Friends and Lovers

This by Cynthia B. Johnson:

Comes the day when life stops.

Sometimes abruptly. Unscheduled. Unplanned.

The calendar full of appointments for tomorrows not to be.

Large things, like tickets bought but not used.

Like dinner parties for which invitations have been mailed, responses received.

Like speeches scheduled and project deadlines agreed to.

Small things, like clothes at the dry cleaners.

Like a small stack of phone messages to be returned.

Like two lamb chops thawing for tonight’s dinner.

No one’s daytimer lists “Death –

all day Wednesday” as the final appointment.

[“Sudden Death and the To Do List” from A Theophany, Please]


Again and again it defeats me—

This reliance on others for bliss.

—John Weldwood

We celebrate the right of all people to marry this day closest to Valentine’s and as we proudly host our GLBTQ friends here at the Interweave Convocation. But we remember that we face new assaults on Love here in California and elsewhere. Thursday was Freedom to Marry Day here in California, a reminder of the legal right once had but hoped to be regained. March 5th the California Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the constitutionality of Prop Hate…er,…8. Of course, assaults on the freedom to love are all the more powerful when the end of life faces us. St. Valentine died in jail, himself in love with the Jailer’s daughter, because he performed weddings of two people in love in spite of family customs of the time.

Love is always more poignant in the face of death. Death brings a certain urgency to love. Dana Lawrence and her partner of many years came to me three years ago to be married. Dana was dying of cancer and she wanted to know that feeling of being recognized by a church in the eyes of love. She joined PUC and was married right here two years ago by yours truly. What none of us realized is how soon the dark angel would come for her. Dana was gone within two months. So few of you knew her. She was quiet but we were here for her. Before she died she told me how happy she was to find such good friends who could love her as she was

Friends and Lovers are each affected by mortality. We often parse friends as different than lovers, but we forget that the best relationships start as friendships, indeed the love of a friend can withstand even death.

In fact, I propose the following distinction: Friends are stout lovers, broad at the base if not always capable of making sharper points –such as sexual love allows. As Cicero (who himself died for his friendship with Pompeii, and not Caesar) noted, “Friendship is the greater love because it involves a constant choice….Friends are another self.” (paraphrased from On Friendship) God gives us friends to fulfill the imperfect love we need even as we seek a more perfect love than there is. How many of us, especially in the face of death, have found lovers abandoning us, but friends at our sides? Think of the end of Jesus’ life; his male followers, lovers of his logos, abandon him at death, while his female friends (who are, ironically, not his lovers) are there beyond the end.

John Weldwood, a Buddhist teacher writes: “While most of us have moments of loving freely and openly, it is often hard to sustain such love where it matters most—in our intimate relationships. This creates a strange gap between absolute love—the perfect love we can know in our heart—and relative love, the imperfect ways it is embodied in our relationships. Why, if love is so great and powerful, are human relationships so challenging and difficult? If love is the source of happiness and joy, why is it so hard to open to it fully?

“What lies at the root of every relationship problem is a core “wound of the heart” that affects not only our personal relations, but the quality of life in our world as a whole. This wounding shows up as a pervasive mood of unlove, a deep sense that we are not intrinsically lovable just as we are. We experience ourselves as separated from love, and this shuts down our capacity to trust. So even though we may hunger for love or believe in love, we still have difficulty opening to it and letting it circulate freely through us…..Similarly, when a friend … is dying, all your quibbles with that person fall away. You simply appreciate the other for who he or she is, just for having been here with you in this world for a little while. Pure, unconditional love shines through when people put themselves—their own demands and agendas—aside and completely open to one another.

“Absolute love is not something that we can… fabricate. It is what comes through us naturally when we fully open up—to another person, to ourselves, or to life. In relation to another, it manifests as selfless caring. In relation to ourselves, it shows up as inner confidence and self-acceptance that warms us from within. And in relation to life, it manifests as a sense of well-being, appreciation, and joie de vivre.

….“ What feels most affirming is not just to feel loved but to feel loved as we are. Absolute love is the love of being. …..

“However—and this is an essential point—the human personality is not the source of absolute love. Rather, its light shines through us, from what lies altogether beyond us, the ultimate source of all. We are the channels through which this radiance flows. Yet in flowing through us, it also finds a home within us, taking up residence in our heart…” (Weldwood in Shambala Sun, Jan. 2006)

