Only once, at summer camp, did I pluck a flower saying: “She loves me, she loves me not.” I do not remember what the daisy oracle said, but she did not love me. Perhaps my heart knew the truth and so I asked the flower instead of her.
In Plato’s Symposium, love is described as a poverty, a need, and human love often fits this description. Love lacks and searches for what it lacks in the beloved. This missing element may be beauty or companionship. . . it may be a person with whom to collect stamps. Human love aches when receiving no return. Love can consume with curiosity longing to know if the beloved shares the feeling.
“Do you love me?” I ask Hope.
“Yes, I do.” she answers.
I ask often, but not, I think, out of need. After twenty-seven years, love is not just a poverty. I know, I have bet all my life and forgone every other joy, on her love. But after twenty-seven years, I want much less. My love still contains elements of poverty, but married love becomes full and fecund. A man and a woman are different from voice, to biology, to soul. Bring us together and new life results without any mediation, new life that is not possible from any other relationship, and this new life is not limited to our five children.
She has birthed in me an understanding of a different nature, another voice, a dim vision of what it is to be woman. Womanhood is a great good, it is not mine, it cannot be mine, and I cannot possess it in any way. She is her own and her nature is not mine, but she shows me this other and condescends to give me the gift of her presence. This gift, this love, is comprehensible in our shared and equal humanity and revealing of a different way of being, an equal way of being, from my own. I cannot want this otherness, it is not for me, but for her, but I glory in it.
This is not a poverty, a lack, but sharing. I want to give as it has been given to me and not get more, though of course there is another, more human, part of me, that simply wants love from the beloved. There is an almost divine moment when all I want to do is see the other person and venerate this other being for what she is apart from me.
It is easy to see in marriage, when marriage is working well, but equally true of friendship, parenthood, or many other types of relationship. “Does he love me? Does she love me?” The greater the friendship is the more we want to know, not because of the need that began the relationship, but because of the admiration that our knowledge has produced. We stop merely wanting and begin giving the admiration due any clear vision of a soul created in the Image of God.
This veneration can become idolatry and if so becomes corrosive, corrupting, and cloying. Like an acid eats at metal, so making a man a god is a falsehood that burns away the material basis for our relationship. Just as mold rots food, making it unfit to eat, so giving love due to one person to another twists love until it is unrecognizable. Sweetie and syrupy words make a relationship sick. A little admiration goes a long ways.
“Do you love me?”
If the answer is “no,” then we command what was to die and acknowledge no right to feel what we have felt. We move on. But if the answer is “yes,” then we will wish to give and give. We want nothing more than permission to love, because for an adult human loving another adult human without mutuality there is no moral love. “Do you love me?” is permission to begin.