“Imagine” a Love so Real

By Elizabeth Scalia

As a fan of John Lennon’s music, it pains me to admit that the song most closely associated with him is one I have never liked. Even in my teenage years and my “progressive” days, Lennon’s “Imagine” always stuck in my craw as a nihilist’s hymn: everything is bad, and if we just get rid of everything, then the world will finally be good.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Well, Lennon was right about imagination. It is easy to imagine sunshine and rainbows, and people walking hand in hand over a hillside, spreading out a picnic, while below them in the valley lie the smoldering ruins of Western civilization -- all society, all history, all art destroyed.

The people would have to live only “for today,” though, because tomorrow the hungry party would need to begin a daily hunting and foraging for food; they would have to begin erecting barriers to keep the wolves from dragging off their chickens or their children, and digging wells for water that will not make their families sick, because the antibiotics will either be gone or reserved for those who -- in the great deconstruction -- managed to do all right for themselves.

Because there are always people who manage to do all right for themselves, even in a deconstructed world.

There is another Lennon song that tells us something is “easy,” and anyone who practices prayer or meditation can recognize that the song, which seems like a lighthearted ditty awash in froth, is actually packed with a certain truth: “All You Need Is Love.”

There’s nothing you can know that can’t be known.
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
It’s easy . . . All you need is love.

In ‘60s’ lingo, of course, this was an invitation to tap into the great “collective subconscious” -- it’s all there, if you just settle down and seek it out, and all you need to do that is to love, love, love.

Except love is not easy. On a personal level, Lennon himself knew that; all his life he struggled with abandonment issues due to his mother’s neglect. He replicated her actions, to some extent, with his elder son Julian, and even separated, briefly, from Yoko Ono.

Love is a challenge because -- unlike imagination -- love is not a force of the will; if we instinctively dislike someone, we cannot make ourselves love him; the best we can do is take a determinedly neutral stance about him and hope that over time, and with familiarity, our neutrality develops into something better.

When intimate love between two people or within families seems daunting, it is for some much easier to “love” on a grander and more impersonal scale, and that is what Lennon did: he preached “love” to masses who “loved” him back, but that exchange was an idea of love. Lennon did not, could not, love the masses of people who attended his concerts and styled themselves after him; he didn’t know them. Likewise, the fans who “loved” him had no idea who he really was.

It is not unusual for people who, in their youth, have lost love -- particularly maternal love -- to pursue careers that will put them before a great number of strangers and allow them to advocate for love in broad terms that will have little real effect on their own personal lives.

Bono and Madonna both lost their mothers in their adolescences. Talents aside, he has spent a good portion of his life waving white flags and talking about grand-scale-government-delivered love, and she has gone out of her way to bury notions of genuine love, or its more tender urgings, beneath a cold marble slab of rather unerotic, almost repellent, sex.

Bono’s ideas are not necessarily bad; debt forgiveness for poorer nations and serious help to AIDS-afflicted Africa are ideas anyone should be able to get behind, but social programs -- even when they are instituted by feelings of real compassion -- are not themselves a sound expression of love; they cannot be, because they inevitably become bogged down in bureaucracy, which is always impersonal, and so their implementation will always be lacking.

This is one reason why smaller charitable groups and religious orders are usually able to accomplish much more than governments: because they are often autonomous and one-on-one -- people setting their tents among the communities they are serving, as the Logos set his tent with man; loving them in personal friendship, enduring the daily realities with them -- and not merely stopping by to drop off a load of government cheese before clocking out and going home.