In his Sunday morning session address from the April General Conference, President Uchtdorf spoke about love. Titled “You Are My Hands,” it was a great talk delivered wonderfully, which is what we have come to expect from him. I want to call out one line in the talk that, paradoxically, affirmed for me the importance of well-crafted narrative art.
Pres. Uchtdorf said:
True love requires action. We can speak of love all day long—we can write notes or poems that proclaim it, sing songs that praise it, and preach sermons that encourage it—but until we manifest that love in action, our words are nothing but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
Now that would seem, at first glance, to cast aside the whole notion of expressing love through words. Love without action is dead. Which is why it caught my attention. But notice the verbs used: proclaim, praise, preach. All good methods of discourse, but all intended to drive a didactic response — to provoke action or, in the case of the receiver of the proclamations, reaction.
That’s not how narrative art works. Not exactly. And the more I thought about this talk, the more I wondered why love was important. I feel it is. I know it’s important in my life, that life would be dismal without it, but why?
I’m going to get back to love, but I want to introduce another concept first: progression. Progression is a crucial concept to the Mormon worldview, but it’s also the key point of narrative art. Now that manifests itself in a variety of ways and some works are all about frustrating progression, but even those works don’t exist as literature without the expectation of progression. Or to put it more bluntly: plot is impossible without progression. And narrative art has to have some kind of plot, from the most stereotypical once-again enactment of the hero’s journey to the densest, most absurd fugue of post-modern attempts at stasis, there is always movement.
Narrative art, especially the best, most durable works of narrative art, helps us understand progression and, more importantly, the barriers to progression. Tragedy does so by exposing the flaws in character and/or the overwhelming forces of nature or society or fate that derail progression. Romance does so by spiraling around the pleasures and frustration of courtship and connection (mainly with others, but also, at times, with nature and with community and with God or ideas). Comedy does so by bursting the barriers and pretenses — personal, social, political, cultural, familial — that we surround ourselves with that too often hinder true progression, that keep us from humility, that bury knowledge and familiarity that we need to have with the other (and other aspects of ourselves that we’ve closed off).
And all of that helps us to love because love is not just some big feeling of warmth, it is a deep investment (and here’s where we get back to the point of Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk) in the progression of others — a deep appreciation of their capacity to progress; an abiding hope that they will progress; a herculean effort to help them progress (but without abridging agency, which is not effective); a mourning with the pain that comes with progression. Love is a bond, but the bonds are created by the experiences that come with progression. If we did not have the capacity to progress, no matter how small and pathetic that progression may be, I don’t think we could love — love is not stasis.
And the beautiful and amazing thing about this mortal condition is that it is clearly set up for conditions of love and progression. The beginning that is birth; the end point that is death. The quick growth and then slow decay of bodies and minds. The passage of time and of the seasons. All these engender a sense of progression (with the added spur of progression in this life not being eternal). Coupling (and all that entails physically and emotionally) and birth and the requirements to survive and grow — the creation of family units and the building of those units in to tribes, communities, societies — all create the conditions of closeness and dependency that lead to love and a deeply felt interest in the progression of others. Yes, there’s also the possibilities for sorrow and pain and, sadly, violence and damnation (or in other words the halting of progression), but it’s supposed to be mainly about love and the rest is so that we don’t all compound in one. There must be struggle.
And this is why the need for narrative art that can truly capture the journey of love and progression is so great — it allows us to step outside our own experience of the conditions of mortality and, if the work of art is good, find windows in to the experience of others. Perhaps we may learn by looking on the vistas revealed. Perhaps we may be entertained. But above all it should cause us to love more and by loving more do more and have a deeper wisdom on how to go about that doing. To love, truly.
To quote Pres. Uchtdorf again: “Love is what inspired our Heavenly Father to create our spirits; it is what led our Savior to the Garden of Gethsemane to make Himself a ransom for our sins. Love is the grand motive of the plan of salvation; it is the source of happiness, the ever-renewing spring of healing, the precious fountain of hope.”
If love is the grand motive. If love is the source. If love is an ever-renewing spring. Then must we, we who dare to capture this existence in word, love?