Growing in Love

Is love alive?


A simple question.


Is love alive?


Maybe a question filled with depth – questioning, doubt, a pleading cry for someone to hear.


Is love alive?


The song I shared with you this morning asks this question, again and again.  Is love alive?  It starts simply, stating the question in a single voice, and by the end, I find myself too often weeping at the plea behind the intricate, moving harmonies.  


Is love alive?


The lyrics paint a picture for me, of a person alone in the depths of winter, looking out over a frozen and barren landscape.  She stands out over the sea, watching the waves, seeing only water and gray, a darkness reflected in her soul.  But, she begs for something greater, for the love that seems to be lost to return, for her own love to send itself out, as light in a dark time into the grayness.  


In her brokenness, in her despair, in a winter landscape that reveals no life, she has hope that “life will find a way.”  She can imagine the coming of “summer days.”


And, she asks, “Is love alive?”


Is it here?  

Could love be hiding somewhere beneath the snow?  

When your heart feels like a barren landscape, is love still there somewhere?  

When you do not feel it with you, does love still live?  

Can it survive heartbreak?

Is love alive?


We want to respond to these questions with a resounding “Yes!  Love is here!  Love is alive!  Look, and you will find it!”  And, I believe this to be true.  Yet, I have also experienced times of loneliness, of loss, of pain that seem to leave no hope in its wake.  As we consider the importance and power of love this morning, let us also keep the pleading tones of Winter Song in our hearts.  Love is not always obvious; the pain is real.  Simple, trite answers do not hold sacred the truth of sorrow, depression, and loneliness in human experience.




Let me shift gears for a while.  Last month, I told you about how sacred I believe connections among humans and the greater world to be.  I said that sitting in this room together, we affect one another on an emotional level.  I said that I’d explain this at a later time given the opportunity.  I’m taking the time today to tell you about the most meaningful science I’ve yet encountered.  Science trying to understand love.


Maybe you are aware of the first ever study of human bonding, conducted in the 13th century by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor.  His intent was to discover which language is originally inborn within babies, and he did this by raising infants without ever speaking or gesturing to them.  They were raised completely without human communication, and therefore, without true human contact.  Maybe it is no surprise that the emperor never completed his study.  All of the infants died.


Again, in the early twentieth century, while germ theory became central to our understanding of the world around us, countless children were raised in orphanages that attempted to remain as sterile as possible.  No holding, no playing, no contact.  Everything perfectly clean.  Psychoanalyst Rene Spitz looked into these orphanages and found that nurseries set up to prevent disease somehow led to astronomical death rates of 75 to 100 percent.  The children failed to thrive.


On an emotional level, this makes perfect sense.  How could you raise a child in a box for two years?  (If you saw the play last night, go ahead and laugh at the reference.  If you haven’t yet seen the play, you have another chance this afternoon at four.  Then you’ll be in on the joke, too. – Okay, cast and crew, as promised, I’ve plugged the show in my sermon.)  What emptiness would there be without knowing the touch and care of another soul?


When neuro-psychologists have delved into the structures of the human brain, they have found within it three separate structures.  At the very base, almost an extension of the spinal cord, sits evolutionarily the oldest brain structure, the reptilian brain.  This is responsible for the most basic parts of staying alive – it keeps our hearts beating, our lungs filling, our pulling sustenance out of our food, and our very most instinctual reactions.  As you can guess from its name, we share this same brain structure with reptiles.


Above that sits a structure that is shared by all mammals – the limbic brain.  Interestingly, the limbic brain is roughly the same size in all mammals – my limbic brain is the same size as my beloved kitty cat’s.  The limbic brain connects our bodies to the outside world, taking in sensory input and adjusting our bodies in response.  It is the center of our emotions, which are always based in physical and chemical states.  All higher-level emotions exist due to the limbic brain.


On top, the third brain structure, is the neo-cortex.  The center of higher-level cognition.  Our thinking center, the intellect.  Compared to my beloved kitty cat’s neo-cortex, mine is ginormous.  The neo-cortex allows for free will, the volition to consciously control our bodies.  While all of our conscious thought occurs in this part of the brain, our emotions still reside within the limbic brain, and our conscious understanding of emotions resides within the links of communication between the two. 


Here is an example out of the book from which all of this is based – A General Theory of Love, a surprisingly readable psychology text by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon.  The limbic brain at work:


“A man is riding to work on a bus, heading for the financial district in downtown San Francisco.  A tattooed teenager with a shaven head boards the vehicle, glares at the commuter, and bumps by him.”  In that exact moment, the man’s limbic brain takes in the information – the teenager’s facial expression, pupil size, body posture, and even scent.  Given this information, and what the limbic brain has taken in from others before, it determines the teenager’s intent, probably hostility in this case.  In response, the limbic brain reacts by triggering anger.  This is the point at which the limbic brain signals the neo-cortex regarding anger, causing a conscious thought – “Who does this guy think he is?”  The limbic brain keeps working, altering hormones, causing facial muscles to contract and form anger (if you’ve ever watched Lie to Me, this should sound familiar): eyes narrowed, brows drawn together, lips pressed, edges of the mouth turned down.  The limbic brain tells the reptilian brain to increase heart rate and blood flow to hands and arms, in case anger turns to a fight.  Note that all of this happens instantaneously.  In as long as it took the neo-cortex to form the mental words “Who does this guy think he is,” the limbic brain has prepared the entire body for the potentiality of fisticuffs.


Say that a woman walks onto the bus after the teenager.  She sees what happened and “shoots our traveler a look of sympathetic recognition and mock exasperation.  Can you believe what it’s like on the busses these days? she might say, if she were speaking.  She isn’t.”  But, the commuter’s limbic brain will interpret the message from her eyes and face.  The limbic brain allows us to read one another’s emotional states.


