Is Love Sometimes Like “dying a little”?

April 19, 2010 by  
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by Julia Caroline Knowlton

Can we understand love by considering our experience of it as “dying a little?”  Is love sometimes an act or expression that sacrifices my life through a “giving-over” to yours?  In loving, do we surrender our precious vulnerability?

Unsettling notions reveal truths.  A rabbi once taught me that love is the constriction of the self in service to the other.

In French, the word for love is l’amour and the word for death is la mort.  All nouns in French are either masculine or feminine.  There is no neutral.  Love (l’amour) is masculine and death (la mort) is feminine.  The two words sound eerily alike.  I amuse my students when I teach them how to differentiate the pronunciation: “L’amour requires you to “pucker up” a little while you say it, whereas la mort does not.”

Loss is irrevocably bound to our experience of love.  Life begins with a first separation as the child leaves the mother’s body and is cut off from it.  Nursing can then be seen as a remarkable duet between mother and baby, hearkening back to that lost union.

The longing you feel for the one you love hurts.  The French call orgasm la petite mort (”the little death”).  Lust is the primal urge to erase physical boundaries that separate two people.  The blurring of boundaries that constitutes sex may be understood as a powerful remembrance of symbiosis between mother and infant.

In more concrete contexts, we can see that loving the other often requires a literal depletion of the self.  Maternal love relentlessly demands “a little dying” through emotional and physical fatigue.  Making scrambled eggs in the pitch black on freezing cold mornings when you feel bone tired.  I have heard mothers say “I feel like these children are sucking the life force out of me.”  And to an extent, they are.

There is true nobility to this “little dying.”  My closest colleague lost his wife to gastric cancer almost one year ago.  I watched him age before my eyes as he slaved through her diagnosis, treatment, passing, and burial.  All the while he took care of their young son and daughter, and did not complain.  And he continued to teach his students throughout the entire ordeal.

Another colleague of mine hauled several huge student suitcases up a narrow, 85-degree Fahrenheit stairwell in the TGV (train de grande vitesse) in Avignon, France, despite the fact that he suffers from severe vertigo. He did this because several students were ill. While he did that, I stood with a sick young student who clung to me for hours at the bottom of that same stairwell. We were packed standing like sardines. Some French teenage boys stared at my student-a tiny shy girl-with bemused curiosity until I explained to them that she was ill.

Is love sometimes like dying a little?  I think so. If we do not run from it, this understanding of love offers us a glimpse of the sublime.

Copyright 2009 Julia Caroline Knowlton

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