be romantic is to be optimistic, visionary, and idealistic.  These qualities may seem naive, but they need not be.  They are qualities that hold fast to an ideal – an ideal love. We can hold to these even in knowing the reality of darkness and weakness.  Trusting in goodness is not naive; it is the only way to bring goodness about.  Without a hopeful outlook, life is doomed to be a tragedy.

“To transcend cynicism we say, ‘Even though I know there are just as many snakes in your heart as there are in my heart, I’m going to hold out my hand in trust because that’s the best way to elevate both of us.'”

Jordan Peterson

If we opt to forgo the risk, if we decide it is safer to avoid devotion to another “snake-filled” heart, we risk living a life without love.  Unburdened by commitment and sacrifice we may become new creatures. As C.S. Lewis explains, our souls are meant to love. 

“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. 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… it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

The Need for Both Heavens

In order for hopeful qualities to find a place in our hearts, we must have them grounded in something spiritual and transcendent, not rational and material.   Is there room for such emotions in the harsh world of scientific materialism? For romance to last, we must trust,  leap,  and pray that someone not only catches us, but continues holding us. But our modern atheistic philosophy teaches us one thing loud and clear – we will not be caught.  We are simply atoms bouncing off each other and love and devotion are evolutionary mechanisms, nothing more. Our instincts will determine our choices and self-interest is a much more powerful mechanism than love.  If our “beloved” is no longer useful, they will likely be cast aside. Our modern perspective is like living in a world where Pandora shut her box one moment too soon.  The one thing that makes life worth living – hope – has been left inside the box. 

Pandora, John William Waterhouse

But this has not always been the dominant outlook of mankind, and it still isn’t for many.  The world of our ancestors was physically harsh –  ours is spiritually harsh. Our forebears were romantics. Their art and literature show that despite their sufferings, they held firm to an ideal of love and beauty. 

William Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet, illustrates this hopeful viewpoint, one we only see when we look beyond our initial rationalism: 

“Look for the stars, you’ll say that there are none; Look up a second time, and, one by one, You mark them twinkling out with silvery light, And wonder how they could elude the sight!”

We must not forget to blink and look again for deeper truths, for a happier alternative.  A whole host of Romantic artists dedicated their lives to portraying love and romance to the world.  Poetry, painting, sculpture, and literature tell the story of love between a man and a woman, and the triumph of hope over cynicism.  

Their stories depict the miracle of love: the self-abandoning journey of St. George as he sought to save the princess, the courtly love depicted in the tales of King Arthur, and the unyielding love of Agnes for David Copperfield.

Charles Dickens was a true romantic.  His early life was marked by tragedy. He worked in a factory as a child, while his father was in debtors’ prison.  Yet, despite acknowledging the reality of human depravity, he maintained a hopeful view of life and humanity. Chesterton compares his view to the perspective of our modern writers:

 “The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,’ over the gates of the lower world. The emancipated poets of today have written it over the gates of this world…
Dickens (a Romantic author) urges us to…’forego for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think is so clear, deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the very flower of your culture, give up the very jewel of your pride, abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.'”

G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study

But with time, romance faded from our art. The hopeful romantic period of the mid-18th century was followed by Realism and Modernism and ultimately the meaninglessness of Postmodernism. Many credit the rise of more cynical perspectives to the harshness of life after the world wars. But life has always been difficult and suffering does not breed cynicism – lack of hope does.  Hope must be grounded in a belief in the divine good of the world, that good will be rewarded, that truth will set us free, and that love is more powerful than hate.  Without the divine, hope is lost.  As religious faith withered, so did hope and love. 

“Love is an act of faith.”

Erich Seligmann Fromm

 As our world loses faith in a merciful and loving Creator, we lose faith in humanity at large.  From Ayn Rand to Charles Darwin, we are endlessly reminded that every action is reducible to biological urges or self-interest.

Reality of Love

But let’s just shake off this alternate reality for a minute and remember some eternal truths. 

