Faces of Love

At the end of each year I think about what I’ve learned or come to look at in a new way. In 2002 I sometimes mused on the following: Everyone says money can’t buy love, but I’m not sure that’s precisely true. Say a 43-year-old woman who’s been working for years and is starting to feel anxious about the future, who’s gotten tired of the dating grind and tired in general, meets a man who’s worth $250 million. He’s twice her age, rather homely and rather boring. In time he asks her to marry him. She says yes. Society immediately understands the situation: She’s doing it for the money. And in truth she’s going to like feeling secure, and she’s going to like feeling like a victor after a long race. Society isn’t wrong in its judgment. But maybe she isn’t wrong when she tells her friends: “I love him.” Because people have a way of loving what they need.

You’ll see a couple like this walking along a city avenue, laughing with each other when there’s no one looking. They seem to take pleasure in each other’s company. As time passes and the husband gets sick, the wife will care for him with great attentiveness and stay home with him and watch television. She’ll be loving. As if she’s in love. Which she is. Because when you’ve been in jeopardy and then you are saved, you have a way of transferring your love from the savior’s money to the to the money-bringer himself. You don’t want to think you married for money and you don’t want the world to think so either. You want to think you did it for love, and that you simply lucked out materially in the bargain. And in time love is what you feel. Because people have a way of loving what they need.

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Here’s something I thought of in a new way. It will sound stupid because it’s so obvious, but sometimes the obvious redefines itself for you. It starts with a thought: Most of the human beings on earth spend most of their short time here in a way that is dictated by money. This is not true of everyone, but so many of us are doing with our days things that are different, sometimes radically so, from what we’d like to be doing. You’re a banker who wants to be a horse breeder, or a toll collector who wants to act, or you’re a teacher who really wants to paint, but you’re doing what you do because that is the job the world will pay you to do. And it takes money to live.

Here’s the thought that came to me in a new way. When you think about this, you realize that people are so gallant to accept what is and not become bitter or enraged; and so many are kind and humorous and cheerful in spite of the tyranny of money, the bane of life on earth. We are surrounded by the heroic cheerfulness of the average person. It is all around us. We’re not moved enough by it.

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This is something I thought about a lot and feel I may possibly have figured out. It’s not an obvious thought and may be a somewhat mystical one. Here goes. Let us posit that God made man. But why would he give us bodies that have brains that turn forgetful in old age, so that the old are often unable to summon a name or a movie title, or exactly what happened at that party five years ago, or the particulars of a childhood incident, the kind you remember all your life? Your ability to remember thins out; it’s not so vivid anymore. Why would God make us so that with age we’re less responsive to the world, less able to summon its events?

I think this: Maybe he did it this way because he knew us, knew what happens in life, knew that in old age you lose loved ones, dear friends and close family. And so he makes your brain less vivid and responsive and clear so you can better withstand loss. He makes people less themselves so they can live through losing those who were central to their lives. Actually, let me modify that a little. The old may forget exactly who loved them and exactly how hard, but they never forget what love was. Or so it has seemed to me.

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All of us learned or were reminded the past year that big institutions can change. Because they’re big they turn like giant ocean liners, slowly, but they can turn in a new direction. Last year at roughly this time many of our major institutions were rocking with scandal. They were revealed as unstable incompetent, corrupt. The FBI’s institutional incompetence to thwart or hinder 9/11; ditto the CIA; Wall Street movers and CEOs doing the perp walk; Enron and Global Crossing; the Catholic church as a haven for child molesters. A leader of the U.S. Senate spoke as if the old code words were gold words. What a disheartening mess. And yet just in the past month Cardinal Bernard Law has fallen in Boston, Trent Lott has fallen in the Senate, and Time magazine picked as “persons of the year” the whitsleblowers of the FBI, Enron and WorldCom. And Wall Street is working on a new and solid code of ethics.

One feels a cleansing has begun. The downfall of Cardinal Law means the old way of covering up for bad priests is over and done; the downfall of Sen. Lott told the rising and present generations of American officeholders that if you speak the code of yesterday you’re over. The raising up of the whistleblowers means we are officially celebrating the rise of honest people who will take a terrible risk to tell the truth. This is wonderful. (Your basic conflict of interest disclosure: I’m a contributing editor of Time. To demonstrate dispassion I’ll note that the least helpful, least thoughtful piece written during the Lott affair was Time columnist Jack E. White’s spiteful and unmeasured blast at those unrelentingly evil conservatives. Thanks Jack! It’s good you brought heat and not light to the topic because it’s cold out and we can be warmed by your words.)

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I was reminded again this year that people do what they know how to do. A lot of people tend to go to their default setting when faced with any given challenge. Your default position grows out of who you are and how you think. If your default position on being treated rudely by clerks is patience and mercy you’ll likely go to default patience today if a clerk is rude to you.

