Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
John Donne, in his wonderful “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” is writing about his anticipated travel away from his beloved, forbidding her from mourning their temporary separation. He describes their love as “an expansion / Like gold to airy thinness beat.” I’m struck, as Valentine’s Day approaches, by the idea of love as “an expansion.” This can happen even if the beloved is 1000 miles away or just sitting across the table from you. Your heart expands (not, hopefully, as a medical condition) to include the person you love. And it can be golden.
But expansion is not always easy. I vaguely remember reading in War and Peace a scene in which a character is overcome by a feeling of vulnerability upon first seeing his newborn son. As a parent, he has expanded his field of potential pain. If you are empathetic by nature, by which I mean capable of expanding your heart more easily, love can bring pain as well as rich rewards. You share pain.
I say this as a person who is more comfortable compartmentalizing than expanding. My lid is screwed on tight. I’ve only deeply loved once – now. Yes, I know, there are different kinds of love. The ancient Greeks had different words for kinds of love. Here are the most well-known:
· Agape – spiritual love - the love of God for man and man for God
· Eros – sexual passion – though Plato argues that eros helps the soul understand Beauty as a spiritual truth
· Philia – friendship, including love of family
Something is missing from the list, don’t you think? There are, of course, other kinds of love. Kim and I have talked about the way that every experience of love is uniquely its own thing, sui generis. But all, I believe, involve “expansion / like gold.” But “gold to airy thinness beat” misses the sense of depth that my heart has learned to feel.
I remember hearing or reading an interview with a couple talking about their arranged marriage. They agreed that the first step is commitment, and that love, if it happens, will follow as a consequence. You commit to the whole person, and that wholeness gives love its depth, or perhaps its weight. The expansion is three dimensional. I’m not saying that the sequence of commitment à love is required, but that the two are required to get beyond a crush or infatuation. Our daughter uses the term “all-in” – taken from poker when you bet everything – to describe this kind of commitment, which I believe to be a dance between love and commitment.
And yet . . . I saw a Valentine card on which a praying mantis said, “I know it’s love because I didn’t eat your head.” You can be all-in, fully committed, fully and vulnerably expanded – but don’t let your beloved eat your head. That’s my advice, anyway . . ..