A Four-Letter Word

four-letter3When I was teaching an English 101 course at a local college, one of the exercises I went through with the class was the use of language. I would ask the class: “Who can give me a four-letter word that ends in “k” and means “intercourse?” There would be a hushed silence as well as some nervous snickering. No one wanted to answer the question, yet all thought they knew the answer. “Come on,” I would urge the class, “surely, you know the word.” After what must have seemed a lifetime, I would break the silence and say, “Alright, if you won’t say the word, I will. The word is – (I would allow a very long pregnant pause here) – the word is ‘talk.’” (What? You were thinking of that other word? Shame on you.) There was an almost audible sigh of relief that filled the classroom. What a tremendous build-up for such an equally enormous let-down!

I apologize in advance for the four-letter words toward the end of the following story. I would have deleted them, but the story would not be the same without them as you will see.

Joe and Mary were just married and went on their honeymoon. When they returned home, the bride immediately called her mother.

“Well,” said her mother, “how was the honeymoon?”

“Oh mama,” the new bride replied, “the honeymoon was wonderful! So romantic…” Suddenly she burst out crying. “But, mama, as soon as we returned, Joe started using the most horrible language – things I’d never heard before! I mean all these awful four-letter words! You’ve got to take me home!! PLEASE MAMA!”

“Mary, Mary,” her mother said, “calm down!  You need to stay with your husband and work this out. Now, tell me, what could be so awful? WHAT four-letter words?”

“Please don’t make me tell you, mama,” wept the daughter. “I’m so embarrassed, they’re just too awful! JUST COME GET ME, PLEASE!”

“Oh, my darling daughter, you must tell me what has you so upset. Tell your mother these horrible four-letter words.”

Sobbing, the young bride said, “Oh, Mama….he used words like: DUST and WASH and IRON and COOK…”

“I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes,” said Mary’s mother.

There are many four-letter words in our language and we may laugh at that old joke, but there is another four-letter word that needs to be added to the above list. That word is LOVE.

To mention the word “love” is to immediately conjure up a whole gamut of emotions and I do not want to be misunderstood as to what I am talking about here. I am not talking about erotic sexual desire. I hate to disappoint anyone reading this, but if that is what you think this post is about, you will need to look elsewhere. No. What I am talking about is what Joseph Campbell meant when he said: “I think of compassion [love] as the fundamental religious experience and, unless that is there, you have nothing.”

I believe that the most important dimension of love is something that one does. In my lexicon, love is a verb, not a noun. Only action can sow the seeds to reap the harvest of love. One does not have to be a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu to do some love. One does not have to be a theistic person at all to practice love. Humans of all sorts and conditions have the capacity to do some love. To demonstrate love and compassion is what marks each and every one of us as truly human.

It is what Albert Camus, the French existentialist and author had in mind when he penned these words: “If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page, I should write: ‘I recognize one duty, and that is to love.’”

In addition to Camus’ weighty words, I believe that one of the most moving statements concerning a person’s humanity is spoken by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge’s former business partner in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Jacob Marley has been dead for seven years to the day when his ghost appears to Scrooge on that fateful Christmas Eve in the story. In that encounter, Scrooge, trembling with fear, says to the ghost: “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” Upon which Marley’s ghost cries out in anguish: “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

These words stand as an eloquent expression of our human responsibility to one another, suggesting that it is our inner thoughts and feelings, our motives, and our priorities that contribute to making our lives either empty or full. What we are in our whole being is so much grander than anything we can measure by surface values. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi put forth this idea so succinctly when she wrote: “Where there is love, there is life.” It is as simple as that. Gandhi is suggesting that the “comprehensive ocean,” of which Marley’s ghost speaks, implies that there are vast spiritual resources that each one of us has, whether we recognize them or not. From this perspective, our routine activities in and of themselves are but a “drop of water” compared to our total “business” of being caring and compassionate human beings.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “If you want the world to look different the next time you go outside, do some love.”

What a challenge that is for each one of us!


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