But people can change, and the changes within them can produce new default settings. One of the things that can change a person is consistent good fortune, persistent admiration, a luckiness that lasts. I thought Hillary Clinton would change somewhat in the Senate; I thought her rise would soften her elbows. Why not? Not thinking you have to elbow your way past others can leave your elbows nice, soft and unused. Mrs. Clinton has clearly been trying to show an attractive and easygoing face to the world the past two years, and she’s done well. So I thought good fortune—she is an acknowledged leader of her party, a likely future presidential candidate—had moderated her. But when the Lott story ended happily she was furious, and reverted to her default position on Republicans. Which is an intense and in my view destructive antipathy for the whole lousy bunch. She said: “If anyone think that one person stepping down from a leadership position cleanses the Republican Party of their constant exploitation of race, then I think you’re naive.”

God bless her amazing consistency. This is a woman whose emotional default settings have not changed and will, I suspect, never change. People do what they know how to do. She knew when the Republican Party definitively rose up against race mongering it was time to get a hate on.

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I found that believers and nonbelievers can still have friendly debates on the issue of religion. And those debates can be both deeply felt and helpful. Last week I got an e-mail from a close friend who is both intellectual and agnostic. He wanted to share some thoughts he’d had while watching the recent PBS documentary “The Face of Jesus.” He wrote:

It was an extremely interesting look at the various depictions of Jesus, from what seems to be the first depiction of him, in 290 CE, when he was a Hercules lookalike—beardless, with a lamb over his shoulders—didn’t Hercules always have a lamb? Or was it a stag? I can’t remember, but in any case, it was definitely a herbivorous animal. Jesus’s beard, in Christian representation, came later, in the 5th century. . . . But to bolster, in an anthropological way, the argument that iconism undercuts faith, the mere fact that Jesus has changed so much over the centuries must call into question, at least in the minds of some, exactly who it is that they are worshiping.

That, of course, has been the fate of Christianity for the past century and a half. The so-called “Higher Criticism” of the 19th century, centered in Germany and then flowing to France, where Ernest Renan’s “Life of Jesus” (1861), which ended with the famous words—“When religions respond to the aspirations of the heart at the expense of the protestations of reason, they in their turn by slow degrees, crumble away, for no force in the world can permanently succeed in stifling reason”—made mincemeat of the Bible as literal history.

There was much to respond to. This “CE” stuff for instance strikes me as equal parts prissy and aggressive. I was interested that my friend, who is quite brilliant, did not know that worshipping Christ does not detract from worshipping the Almighty—God—for the reason that Christians believe Christ is God; he is one of the Holy Trinity that comprise God. But I wanted most to talk to my friend about his statements on the changing face of Jesus in art, and its implications, if any.

I told him that Christians are not disturbed that Christ is depicted in different ways, as light-haired in this painting and dark-haired in that. There were no cameras in Galilee, and Christ is not physically described in the bible. As Pete Hamill observed on Jonathan Schwarz’s Christmas radio show last Sunday, “Leonardo was not at the Last Supper.” You do a lot of guessing when you imagine what something that happened years ago was like.

I told my friend that many Christians feel being able to imagine is a real blessing. If we knew Christ was 6-foot-2, pale, brown-eyed and portly, people who are somewhat primitive might unhelpfully favor people who look like that, and discriminate against people who are swarthy, blue-eyed, and thin. The nonprimitive might unconsciously do the same. More important, not knowing what Christ looks like makes his universality easier. It allows all of us who believe in him to “see” him in different ways. Maybe like us. Maybe that’s not bad.

My friend reacted the way intellectuals who are given surprising information react. He changed the subject. He told me what really interested him was how reason collides with faith, that deep and skeptical intellectual inquiry is faith’s enemy. I said I don’t see it that way, that God gave us brains so we could use them, and that if Christianity is true then diligent inquiry can only help you get to it.

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But I told him also that his comments on Jesus’ face had reminded me of an old Christmas song that is lovely. In the version I have it is sung by the crystal clean voice of the late Nancy Lamott, who died of cancer seven years ago this month at 43. I found the CD. The song is written by Alfred Burt, the lyrics by Wihla Huston.

The tune is tender and slow, like the words of a bright child who’s thinking:

Some children see him Lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night,
Some children see him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.

Some children see him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heaven to earth come down,
Some children see him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see him almond eyed,
The savior whom we kneel beside,
Some children see him almond eyed,
With skin of yellow hue.

Some children see him dark as they,
Sweet Mary’s son to whom we pray,
Some children see him dark as they,
And ah, they love him too.

The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace
And filled with holy light.

Oh lay aside each earthly thing,
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King
’Tis love that’s born tonight.

‘Tis love that’s born tonight. And love of course has no color, no ethnicity; sees no division, heals and makes whole. We seem to be in a time of healing and reconstruction. The year that began with our institutions revealed as sullied and unhealthy ends with cleansing and rebuilding. How did this happen? Good people rose. They went forward touched by that most constructive thing, the truth. And maybe by other things. Maybe by love.

Merry Christmas from the author of this column, who feels it for her readers.