Quite possibly the silliest line ever spoken, and one which any sane director would have left on the cutting room floor, was an eight-word sentence from the movie Love Story, which struck even a fellow as callow as I was back in 1970 when I first heard Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal take turns saying it, as just about the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. Of course, the line went instantly viral, as we would nowadays put it, achieving overnight iconic status in the popular culture. Go figure, as they say.
If there is anyone out there who hasn’t yet heard it, let me spoil your day by repeating it word for word, with italics:
Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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What a sunburst! Far and away the most perfect insight into the meaning of human love, right? And how grateful we must all be that we’ve Hollywood to thank for it. Well, it wasn’t actually Hollywood that came up with it but a certain Classics Professor from Yale named Erich Segal, who, so far as we know, went to his grave never regretting either the line or the novel in which it appears. In fact, it made him rich and famous. Not to mention Al and Tipper Gore, on whom he evidently based the two main characters.
But not everyone was impressed. Love Story may have been the top-selling novel of the year, translated into a couple dozen languages, and a smash Hollywood hit, but the book did not survive the savagery of its reception on the part of serious literary critics. When nominated for the National Book Award, all the judges threatened to resign rather than be forced to read it. It was quickly withdrawn from consideration, William Styron, the chief judge, calling it “a banal book which simply does not qualify as literature.” Indeed, he said, its very appearance “demeaned” all the other contenders.
Would that include, I wonder, the book that actually did win, an entirely forgettable piece of fiction called Them, written by Joyce Carol Oates, whose very name, as someone once quipped, “represents the three most depressing words in the English language”?
But I digress.
Getting back to Professor Segal, then, and the immortal line he wrote, what exactly does it mean? And more to the point, why did it succeed so spectacularly in co-opting the critical faculties of so many millions swept away by its sheer abject sentimentality? Because the line is a lie, however tricked out by the soft and spurious soap of a play-acting love, which avoids what Dostoyevsky has called “the harsh and dreadful demands of real love.” And how great a wreckage in human lives has that eight-word cliché left in its wake! It was like a torpedo aimed at the heart of all that thousands of years of human experience on the subject of love had sought to preserve.
Because it is, let me again say it, a lie—“a deliberate stupidity,” as Bernard Lonergan used to say. And we all know where the practice of telling lies will ineluctably take us and that the company we shall then be keeping in that dark and infernal place will not be in the least bit loving.
How obtuse does one have to be to buy into something so moronic, so morally stupid? That we need never express, or even feel, sorrow for the sufferings we inflict on others, especially those we love? Cardinal Newman famously defined a gentleman as one who would never willfully inflict pain on another. Should not that standard at the very least be applied to those we love?
Or does the state of being in love somehow immunize one from ever saying or doing anything remotely unkind to one’s beloved? So, of course, love means never having to say you’re sorry because, well, when you’re in love you’re never going to do anything that could conceivably justify your being sorry. What a perverse notion of love that must be, never to be moved or obliged to tell a person you’ve promised before God to love that you’ve been an awful beast for failing to do so. Is that really the free pass we want to sanction in our most intimate relations with other people? What a perverse notion of love that must be, never to be moved or obliged to tell a person you’ve promised before God to love that you’ve been an awful beast for failing to do so.Tweet This
If being in love means anything, it means a willingness, and one which requires constant exercise, to say you’re sorry. Anytime. Anywhere. There is no statute of limitations here. And while it is never an easy thing to do, the habit of doing so can help mitigate the harm we’ve done while maximizing the help we need to not keep doing it again. And living in a world where the worm has long since insinuated its poison into the fruit of human affairs, human affections, telling those we love, indeed, those who have a claim on our love, that we are sorry is really what it means to love another person. Making it a habit, moreover, might even aid in reducing the frequency with which we have to say it.
Nevertheless, of all the petitions set out in the Lord’s Prayer, it is arguably the most difficult, the most challenging of all. Who among us has perfected the practice of, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”? It’s that second part that gives us pause. What do we know, what does anyone know, when faced with “love’s austere and lonely offices,” to quote the poet Robert Hayden? Only those who know, those who put into constant practice what they know, which is that the forgiveness we ask of God for our own failings will, in the most crucial way, depend on how willing we are to forgive others theirs.
And how exactly is that to happen? It seems quite beyond the capacity of any of us. “Where does the ability to forgive come from?” asks Fr. Vincent Nagle, a member of the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo, in writing about a man he knows whose life has been spent—obsessively spent, he adds—“in trying to deal with the pain he experienced in his relationship with his mother while growing up.” And so one day, he tells us, “I said to him, ‘Hey, look, you just have to forgive her. That’s all.”
But on what super-human source will he draw the strength to meet that challenge?
If the hurt we have received seems to have stolen our lives from us, has darkened our days and twisted our choices, how is it possible simply to set this aside? Something has to happen. We have to beg for something we cannot produce ourselves, ask that our entreaty be met by grace that overcomes death itself.
We are all, it seems, standing before that same breadline, begging God for the grace to forgive, invoking nothing less than “the tender mercy of our God,” to quote St. Luke, “by which the daybreak from on high will visit us.”
And praising God for miracles of every sort, it seems that something of a shaft of that same daybreak did, in fact, fall upon Fr. Vincent’s friend. Because one day, reports Fr. Vincent, “his mother called me to say that he had stopped by just to hug her silently.” What else can that mean but that forgiving love is possible and that the mercy we implore God to give us, “consists not simply in working things through but in begging for the grace to embrace our lives and to be grateful for everything.”
Love means always having to say you’re sorry.
[Image: “Love Story” (1970) from Paramount]