Your Dissatisfaction with Your Present State is a Holy Thing

The pains of love (both human and divine) are necessary to the union at which love aims.

Sailko, CC BY 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons
Sailko, CC BY 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons (photo: Register Files)

The first act of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, among its many absurdities, includes the following quatrain, sung by a bevy of poetical maidens and their beaus the British dragoons:

The pain that is all but a pleasure will change

For the pleasure that’s all but pain,

And never, oh never, this heart will range

From that old, old love again!

The absurdity of the quatrain lies in the fact that the love-struck singers will in a very few moments be separated as the maidens discover their latest literary crush: the devastatingly handsome poet Grosvenor.

The story is a deliberate farce.  The author, W.S. Gilbert, meant the lyric as a parody of Victorian sentimentality, which he undoubtedly considered fully as shallow as any aesthetic maiden.  But Gilbert nearly always wrote a little truer than he intended; and the hackneyed paradox on which he seized might (handled well) have done credit to a Donne or a Pope: the paradox of love so strong that it hurts.

That phrase too sounds hackneyed, partly because we have heard it so often that we don’t really hear it at all.  We assume blithely that the pangs of love are due to fear of losing the object of our love.  There is some truth in this assumption.  A wise professor of ethics once told us in his class that from the day we had children we would never lack worry again.  He was right: and a great part of a parent’s worry is the fear that through their actions or neglect something bad will happen to their child.  That is, perhaps, the paradigmatic human fear of loss.

A kindred fear exists in reverse on the spiritual plane.  Also dubbed “fear of loss,” it goes under the aliases “fear of hellfire” and “fear of the Lord.”  The latter phrase (theologians explain) signifies fear of offending God, not so much because of his might as because of his infinite goodness and lovability or, as Aquinas puts it, “from a consideration of the Divine excellence” (Summa, reply to objection 5).  What is lost—God’s friendship on earth, and communion with him in beatitude—is far greater than any positive punishment could be; that is one reason why saints and confessors recommend meditating longer on the joys of heaven than on the pains of hell. There is—to borrow a flippant phrase—more there there.

But the pain of love is not merely (or even mostly) due to the (on earth) accompanying fear of loss.  Anyone who can remember “being in love,” or experiencing the intense affection of a child for their parent or a parent for their child, will realize that consciousness of that love comes most often at moments of revelation.  Pangs come, in fact, when a flash of understanding shows the lover a new facet of how loveable their beloved is.  And some fear and shame and anticipation of loss may quickly follow (“Can I really measure up to this? what if they find out I’m a fraud?”); but these are not the first essence of love’s pangs.

But then why should the recognition of something good and beautiful hurt?  I cannot explain it in philosophical terms; I can only turn to metaphor.  When a carpenter wishes to attach two pieces of wood, he must fit them to each other.  Wouldn’t the seat of the chair, if it were sensible and intelligent, say that it hurts to have a leg plugged into its hole?  But at the same time, wouldn’t the seat say that it was delighted to know at last what the hole was for?  Or wouldn’t the stock groan when the gardener cuts into it to splice a graft from which a better tree will grow?  But wouldn’t the stock also love the graft and desire it, as a glory?  Wouldn’t the person needing a heart or a kidney transplant both shrink from and welcome the donation?

These analogies are imperfect, but they all rely on what seems a universal principle: that the joining of two things in the physical realm requires some paring away, some pruning, some trimming off of the dead or imperfect in order to complete the union.  A similar thing occurs emotionally in good marriages, where the two spouses sand each other’s roughness, so to speak.

This, I think, is what occurs in those moments of exquisitely painful pleasure when we recognize another’s beauty or the goodness—their lovability.  The pain is not the fear of losing them nor of being required to abandon part of ourselves nor even a feeling that we are not worthy; though these may all be present, the real pain is an in-the-moment pruning as we grasp John’s vision of his new garden, or Jack’s aspirations to “make a difference,” or Johnny’s deep and abiding affection for doodle bugs.  Learning any deep thing about someone we love pushes on us, requires—not just our selfishness, but even our selfness—to make room before beauty as it is unfolding before us.  The revelation is a pleasure, but the pleasure is all but a pain.

And the pain is all but a pleasure.  That is why—to return to a previous train of thought—there can be a certain joy even when the revelation of the beloved involves their sorrow at or displeasure with us.  With God in particular, to learn that one is not satisfactory is a revelation not altogether unhappy, precisely because we learn our imperfections only in light of learning his perfection, and the sorrow of the former knowledge is overwhelmed by the joy of the latter.  This, perhaps, is the sense of such mystical phrases as “You are she who is not; I AM HE WHO IS” (Our Lord to St. Catherine of Siena).  In that magic mirror of God’s discontent we see ourselves for a moment not as we are but as we are meant to be; and the vision is so astonishing that the holy dissatisfaction with our present state might in more than one sense be called (with a bad British pun worthy of W.S. Gilbert himself) divine.