“I was terribly shy as a boy,” the man said. “Excruciatingly shy. But in third grade there was a girl I liked, and somehow I mustered up the courage to tell her so on the school bus. And she said she liked me too.” He smiled a wistful little smile as he told it. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She liked me too. So I thought I’d strike while the iron was hot. I asked her if she’d like to be my girlfriend. She said ‘Sure.’ It was like I had been transformed in a moment, from a loser to somebody’s boyfriend. Even my big brother noticed something different about me when I got off the bus.”
He paused as if to savor that memory before going on. “The next day,” he said, “I picked some flowers and gave them to the little girl on the playground. Everybody stared at me, but I didn’t care at all. Except that the little girl stared too, just like the others. ‘What are these for?’ she said. ‘They’re for you,’ I said. ‘Because you’re my girlfriend.’ The girl’s mouth dropped open in horror and she shrugged her shoulders and gave the other kids one of those looks that said, ‘This boy’s crazy.’
“‘What are you talking about?’ she said. ‘On the bus,’ I said, ‘I said I liked you and you said you liked me too.’ She came at me so fast I didn’t know what was happening. She gave me a shove that landed me flat on my back. When I raised up on my elbows, the girl made it clear that she would hit me again if I tried to get up. The other kids were laughing and pointing, and lying there on the playground I promised myself that I would never again get close enough to a girl to get hurt by her.
“I kept that promise,” he said. “That was thirty years ago. That little girl was my last girlfriend. I’ve never been hurt by anyone since.”
I ran into that fellow the other day. He’s still as guarded as ever. And as lonesome.
C. S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. 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, unredeemable.”
That little girl shouldn’t have betrayed that little boy’s confidence or pushed him down or humiliated him in public. But the things she did to him weren’t nearly so harmful as the thing he did to himself when he promised never to be hurt again. Valentine’s Day is a day for sentimentalizing the most pleasant aspects of romantic love. I’m fine with that. But it’s also worth noting that love, when it comes to it, involves a willingness to risk being hurt. To love a person is to be willing to struggle—to struggle for her, and often to struggle with her.
My wife’s love is a harbor from life’s storms, and I’m thankful for that. But sometimes it’s the storm. I’m thankful for that too.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.