I wrote this song this morning for Kate, called “Love Is a Constant Struggle”
I assure you this is not a bizarro, public way of acknowledging relationship friction, quite the contrary. It relates to a recent lecture I attended at Wesleyan called “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle.”
The lecture was by Ted Shaw, a brilliant civil rights lawyer who was the 5th head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, among other things. I got to spend some time in a small group of faculty and staff talking with him before the lecture as well, and in both cases I was struck by the complete absence of “eureka” moments in the sense of offering some perspective or strategy by which current struggles would seem surmountable. He talked instead about doing the right thing because that is our duty as humans and talked about the work of those who sacrificed so much towards justice. He also talked about the folly of letting down our guard, of thinking we’re over a hump and decreasing our effort and vigilance. He closed his talk with an African proverb – I’m going to butcher it, but the essence was that struggle is a constant in life and it’s up to the Gods to determine outcomes.
This has been in my brain ever since, but today I realized how much love works the same way. There are of course moments of pleasure, but what sustains a relationship is vigilance – striving to be our higher selves even (especially) when things are tough. I am certainly aware (hyper-aware recently) that while my wife is statistically likely to be around for a good while longer, not a day of that projected time is guaranteed. Loving wholeheartedly is not based on the statistical prediction that the investment of being kind and patient is likely to “pay off” in the future. It’s based on doing justice to a blessing in my life, not taking any of it for granted. From that perspective, succumbing to stress (of which I’ve had no shortage the last few months) is not an option. I have my moments, of course, but what the “constant struggle” means to me is that I don’t get days off to just be snarky or neglectful or dismissive. I am obligated to keep struggling through that (and whatever external challenges the world throws at me). I owe it to her, I owe it to everyone who needs reassurance that this sort of commitment is possible, I owe it to everyone who has lost a loved one prematurely and needs me not to compound that by indiscriminately squandering the precious gift I have, I owe it to goodness itself.
All of this is true of romantic relationships and it’s true as well of other kinds. For years I couldn’t wrap my brain around why some of my most tender and heartwarming moments as a parent were often followed by some of the most stressful moments. I see now there was no direct cause and effect, only the reality that adversity is around every corner and we don’t know when it will enter. And I believe to the core of my being that loving wholeheartedly through this constant din of uncertainty is not only possible but utterly essential.
And ultimately love in that sense is the same essence that informs the ongoing pursuit of justice and equity and transformation of Earth to a more compassionate place. This is not to say that being nice to your spouse when you’re cranky is in and of itself a substitute for whatever actual work your conscience dictates that you must do for the planet. But it helps us understand and hopefully reconcile the notion of the constant struggle. It ain’t easy, but it beats the heck out of capitulating to the impulses that can undermine sustenance of our spirit, whether those impulses are in service of a relationship or liberty justice for all.
So this song is for Kate (yes, not the most romantic Valentine’s Day song, but if she didn’t also believe in this she would’ve given me the boot a long time ago), but it’s also for all of you needing a reminder that the need for effort and vigilance are not signs that you’re doing it wrong or that the universe has forsaken you. This is just how life is when we truly care about something or someone, and that’s beautiful too.