There was a day in college when I received what felt like monumentally upsetting news – the college had denied a group of friends and me the ability to live together in an off-campus house.  I experienced a cascade of emotion – anger, sadness.  One thought of “how dare they give it to a group of people who fight with foam swords instead of our purposes of creating a space for inter-religious dialogue” led to grave concerns that centered around being forced to live in the dorms again.  I leaned against my desk and began to sob.  And, my beloved kitty cat, Audrey, jumped off the bed, walked over to me, and putting her weight on her back paws, reached up, and stroked my legs with her front paws.  She recognized my pain and reached out to comfort me.


When I say that all mammals share limbic brains, I mean our ability to share our emotional lives, even across species.  Our limbic brains allow us to care, to experience empathy, to recognize something deeper within another.


This connection through our limbic brains goes further than recognition.  The wavelengths of your limbic brain, right now, in this moment, are changing and being changed by the wavelengths of the limbic brain of the person sitting next to you, of someone across the room, even mine.  This deepest emotional communication – limbic resonance – connects us all, as we breathe together, as we feel one another’s heart-rates, when we make eye contact.  We are connected.  We affect one another.  And, as our brains connect and adjust to one another, we are all healthier.


Maybe you have noticed that when you know another person very well, spend a lot of time with them, develop deep emotional bonds – love – you start to think a little bit more alike?  You temper one another’s moods.  If this is a partner, maybe you just can’t sleep when she or he is out of town.  This experience has physiological roots.  Your limbic resonance actually re-maps mental pathways.  Your bodies, through deep limbic resonance, regulate each other.  Psychologists have demonstrated that these connections are real, objective, and scientifically provable.  (I have to say that this scientific validation of my theology is a nice boost.)


Science is showing us that love is imperative toward being well-adjusted, healthy people.


When we ponder “Is love alive,” let us begin with what is becoming scientific fact: human life cannot thrive outside of love.  

To live, we must love and be loved.

To live, we must love and be loved.


Let us remember the words of Hadewijch  of Brabant.


I drew so close to Love

That I began to understand

How great the gain of those

Who give themselves wholly to love:

And when I saw this for myself,

What was lacking in me gave me pain.


The words of a 13th century mystic cut deep.  What was lacking in me gave me pain.


As love is central to human experience, do I give enough?


The more I delve into the science and the studies behind it, I cannot help but reflect on my own life, the ways in which I was raised, how I have experienced love of so many different types.  I reflect on the love I have given and shown to others, and I reflect upon the love I have failed to give.


Maybe when we ask “Is love alive,” on some level, we are all asking “Is love alive inside of me?”  How do I reflect the principles and aspirations of love to which I aspire?  


Such questions are tricky; they require some wrestling.  We must acknowledge our successes and failures simultaneously, as is so often essential in self-reflection.  The impulse might be to focus on only successes or only failures – too often failures for many of us, me included – when in a single life both are present.  So, be kind to yourself in wondering what love you give to those around you and how.  Remember the little things you have done, the brief moments of connection and understanding that might otherwise be overlooked.  But, always aspire for more.  Who have you not truly seen?  How can you reach out to those closest to you?  With whom do you share deep limbic resonance?  Could you intentionally deepen that connection, or for new connections?


I drew so close to Love

That I began to understand

How great the gain of those

Who give themselves wholly to love.


What might it look like to give yourself wholly to love?  This Love, which the mystic capitalizes, transcends eros – romantic love.  It is an encompassing love, a love to which some Unitarian Universalists may pray – “Spirit of Life and Love . . .”  


I drew so close to Love.  For the mystic, this is something that may forever be out of reach; she only was able to draw close, but it changed her.  She saw something so deep and so real – a glimpse of a oneness, something encompassing and rewarding, a universal love.  Just that glimpse broke her heart open.


Here I am, trying to parse from the mystic’s words, from the words of the prophets and the Buddha and spiritual teachers from the centuries, an understanding of something that I know is beyond my comprehension.  It is greater than I can realize, but the attempt to grasp it still fills me with hope.  I do aspire, even if what is lacking in me gives me pain.


What is lacking is greater than that inside of you or inside of me.  It is a pain that cries out from our society, from our world.  Do you hear the cries in the night?  The pleas for connection, for love?  We are a lonely people, isolating ourselves from one another, knowing what we lack only deep in our bones, filled with an emptiness where there should be the love of and for everyone around us.


The very things that keep us connected keep us apart, our technology, our lives filled with being busy. Words on a page or a computer screen are empty compared to the enriching experience of looking into another’s eyes, listening to their stories, taking in all of their humanity.  The fullness of being human, of loving and of being loved, rests within contact and presence.  Locking ourselves in our homes with televisions, computer screens, and smart phones, we have put ourselves into the nurseries in which the children died due to lack of contact. It is impossible for limbic resonance to occur over the internet.  The phone does not transmit brainwaves that can influence those of another.  How can we thrive when we have so little opportunity for love?  We must be in this room together, breathing together, feeling one another’s presence in order to receive the true limbic connection that keeps us healthy, that keeps us alive.


It may be impossible for any of us to give ourselves wholly to love.  But we can give more.  There is room in our lives to see one another’s souls, to reach out in love. 


Is love alive?  The pleading tones of the song rest in my bones, and I know that it must be.  In the barrenness, beneath the snow, the crocuses are peeping through, just as a simple effort to reach out to another allows the soul to blossom.  We do this work here in this room, being together in worship, and we take it out into the world with us.  Life-giving love.  Truly, love is alive in each of us.


May it be so.