Love and Ashes: A reflection.

I’ve mentioned before how conversations tend to cluster in my life whenever it seems that God is trying to teach me something. Lately, it’s been about the problem of evil and the importance of love. And within that conversation, I’ve begun to have conversations with others about free-will and the sovereignty of God. Meanwhile, I read. Even when it’s fiction, I still read like a theologian.

OK, let me fanboy for a second: I love the new TV series Shadowhunters. I love the pacing, the boys are pretty, and it’s a fascinating world. I first encountered this world through the Mortal Instruments: City of Bones movie, which I loved (I’m told this is because I hadn’t read the books yet–most fans hated it). So I picked up the first three books of the Mortal Instruments series, stalling for some reason in the middle of book two, City of Ashes. But because I love the TV series so much, I dived back in from the beginning of Ashes.

I wanted to reflect on the following scene, mostly because I think Clary, the protagonist, gets the nature of love almost exactly wrong, despite the wisdom of her mentor and adopted father-figure, Luke. The context is that Clary is blaming herself because Simon, her best and oldest friend who is clearly in love with her, has been transformed into a vampire. Clary, as a Shadowhunter (a Nephilim with the vocation to destroy demons) feels that Simon would have avoided that fate if she had not shared her newfound knowledge of her nature–if angels and demons exist, all the other stories might be real, too.

This is where join the scene:

“Look,” Luke went on. “In all the years I’ve known him, there’s always been exactly one place Simon wanted to be, and he’s always fought like hell to make sure he got there and stayed there.”

“Where’s that?”

“Wherever you were,” said Luke. “Remember when you fell out of that tree on the farm when you were ten, and broke your arm? Remember how he made them let him ride with you in the ambulance on the way to the hospital? He kicked and yelled till they gave in.”

“You laughed,” said Clary, remembering, “and my mom hit you in the shoulder.”

“It was hard not to laugh. Determination like that in a ten-year-old is something to see. He was like a pit bull.”

“If pit bulls wore glasses and were allergic to ragweed.”

“You can’t put a price on that kind of loyalty,” said Luke, more seriously.

“I know. Don’t make me feel worse.”

“Clary, I’m telling you he made his own decisions. What you’re blaming yourself for is being what you are. And that’s no one’s fault and nothing you can change. You told him the truth and he made up his own minded what he wanted to do about that. Everyone has choices to make; no one has the right to take those choices away from us. Not even out of love.”

“But that’s just it,” Clary said. “When you love someone, you don’t have a choice.” She thought of the way her heart had contracted when Isabelle had called to tell her Jace was missing. She’d left the house without a moment’s thought or hesitation. “Love takes our choices away.”

“It’s a lot better than the alternative.” Luke guided the truck onto Flatbush. (Clare, City of Ashes, pp. 210-212. Italics in original.)

I find this exchange both illuminating and highly problematic.

First: All kinds of problematic assumptions about how romantic love (supposedly the paradigm of love in general) functions.

Let’s get at it this way: it’s useful to distinguish between feelings and emotions. Feelings belong to your limbic system (part of the autonomic nervous system), and arise as a result of stimulation–almost any kind of stimulation. Emotions are much more complex and complicated states.

At this point in the series, Clary is still a new Shadowhunter, and thus newly in love with Jace (who, it seems, is her half-brother–plot twist!). When we are newly becoming attached to someone romantically, our nervous system and brain chemistry are going haywire. How we deal with those feelings requires a great deal more formation and life-experience–and hence the need to distinguish feelings from emotions. Emotions are feelings that have beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions woven around and through them. If we change our dispositions, attitudes, and beliefs, we end up experiencing a different–or at least, differently modulated–emotion, even if it’s the same basic feeling from the nervous system.

More or less, one thing that Clary assumes is that “you don’t choose who you love.” This is not, contrary to cultural opinion, simply a brute fact–it gets into something called “theory of desire.” I haven’t done much formal study, but I know from personal experience as a visibly disabled man that attraction is suffused with all kinds of social baggage that most people don’t think to surface.

Let me give one example that’s unrelated to disability. Until I was in my late teens, I was deeply uncomfortable around non-White people. I couldn’t understand why, because I grew up in one of the least racist homes I’ve ever encountered. But when I was 17 or so, I found out that yes, I had deeply internalized racism that affected how I dealt with people.

Because I was in the middle of a Charismatic prayer-counselling course, I dealt with it as though I was confessing what’s called a “generational curse.” I went to God and said, “I confess that racism is a sin, and I repent. Please break off the influence of racism back ten generations in all the spiritual streams of my ancestors, and may I receive only blessing because of the cross of Christ.”

I wasn’t out yet, but I know that prayer began to take effect almost immediately: guys who weren’t White were turning my head quite regularly–and this made my life quite complicated on another level!

Sometimes the challenges need to be more overt–but as with most things in the romance department, they can sound self-serving. (You know, like: “You should challenge yourself about internalized disgust toward people (disabled, black, trans, religious, poly and so on) because I would like to date you, and a major reason you’re not dating me is because of your desire software formatting.”) Is there a good way to have these conversations non-violently?

The problem with making romance or the emotion of falling in love paradigmatic is that it severely undermines the importance of choice–deploying the will to make one choice among others, and (in the case of love, romantic or not) to keep making that choice. The chemical soup that facilitates rapid attachment to a partner or other significant person usually doesn’t last forever, and that feeling is usually replaced with others. But if an individual gauges whether or not they still love someone on the feelings that are part of the chemical soup, they might easily conclude that something has gone wrong!

In the passage above, Simon is the one who demonstrates love as an emotion fuelled by many decisions and practices; in other words, by his loyalty. Loyalty, when healthy, is a form of self-giving or -emptying love, what the Christian tradition calls kenosis. In order to demonstrate this kind of love, one must be able to choose, and choose freely; there must be both agency and informed consent.

Second: if the highest or most robust forms of love are emotions steming from the value of choice and agency, by prioritizing the feelings and emotions called romance Clary risks cutting herself off from love.

But there is, nevertheless, a sense in which love removes choice. By virtue of long practice and deliberation (notice that I am deliberately connecting body and mind here), the cumulative effect of the consistent choices we make is a “loss” of deliberative choice–it has become who we are, and moved to a much deeper place than when we starting practicing or thinking in those ways. Sometimes, the feeling (and even the emotion) of love gives way to a solid disposition of character. And if our disposition is kenotic, we will gift people with opportunities for informed consent and free agency–and thus, we are freely freeing others, without the need to consciously deliberate in every case.

I’ll be watching to see whether Clary learns that love gives freedom or not. As it is, Luke is almost totally right in lifting up Simon as an example of love–and Clary, at this point, is too naive to realise that she is dead wrong unless she learns to practice the kind of love that Simon gives her.



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