And now I’m terrified of loving
‘Coz I’m terrified of pain
And of missing out on human things
By cowering away
~ (Gang of Youths, Go Farther In Lightness, “Fear and Trembling”)
I stumbled across these lyrics over Christmas break and was immediately struck by the struggle expressed here and its relevance to the human condition. Here the singer, David Le’aupepe, vocalizes his deep fear of love, stemming from some unidentified pain that could potentially be involved. He’s terrified of the pain that opening himself up to love and to giving himself to another person might cause, but he is also scared of missing out on being human–on the best parts of life–which he most certainly will have to forfeit if he cowers away from love. It seems that love is somehow tied to a life lived to the fullest, of participating in something fundamentally human, but there’s an unavoidable tension caused by striving to avoid pain and seeking to not cower away from love. He’s paralyzed by the fear of putting himself out there, but he’s also afraid of missing out on life by hiding away. Trapped in the middle of this building tension, he finds no resolution, no answer to his struggle. He simply lets the listener know that this fear exists inside him. Though these lyrics are but one example, they point to a deeper issue that is central to the human condition. Despite the lines’ uncertainty regarding an answer, is it possible to reconcile these things?
I’ve thought a lot about the concept of shying away from relationships of any kind, whether romantic or platonic–out of anxiety, out of fear, and how detrimental that is to quality of life. This very struggle surfaced many times last semester while I was reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. One of the main characters, Lily Briscoe, grapples with the tension that exists between desiring to know and be known by another person but also wanting privacy and safety. Intimacy requires a deep knowledge of the other, and she concludes that she–and really anyone for that matter–cannot truly know another person so deeply. She can never fully understand someone else’s thoughts, the secrets they keep hidden, or the real intentions behind their actions. And it works both ways in that someone else can never fully know her–in fact, she is not sure if she even wants to attempt letting someone else in. In short, there is a seemingly impassable chasm that exists between two people which love seeks to traverse, but in order to cultivate a relationship with anyone outside of oneself, a decent amount of vulnerability from both parties is required. To love another person is to open oneself up and invite an outsider in, hoping, trusting that they will do the same. With such vulnerability comes huge risks because there is no guarantee of being received, trusted, and reciprocated or hurt and trampled on. When we open ourselves up to brave crossing that chasm, we risk falling; we risk pain. Lily Briscoe sees this very real risk and, unlike those four lines in “Fear and Trembling,” she comes to a conclusion of her own, choosing to completely withdraw from the possibility of love in order to ease the tension.
Standing on the sea shore, watching a storm brew over the waves, she notes how peaceful the world looks from afar. All the rough edges of the rocks below are blurred, the loud tumultuous crashing of wave upon wave is muffled, and the clouds are softened. From a distance, the seascape is lovely, calm, despite the fact that up close, she knows it is treacherous and threatening. For Lily Briscoe, this is exactly how love works: it is beautiful and desirable from a distance, but up close it is dangerous and ought to be avoided. The risk of closeness is great enough that she would prefer to live alone; blissfully unaware of any intimate details about other people. In the end, Lily Briscoe lives out her days in solitude, never having experienced any kind of intimate relationship. This is a real struggle for many people, but not only is this a horribly dull and lonely life to lead, it is outright selfish. In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one […] Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
Love is not safe. It is up-close, vulnerable, and full of risks. It requires each person to step outside of himself or herself, to open up to others, and to subject his or her heart to potential pain and humiliation. Lewis wants to highlight that even though love is all these things, to cower away, to keep to oneself is selfish and unnatural. Lily Briscoe chooses to be alone, to distract herself with hobbies. She calls herself an artist, giving herself fully to her work because her work is safe and solitary. Lewis emphasizes with rather harsh and convicting language that to cower is not an option–that hiding from love is damnable. Although it may seem easier to cower away, to become completely occupied and distracted with hobbies, and to close oneself off from love, Lewis rejects such impulses. He argues instead that we must brave the possibility of pain, choosing to love anyway.
Thus, we ought to love despite our doubts and our fears because we, being made in the image of a fundamentally relational God who is love itself, reflect a need for other people and for love. To cower away from love is to reject a big part of what it means to be human. What’s more, we ought to strive to love openly and fully because that is what Christ did for humankind, and it is precisely what He calls us to do. God loved His creation so much that He sent His son to suffer humiliation and death that He might fully reveal Himself to us. Christ opened Himself up to humanity, inviting us into communion with Him, and we are to emulate Christ in all aspects of life, including participation in His suffering and sacrifice. While the speaker in “Fear and Trembling” is relatable in his fear of love, Lewis demonstrates that it is more right to fear cowering away and thus “missing out on human things” than to shun loving others. To love is risky business, but so is to live. In fact, anything worth doing in life always involves risk, humiliation, and the possibility of getting hurt. But this is exactly what we ought to do, to humble and sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others. In doing so, we learn to live more fully, and we open ourselves up to the possibility of something beautiful. So, instead of cowering away from life, we ought to open ourselves up to love selflessly and risk everything because that’s how Christ calls us to live. The resolve that David Le’aupepe never finds in these lines is this: throw aside fear, love fully and openly despite the pain, and live life to the fullest as God calls us to do!
April Smith is a junior studying English and music