Disillusions of Love

'I've looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still, somehow, it's cloud illusions I recall. I really don't know clouds at all.' -- Joni Mitchell,

‘I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still, somehow, it’s cloud illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all.’ — Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”

“For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives . . . a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.” – C. S. Lewis[1]

Throughout his role in Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin—like all human beings—had to work hard for love. And not just because of his awkward-shy-keep-to-himself personality, which always bodes poorly for fictional and actual love-seekers (take my word for it). Even when he finally breeched the barrier of bashfulness, mustering enough mettle to ask Kitty Scherbatsky to marry him, things didn’t go well. Kitty rejected him, having fallen for one of those typical romantic heroes—a guy whose wooing words and dashing looks made her heart flutter, even though he was actually a punk, like most guys are when they care more about wooing and dashing than about working for love (take my word for that too).

In short, Kitty broke Levin’s heart, and Levin sulked himself back home where he tried to drown his sorrows in farm work and exercise.

But then Mr. Romantic Punk shattered Kitty’s hopes, and after Kitty pieced herself back together, Levin got a second chance. And thus Count Tolstoy set the stage for literature’s awkwardest proposal and wedding sequence, which ends when Levin and Kitty ride off in a carriage toward their new home together in the countryside a few miles from Moscow.

Dream come true. Hard work paid off. Just deserts. What have you. Essentially, a happy end to years of righteous hopes. Levin’s desire for a perfect love to a perfect woman who would help him become manlier, patienter, kinder—well, for all intents and purposes, it looked like that desire had been fulfilled in his marriage to Kitty. Their love for one another was sincere, each looked up to the other, they’d conquered heartache, confusion, and fear.

But the Kitty-Konstantin wedding concludes on page 454 of a novel with 817 pages. And on page 479, Tolstoy gave readers one of the most important insights of the book:

Levin had been married for three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected. At every step he found disenchantment with his old dream and a new, unexpected enchantment. He was happy, but, having entered upon family life, he saw at every step that it was not what he had imagined. At every step he felt like a man who, after having admired a little boat going smoothly and happily on a lake, then got into this boat. He saw that it was not enough to sit straight without rocking; he also had to keep in mind, not forgetting for a minute, where he was going, that there was water underneath, that he had to row and his unaccustomed hands hurt, that it was easy only to look at, but doing it, while very joyful, was also very difficult.”[2]

In a word, disillusionment—the destruction of illusions, which are false ideas about something.[3] That’s what happened to Levin. He hadn’t erred when he worked so hard to marry Kitty, or even when he determined that marriage and family were goals worth his faith, time, and effort. No, Levin’s choices, desires, and actions were right, as Tolstoy explained for the remaining hundreds of pages in the novel.

It was Levin’s perceptions—his expectations—his illusions—that were wrong. He’d created a false idea about love. Marriage was harder than it seemed in his imagination. It took effort and energy. Bliss came only with blisters. It was worth it, but the fight wasn’t over just yet.

Having never been married, I can’t relate with Levin on a direct parallel. But I think I understand something about the process that eats away at illusions. And I think that I understand why that process isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

For example, four years ago today a mailman delivered to my house a large white envelope addressed to “Sister Greer Louise Bates” (full name means business), with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints listed in the top left corner as the sender. Mom and Dad drove down to pick me up from campus, and they let me hold the envelope in the car as we made our way home to be with family when I opened it. I squeezed the packet in my hands and squeezed the tears out of my eyes and felt joy shoot up my spine. Without knowing where God’s prophet had called me to serve a full-time mission, I already knew I would love the place and the people.

Five months later, including a three-month preparation in the Missionary Training Center, I stepped off a plane in Dnepropetrovsk—a metropolis in central-southernish Ukraine. Two days after that a bus drove me ten hours south to Simferopol, Crimea, where I spent the remaining fifteen months of my mission.

Fifteen months of the best kind of disillusionment.

