Not by word alone
According to Gary Chapman, we all recognize, give, and receive some combination of five basic different love languages. Some individuals know that they are loved through physical touch or gifts or spending time with another; others know through responding to acts of service from someone significant. Regardless, whether it is words or bodily interactions or presents or activities or shared experiences that bestow upon us a profound sense of self-worth, we all want to believe that our existence has meaning. Following Chapman’s scheme, my love language is indeed, the spoken language itself. I receive words of affirmation: when someone verbally acknowledges my self-worth, I feel loved. While I am not sure that I give complete credence to his reductionistic proposal, Williams may have correctly identified a deep longing present within me, as within many budding ministers—a desire to be needed, to be told that I am needed. I am most whole, most truly at home, when I hear my presence acknowledged and affirmed.
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It is almost as though I am spoken into existence: I am not really here, do not really matter, until I know that I am wanted, that I am needed. If I pass through the days without contributing to another’s enrichment or growth or comfort or well-being, I question whether or not I am simply a waste of oxygen. Why am I here? Why do I deserve to consume the earth’s resources and to occupy valuable space on our already overpopulated planet if I do not somehow make a difference? My matter—my bodily existence—needs to matter.
When the patient murmurs throughout our visit “Thank you, thank you; I simply knew when I heard this diagnosis that I needed a priest;” I know why I endured three other miserable, painful patient visits earlier that morning. When the brother with whom I almost never speak texts me “Thanks for the beer machine for my birthday. I love it and am brewing a batch right now,” I wonder whether our relationship may hold a small bit of promise after all. When my husband grazes my thigh with his finger, I hardly notice, but when he offers one of his all too rare commendations of the dinner I have prepared, I replay the moment in my head for weeks. I am here with purpose.
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Words. I want words. Cognitively I understand that we all may impact others in ways that we may never know, never perceive, either because those whose lives we touch never choose to acknowledge our existence’s impact on them or because we cannot recognize how they have, in their own manner, affirmed us. Or perhaps we do know, but we do not know so deeply that our heart pulsates with that strange mixture of excitement, flattery, and relief that we have genuinely, beneficially, intertwined our own life with another. The fulfillment never arrives. I know that when my father offers to pump my road bike’s tires with air and when he asks about how my car is fairing, he is loving me in the way that he knows how. My bike matters, my car matters, because I matter. He cares for my things because he cares for me, for the safety, enjoyment, and happiness with which these vehicles provide me. And those times when my elementary school physical education coach would purse her lips and pause an agonizing dozen seconds before announcing that our class had in fact earned a free recess, that we did not have to spend the period doing jumping jacks and shuttle runs, she communicated her contentment with all of the schoolchildren. In fact, she never did make good on her threat to turn our Friday recess into a circuit training sweat session. We always thought that she reached her decision based on our behavior and performance, on how many of us had acted out that week or how many of us had run the mile too slowly, but she merely could not bring herself to admit that we had always already won her over. She melted in our presence, and she basked in seeing the grins overtake our faces each and every week when she delivered her big announcement. She relished our happiness.
Yet for a long time I never saw these actions as signals of love. I thought my father grew annoyed with me for allowing my bicycle tires to deflate and doubted my ability to care for my car and that my coach delighted in holding her power over us. Now I know their actions for what they are—expressions of committed relationship and joy and thanksgiving—but I still do not know in the way that I know when I hear the words thank you, well done, I am so glad you are here. The seemingly trivial gestures fail to travel from my cognitive pathways to the innermost workings of my soul. That empty space within my soul finds no nourishment. It feels hollow, flailing.
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We search for love and so often find our quests unsuccessful because we only prepare ourselves to receive love on our own terms. Blaise Paschal, the French mathematician who asserted that we all have God-shaped holes in our hearts that nothing other than the divine can fill, cynically remarked that we preoccupy ourselves with anything and everything so that we do not have to do with God. I think we do this with people, too: we do not accept them as they are or our relationships with them as they are. I want my dad to use words, I want us to have real conversations instead of stilted exchanges about the weather and fishing and hunting. I want my husband to tell me that he appreciates my work ethic instead of staring at my legs. I want to know that my painfully awkward encounters with the mentally ill homeless people at the soup kitchen are not for naught, that they mean something! I want to be like the synoptics’ Jesus, one who audibly hears God’s promise that I am loved and have purpose. I do not receive any of that. I cling to mere crumbs, fragments: my brother’s half-cough/“I love you” and the disgruntled sighs when I walk into patients’ rooms.
The crumbs have fallen from loaves of abundance, yet I do not taste the perceptible delight characteristic of immense heartiness but instead the coarseness and staleness of lack. The love is there in great supply, but I cannot notice it long enough to receive it, so I will never taste it. I linger on why I am not full instead of exploring how I could be satiated. My rejection of certain expressions of relationship outside those I deem appropriate ultimately reveals that I will not relinquish my own life script, that I will not open myself to the possibility that words may not be the only means capable of showing depth and worth and gratitude and realness, to the possibility that we are all bound together by more than language. This inability to hold fast to our own belovedness, our own dignity, our own reason for being, when encountering others who puzzle or infuriate us, who do not know how to speak us into existence and convince us that we really, truly matter, is our refusal to embrace the love of the God who works in the midst of and in spite of others. My aggravation with my father or brother or coach or colleagues or patients has little to do the actual persons and everything to my lack of receptivity to the foreign and the unexpected.
The God of words is a monochromatic, one-dimensional God who creates similar creatures, all of whom have fairly static, easygoing, if not dull relationships with one another.
Is that what I want?
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I am not sure, but I kind of like predictable. The crevice is not there with predictable. It is undetectable. The thing is, the entire heart is hollow. The hollow space is so big, you never notice.
The tiny hole aches with longing most of your life, but on those rare occasions it finds the missing piece, you never feel more real.