By Patrick Dunford | Men’s Staff Writer
Photo Credit | Donna Irene Photography
My barista lit my coffee on fire yesterday.
He fired up a culinary blowtorch and introduced me to the eighth wonder of the world that is the crème brûlée cappuccino. It takes three accent marks and seven syllables just to describe that bad boy, a drink as complicated as it is delicious.
Seems like we’re getting pretty advanced as a culture, pretty complex too. Look at how we’re able to dry our hands. I mean, come on, it’s like a gentle wind massage for your hands. There’s a bracelet-like selfie robot that you toss out in front of you, smile for the camera, THEN WATCH RETURN TO YOUR WRIST.
We are maybe 5 years out from “Terminator”- esque Skynet stuff, people, max.
It’s arguable whether some of these things count as “advances,” even if I would give anything to replace the selfie stick. Leave it to the Western world to solve problems that aren’t really there. Maybe it’s no surprise that in all this seemingly forward progress, we’ve also found a way to complicate love.
So let’s be clear: This isn’t an article about “50 Shades of Grey.”
Ok, it sort of is, you caught me, officer. But please, no handcuffs.
Chances are, by now you’ve made up your mind, in one camp or another. I’m not here to convince you of what “50 Shades of Grey” IS or ISN’T, there are more than enough well-written blogs and videos with names like “50 Shades of Abuse” or “50 Shades of Sexy” to reinforce anyone’s perceptions of its massive moral depravity or ultimately liberating sexuality.
I can’t even count the number of shades that must be out there now. The goal of this article, its purpose, is to help you see what Love ISN’T in order to help us see what Love IS. And maybe, just maybe, to help explain how we can authentically fulfill the desires of our heart that would lead us toward something like “50 Shades of Grey” in the first place.
Let’s start with the big audacious ISN’T at the core of it all. Love ISN’T grey. I mean that beyond the desperately obvious pun I used to get you reading all this in the first place. There are very clear things we can talk about concerning the Truth of Love which separates Love utterly from any grayness.
To get to those points, though, we need to delve into the origins of Love and intimacy. I’m personally not in the camp proposing how America and a large part of the world became sexually deviant overnight because poorly written Twilight fan-fiction was published. In fact, I’ll make an even more scandalous concession:
I think there may be a reason (heck, even a few) so many people are drawn to “50 Shades of Grey” that makes total sense. I believe it’s a reason which goes deeper than people heading out in droves to see a film and stick it to the man, or millions suddenly wanting to get involved in BDSM themselves. In fact, it might even be biblical.
I don’t mean the obvious fact that Sodom and Gomorrah are always begging to be dragged into the debauchery conversation, attention-hungry cities that they are. Well, everything-hungry cities that they were, anyway. I’m talking Genesis, that whole in the beginning deal.
You see, the life of submission and domination we see in our dear Ana and Christian in “50 Shades” (remember, this is not about that story) isn’t too far off from the life God asked of mankind’s parents in the Garden of Eden. I present to you Genesis 1:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
I mean, whoah, “subdue…and have dominion?” Bet you forgot those words from Sunday school. This would probably be E.L. James’s favorite passage (still not about that story, promise). But here’s where we get it all wrong:
We’ve gone from the gift of dominion over and subduing of nature to dominating and subduing each other.
You see, in one of our Creation stories God takes Eve from Adam’s rib. From his side. Not from his head to suggest superiority (sorry, ladies), and not from his feet to suggest inferiority. From his side, to simultaneously show equality of worth and intimate unity between the two.
I mean, we’ve all heard plenty of times how Adam and Eve totally blew it by eating the forbidden fruit and how that led to our broken relationship with God. I think we often forget, though, how that incompleteness has damaged our ability to recognize and pursue the intimacy with EACH OTHER we were meant for.
Aristotle in his work “The Nichomachean Ethics,” asserts “Happiness then, is found to be something perfect and self-sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.” Basically, no matter how we act, we’re always acting in pursuit of something we perceive as a good. Something which will make us
“happy”, something that will make us like Pharrell.
I’m using a Greek philosopher, a fancy foreign book title, and the word “asserts” here so I have to be right.
BDSM is all about the pursuit of a perceived good or two, certainly pleasure and maybe even intimacy with another. But acting to achieve a good, Pharrell, isn’t enough in itself. The key here is a perceived good. This means we can act expecting a certain action will in some way be good for us, even when the reality results in disaster. So we have phrases like “looking for love in all the wrong places,” “I knew you were trouble when you walked in, so shame on me nah-ow,” and “Kardashian.”
Which leads us back to molten cappuccinos, and Love’s freedom from grayness. Love is mysterious, but it’s not complicated.
Well, let me narrow that down.
Yes, Love is incredibly complicated to some degree. Love is very difficult to get a handle on (read: impossible), which is why billions of dollars are made on books and movies every year which promise to have finally figured “It” out. I’m not so audacious as to deny the complexity.
But we have to distinguish between the “complicated” nature of our experience as creatures made from and for Love, and the complications which come from choices we make based on our expectations of what Love SHOULD be.