Divine Love is the beginning and end of creation. Therefore love is at the core of our existence. Romantic love is powerful. We can follow our passionate love, and make something real and lasting. The bonds of family are stronger than any man-made philosophy. The joy to be found in a happy home exceeds any found in an office. The positive influence we can have on the world through our righteous posterity is limitless.  The relationship of marriage between a man and woman engages their complementary natures. It enables us to restrain our excesses and expand our limitations as we face life together – loyal and committed. The intimacy worked at and built up in a healthy and mutually compassionate physical relationship with a spouse can bring passion and adventure to even the most “ordinary” life. The sacred bond between husband and wife and their children can carry us through the most difficult trials – sickness, death, poverty, and heartbreak. To love is to be alive and to enjoy life. 

“At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be.” 

Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd

Romance Can Last

Part of our cultural revolt against “true love” is due to a lack of understanding of what love is. We reject what we do not understand. As suggested in my last piece,  unexpected passionate love demands a vow, and one we moderns are increasingly leery of making.  

Love is more than a passionate declaration, it is a welcomed acceptance of restricted freedom.  For it to be true, it is also continuous action.  It requires our will and our sacrifice to sustain it. It often has a passionate and spontaneous beginning, but its power is found in its endurance.

“The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words — ‘free-love’ — as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.”

G.K. Chesterton, In Defense of Rash Vows

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 reminds us of the ideal enduring nature of love – neverending, never altering.  

Let me not to the marriage of true minds 

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds, 

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

I don’t just want to be married to a Gabriel Oak (I am lucky enough to be), but I want to be a Gabriel Oak. I want to be a woman my husband can depend upon. We often hear that someone “fell out of love”. True love is not fickle and unpredictable, it does not fall of its own accord.  Love is given to us and it finds a home in us.  We must ensure our hearts and souls remain faithful to that love.  

Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak,
Far From the Madding Crowd, 2015

When you live with someone for many years, there will be ups and downs.  There will be days you wonder if you made a huge mistake.  There will be passionate weeks, and weeks you fall asleep on the couch watching The Office.  But if you hold fast to your vow and remain committed and close to each other, forgiving each other’s imperfections, there is great hope that you can live in that greater circle of love, and create a heavenly home for your children, spouse, and yourself.

“Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling….Love in this second sense — love as distinct from ‘being in love’ — is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other.  They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be ‘in love’ with someone else. ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. it is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.” 

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The Next Generation of Romantics

For our children’s sake, we need to show the rest of the story. Romeo and Juliet’s story ended quickly. Their demise was brought on by external forces that interrupted the beauty of their love. We must show our children that Romeo and Juliet can live, have kids, pay their mortgage and remain unaltered in love.  To believe in love, they must see its reality through times of trial. They must see their parents laugh with each other, be affectionate with each other, go through disagreements and come out on the other side.  They must see a love more desirable than the twisted, self-interested love of our modern age.  Even if our own home has had divorce or difficulty, they can see us overcome our dashed dreams and yet not descend into cynicism but maintain hope and faith in love. 

“All love will, one day, meet with its return. All true love will, one day, behold its own image in the eyes of the beloved, and be humbly glad.”

George MacDonald

A happy home is an earlier heaven. It’s worth believing in and seeking. The foundation of that heaven is the loving relationship between husband and wife.  Marriage can bring immense joy and constancy to our lives.  Our spouse won’t be perfect and neither will we – but “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”  Love is a promise, it is a choice, it is constant.  It extends beyond time and circumstance and we should believe in it again.  

….

The last installment on this romantic theme will be on helping our children develop a romantic vision of life. I will include a list of literature and film to share with your children that can spur some good discussion.

Additional Quotes

“If once there has been love,  if they have been married for love, why should love pass away? Surely one can keep it! It is rare that one cannot keep it. The first phase of married love will pass, it is true, but then there will come a love that is better still. Then there will be the union of souls, they will have everything in common, there will be no secrets between them. And once they have children, the most difficult times will seem to them happy, so long as there is love and courage.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

My love as deep; the more I give to thee,

The more I have, for both are infinite.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

“New love is brightest, and long love is greatest; but revived love is the tenderest thing known upon earth.”

Thomas Hardy, The Hand of Ethelberta

*Interesting insight into the source of the phrase “love conquers all”. 

https://sulondon.syr.edu/teaching-learning/virtual-classroom/omnia-vincit-amor/#:~:text=The%20idea%20of%20%E2%80%9COmnia%20Vincit,(Kingsley%2DSmith%208).

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