Monday, April 18, 2011

The "It" That "It's" All About

Rather an auspicious title. I know.

The nerve to render language to such a title! After all, our greatest poets claim that "it" simply can't be said. A.E. Housman once quipped, "Poetry is not the thing said, but a way of saying it." Frost told us that poetry is "words that become deeds" -- language that translates into action because we simply do not have more words to express what the "it" of words is, in the first place. Eliot--well, most everybody doesn't have much of a clue as to exactly what Eliot meant, though it's an art in itself to decipher his "it" and to come up with increasingly more ornate and complex language to describe what is already ornate and complex in its original inception.


So, then, what is the "it"? What does this mundane blog post really want to claim?

First, let me say I agree with the poets: there are some things in life deeper than language, things that we cannot begin to hold in our hands because they're too inflamed, too deeply real and, more colloquially, devoid of crap.

The things that are devoid of crap don't lend themselves to sitting on some mantle somewhere so we can look at them and remark, Ah! Yes, indeed, the shading there does suggest a bit of nuance.

But another poet made a rather stark and fairly blunt statement of "it." And the "it" this poet articulated has driven the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and others who have radically altered everything about what we previously thought possible.

The "it" the great poet claimed was: love God; love your neighbor. With everything. All you've got.

No insurance policy on this kind of love.

No receipt for return of transaction.

No helmet, life preserver, or bulletproof vest.

No back-up plan.

No allowing logic--which Marx called the "money of the mind"--to trump compassion.

No glance to self-benefit, interest rate on giving, APY.

In essence, the love that Jesus preaches is exactly the love with which he lived. That's why Gandhi viewed him as a model. That's why King believed it could be done on this earth. That's why Mother Teresa could live in the slums and wipe the sores of lepers for her entire adult life.

It wasn't because any of these individuals possessed any greater human capacity than you or I. It was, entirely, because each allowed the relentless, unconditional driving force of love to be more important than self.

Conditional love is everywhere we look.

In the middle and high schools where I taught, conditional love is an ever-present reality: look a certain way, speak a certain way, think a certain way.

But I think we all like to play a game: the game is call Once High School is Over We All Grow Up and Become Mature and Act Better. The truth is, I think we operate with the same kinds of conditional love that we became experts at wielding in our schools.

I recently wrote a book called How to Survive Middle School (Without Becoming an Advertisement or Losing Your Inner Voice), and what struck me as I wrote it was this thought: everything in here could just as well be applied to thirty-year-olds.

But I was writing for my 7th graders. I was writing to address all the fears, insecurities, petty competitions, jealousies, and cravings for unconditional love that they felt. So, something doesn't change in us. Some deep need that we all possess doesn't get fed, and therefore what we have to offer others is always and necessarily conditional.

And that is not what it's all about.

It's hard for us to image what unconditional love even looks like, so trained are we in the arts of acting to gain approval of others and living to prevent disapproval. But unconditional love, perhaps, can best be summed up in this pithy gauge: if you earned it, then it isn't unconditional.

If in any way you earned the praise you're getting, then it isn't unconditional.

If your performance, your words, your actions, your decisions, caused feelings of warmth to seep from other human beings to you, then it isn't unconditional love.

Because as soon as you stop making the [all-star-slam-dunk-rock-this-party-live] movements in your life, so stops the love. And if we really think about it, that's an incredibly depressing and demeaning and degrading way to live: nothing is for certain. We can count on nothing. Nothing remains. Everything is always and necessarily a crapshoot in the cosmic game of love-attempt.

Everything becomes a rolling of the dice to see if our numbers reveal that we'll be able to receive some love this turn around.

And if that's all we ever had as models of the possible on this earth, then that would be all well and good. We could straighten our ties, shift our dresses, and get on with life, heads dirt-bent and ready to work to earn as much love as we could before we kicked the bucket and slowly became the dirt that the next slogger would work until he, too, kicked a similar bucket.

But we've seen something different.

We've glimpsed other possibilities.

We've watched the way Jesus did this thing called life, and as scientists tell us, all you need is one instance where the theory doesn't hold, and the law is broken. It can't be a law anymore. Gravity can't be gravity unless all physical objects obey it.

If a rock just started floating upwards to the sky, then we'd be forced (or, rather, much smarter people with a trail of letters following their names would be forced) to come up with a new law because Gravity's turn would be done.

So, if Jesus broke and breaks the Law of Conditional Love, then it can't really be a law.

Furthermore, if Gandhi can look at the life of Christ and proceed to break the Law of Conditional Love, then it takes another serious knock. When King comes along, followed by Mother Teresa, and a host of others...well, the Law of Conditional (or Marketplace) Love starts to look fairly shabby. It doesn't hold up as a law, a scientific theory, or even a good bet anymore.

So. The "it" then.

Unconditional love. Love that we can't earn. Love that results not because of the work we do, the way we make another feel, or the cha-ching we gather like squirrels.

Few things strike us as strange, as rare, or as dang hard to classify as Unconditional Love. Maybe that's why, when we see it, we innately and suddenly know it to be, indeed, the "it" that "it's" all about.