Missionary work wasn’t what I had envisioned. So much of it was more mundane than I had anticipated. I was wimpier than I’d imagined, and I had to give myself pep talks (sometimes out loud) to get myself to talk to people, to invite them to church, to explain the Book of Mormon. There was no rousing soundtrack to keep me energized. Some people made rude comments. Some drunk men creeped me out. The winters froze my skin through multi-layer outfits, it rained and I didn’t have an umbrella, the streets smelled of exhaust from the marshrutky, the underground crosswalks smelled of something much worse.

And I had to work and trust and hope and pray and fight to keep on going.

I had to row and my unaccustomed hands hurt. Missionary work was easy only to look at.

But doing it, while very difficult, was also very joyful.

Because Ukraine and its people ceased to be mere illusions in my mind. Simferopol was a bustling humid loud populated reality—not just an idea or a vision, a mental scene to give backdrop to daydreams. It was real, and I really loved it. My ideas of “Ukrainians” broke down to become the Solodovniks, the Polyakovs, the Sichkarenkos, the Petrovs, Nadya, Lara, Svetlana, Nina, Zhenya, Gosha, Inna, Leonid the street peddler, Tatyana the half-paralyzed babushka. Real people. Real friends. Real, living, loving children of God.

Actualities, not just illusions.

It took work. It was hard. It was awkward and often heartbreaking. But my mission was real. And the people were too. I watched illusions die off and fade out and obscure. The result of this disillusionment was much more complex than the dream I’d cooked up when I first got my mission call. But I’d trade illusory love any day for the real, solid stuff that took shape in my heart and bound it to Ukraine.

Because illusions, you see, can’t love back.

Disillusion done right is letting go of false thoughts to make room for the real stuff that means so much more. It’s the process of loving the real kind of love—the kind built with “the tough fiber of the human heart” instead of “[the] texture of wine and dreams”[4]—the kind that peels back enchantment without losing hope, growing numb, giving up, drying out.[5] It demands that we examine “things as they really are” (Jacob 4:13), not just as we’d like them to be.

Sometimes it means loving when it love doesn’t come easy.

Sometimes it means progressing when we can’t see the way.

It takes faith, hope, and charity; it takes repentance and trust; it takes maturity, empathy, reason, and heart—things I can’t fully give, though I try to each day.

“For now,” Paul wrote, “we see through a glass, darkly,” filtered through false expectations, illusions, and figments (1 Corinthians 13:12). But Christ—the most important Reality—didn’t promise His followers fantasies, or mirages, or imagination, or dreams; He promised “the Spirit of truth,” the Comforter that speaks hope and healing (John 14:17, 26).

Disillusionment usually hurts. There’s a reason why we hang on to dreams, and why we sometimes build them back up when they crash. Perhaps using my mission experience was a poor authorial choice. After all, as hard as it was, I don’t regret my service, and I’d go again in an instant if I could! Some disappointments hurt an awful lot more—paralyzingly, on occasion. Even long after the fact. I’ve watched enough dreams become nightmarish real life that sometimes I despise disillusionment for the rude wake-up call that it is. Illusions are comfortable. Illusions don’t keep me up at night crying. Illusions are safe and they’re soft and they’re nice.

But illusions aren’t real, and they won’t ever be. And as long as there are real lives to experience, real blessings to see, real people to love—won’t that always matter more than even the pleasantest dreams?

At least, I suppose so. I’m still so young, so caught up in ideals, wishes, hopes, so afraid that those visions and dreams won’t come true.

“[So] for now [I] see through a glass, darkly; but [someday] face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known. [Until then] abideth faith, hope, [and] charity” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13).

————————————————————————–

[1] From A Grief Observed, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: HarperOne. 686.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky). New York: Penguin Classics. 479-480.

[3] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/disillusion?s=t

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” in Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics. 176. The entire quote says: “Our friendships come to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fiber of the human heart.”

[5] See the above C. S. Lewis quotation.

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