All of us have experienced this absolute love. But not for long. In time, the blemishes of life mask the ecstatic nature. I tell those getting married to call me in a year. A year seems to be just about the time it takes for love’s sharp light, her absolute brilliance to settle down. And then? Well, then we go about falling in love all over again but for different reasons. Because she still makes me laugh, even as she drives me mad. Because he remembers to put the toilet seat down even if he forgets the flowers. It’s the daily love between lovers that has to be re-invented over and over again. But that love is there, perhaps more so in friends than lovers…. Who do you call in the middle of night when you have lost your way? The love between friends, while perhaps not as bright, is sometimes much more forgiving. When a betrayal happens between lovers it is very hard to come back from, especially if sex or its emotional equivalent has happened, but friends betray friends all the time, and somehow we forgive them more easily. Imagine the love of a lover, the Eros of the gods, to be vertical; and the love of friends, the logos, to be horizontal… the heights of erotic love are addictive, but the breadth of friends often more sustaining. What Walt Whitman, gay and a Unitarian, once called the “adhesiveness” of a love between friends, such as he had with his own lover Peter Doyle. (See Leaves of Grass, 1860) I have come to believe that we are created with both capacities and it is our spiritual makeup to love both deeply and broadly. The most lasting love I know is if the lover is also your friend. One does not negate the other; despite that my teenage girlfriends told me they only wanted to be friends, as if sex were somehow the next level (which of course to my hormonal mind it was!). Sex is another dimension to love, a deeper one, but it does not make the love between friends second rate. As Antoine Saint d’Expurey put it “Lovers gaze into each other’s eyes but friends stand side by side and gaze into the distance.”

As Weldwood put it “Our ability to feel a wholehearted yes toward another person fluctuates with the changing circumstances of each moment. It depends on how much each of us is capable of giving and receiving, the chemistry between us, our limitations and conditioned patterns, how far along we are in our personal development, how much awareness and flexibility we each have, how well we communicate, the situation we find ourselves in, and even how well we have each slept the night before. Relative means dependent on time and circumstance. ..Ordinary human love is always relative, never consistently absolute. Like the weather, relative love is in continual dynamic flux. It is forever rising and subsiding, waxing and waning, changing shape and intensity. …So far all of this may seem totally obvious. Yet here’s the rub: We imagine that others—surely someone out there!—should be a source of perfect love by consistently loving us in just the right way. Since our first experiences of love usually happen in relation to other people, we naturally come to regard relationship as its main source. Then when relationships fail to deliver the ideal love we dream of, we imagine something has gone seriously wrong. And this disappointed hope keeps reactivating the wound of the heart and generating grievance against others. This is why the first step in healing the wound and freeing ourselves from grievance is to appreciate the important difference between absolute and relative love.” (Ibid, Weldwood)

What is so great about the love of friends, and why I think they should be the baseline to any personal relationship, is that they recover so quickly from life’s mishaps. “Relationships continually oscillate between two people finding common ground and then having that ground slip out from under them as their differences pull them in different directions. This is a problem only when we expect it to be otherwise, when we imagine that love should manifest as a steady state. That kind of expectation prevents us from appreciating the special gift that relative love does have to offer: personal intimacy.” (Ibid, Weldwood) What friends teach us and we as lovers should learn is that love is only possible when two people accept each other simply as they are, not as you would have them be. Frances is never going to make me less bookish and she fiercely defends my time to read, even though she would much rather have me in the yard building a deck. I am never going to make Frances plan out a trip, even though I will do all I can to provide enough empty time to let us explore as the spirit moves us. We are each other’s best friend first, lovers second. Yes, we are disappointed at love. All of us are. So what?

“Love can fail us and it does one of the most fundamental of all human illusions: that the source of happiness and well-being lies outside us, in other people’s acceptance, approval, or caring. As a child, this was indeed the case, since we were at first so entirely dependent on others for our very life. But even if at the deepest level our parents did love us unconditionally, it was impossible for them to express this consistently, given their human limitations. This was not their fault. It doesn’t mean they were bad parents or bad people. Like everyone, they had their share of fears, worries, cares, and burdens, as well as their own wounding around love. Like all of us, they were imperfect vessels for perfect love. ….When children experience love as conditional or unreliable or manipulative, this causes a knot of fear to form in the heart, for they can only conclude, “I am not truly loved.” …..As Emily Dickenson describes this universal wound in one of her poems: ‘There is a pain so utter, it swallows Being up.’” (Ibid, Weldwood).

The point is to remember that to love is human, but to be free from pain is perhaps divine, but ultimately impossible. Whether it is the stouter love of friends, or the vertical love of Eros, what we do know is love is only a means to our humanity. And that humanity is full of ecstasy, comfort and pain. I always counsel those in search for love to stop pursuing it, lest you lose her as Apollo lost his Daphne. “Those who go on a search for love,” D. H. Lawrence writes, “find only their own lovelessness.” Start with friends and let love happen last.

Weldwood writes that “As earthly creatures continually subject to relative disappointment, pain, and loss, we cannot avoid feeling vulnerable. Yet as an open channel through which great love enters this world, the human heart remains invincible. Being wholly and genuinely human means standing firmly planted in both dimensions, celebrating that we are both vulnerable and indestructible at the same time….at this crossroads where yes and no, limitless love and human limitation intersect, we discover the essential human calling: progressively unveiling the sun in our heart, that it may embrace the whole of ourselves and the whole of creation within the sphere of its radiant warmth. This love is not the least bit separate from true power. For, as the great Sufi poet Rumi sings:

When we have surrendered totally to that beauty,

Then we shall be a mighty kindness.

So may it be. Amen.


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