We’ve been raised on a steady diet of images including men sprinting through airports to stop the girl from getting on the plane, very public bleacher-dancing-megaphone-sing-alongs (R.I.P. Heath), and women waiting by their comatose man until he springs back to action. We expect Love to be a BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL.
A little dangerous, a little risky. There aren’t as many movies about a guy and girl who meet at church, have a nice dating relationship, then decide to get married. It’s just not as engaging to us. We want it to be bigger, we desire to be swept up in something greater than ourselves. But are those two pictures mutually exclusive?
We’re designed to embrace mystery, in fact it’s admirable and natural to recognize Love as a grand adventure. But what happens when brokenness enters the equation? I think we stop appreciating the mystery and start forcing it.
In the story this article isn’t about, what Ana sees in Grey is part of a deeper longing. I think we see in Ana’s experience (from which comes our desire to experience HER experience by reading or watching) the mystery and intrigue we long for. Love’s path seems to be there in front of her to some degree, if obscured and often clearly misguided.
But does the end justify the means? We have to pursue True Love in terms of its reality to achieve the fulfillment of the desire we’re designed for. Love as willing the good of another, even above and beyond our own. This transcends mutual pleasure, it results in a profound mutual good. We’re gifted with the opportunity in our relationship to help others grow in their ability to receive love, not merely raise their threshold for pleasure and pain.
Here is where the paths diverge in the wood, where the desires for Love and pleasure/pain deviate in their natural conclusions. Our lives have no “Love threshold,” there is no point in our lives at which we plateau in our potential for giving and receiving Love. It is not “too much Love” which would destroy us, only Love’s potential used irresponsibly. Too much pleasure or pain can kill us. Sure, the argument can be made that the pain of fasting etc. we experience in holy pursuits represents the same principle as Love used poorly. But pain and pleasure aren’t equally necessary for the fulfilment of our desires, where our very existence depends completely on God’s eternal Love for us.
We progress down both paths in similar ways, learning and becoming committed to them gradually. God’s revelation comes over time, gently guiding us on. Christian doesn’t hit Ana with a belt on the first date, that comes later, but seduces her slowly into accepting more and more of his lived-out fantasies.
See how he speaks to her:
“So you felt demeaned, debased, abused & assaulted – how very Tess Durbeyfield of you. I believe it was you who decided on the debasement if I remember correctly. Do you really feel like this or do you think you ought to feel like this? Two very different things. If that is how you feel, do you think you could just try and embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a submissive would do.”
Now, Love is meant to be the dominant force in our lives, and we are even asked to submit our hearts to Love. To be vulnerable. St. Paul boasted in his weakness, not his strength. But Love does not demand we be “submissive” or passive recipients. To bend to each and every whim it asks.
Love has no whims. Love is constant.
Love is not “taken” from anyone, Love requires no inferiority from giver or recipient. These represent the antithesis of Love. God Himself, Jesus Christ, “no longer calls [us] servants, but friends.” We have in our modern-day been delivered from one bondage to another, the OG sin of our ancestors into a bondage we choose now.
I don’t buy the idea that this is all somehow liberating to our desires, as if setting us free from purported fetters of Western Christianity and society and delivering us into feathered handcuffs and leather straps is a victory. We come from a history of salvation, it’s no wonder we forget we can’t do that for anyone else.
C.S. Lewis had it right when he asserted the problem is not with the strength found in our human desires, but in how they are lacking.
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
We’re never truly satisfied by these inferior desires because as Lewis also knew “We do not want merely to see beauty . . . We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
So it is the same for Love. We wish to be bathed in Loved, to be consumed by Love. Not because it represents weakness, but reflects the reality of the human heart’s desire to fully surrender to Love Himself. We desire to receive an infinite gift of Love with finite hearts. When we are not satisfied with God’s gentle constancy in our journey, we surrender anyway. We give in to the weakest and most base of our desires, and therefore receive the weakest and most base of rewards. We choose an inferior and limited pleasure over a vacation at sea, immediacy of gratification over returning to our true home in Love’s embrace.
Now, pleasure is not bad in and of itself. But how often is religion accused of being the retirement home for our desires. No, the graveyard. Despite Song of Songs and its erotic Love poetry, there might as well be billboards out there proclaiming “Christianity: Where Sexy Goes to Die.”
Having sex and eating, the two actions most essential to human progress and thriving (next to bacon), are actually wired by God with pleasure to reinforce the desire in us to, well, do them. They serve as a poor substitute, however, for the depth of the Love for which we are created.
Sometimes Love itself leaves room for pain and hurt, experiences clearly not relegated to the secretive rooms of wealthy men. But the pain we find Love wounding us with prepares us for the infinite Love and relationship for which we have been created. Pain from submission and domination only ever remind us we could have them “fully” and still never be satisfied. Only in God’s love for us and in sharing His Love with others can we find what we are ultimately searching for.
Love isn’t grey because Love isn’t meant for the darkness. Love isn’t grey in morality, nor is it dark in joy. Love can only be fully realized in the light, because authentic Love exists for us in one, perfect, absolute shade.
The brilliant shade of a Creator’s Love for His most beloved creation.
P.S. You are enough.