here is a kind of love that considers the beloved under the light of a shared history. I am not certain that it has a name, but I’ll call it affection, a love that C.S. Lewis said was responsible “for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.”
Affection is obvious when practiced between people. A husband may love his wife, desire her, and sacrifice for her, but he is not yet affectionate with her until he considers her as a faithful friend, a tried and true companion, as “dear old Betty” — if Betty she be. In fact, that phrasing — affectionate-with — rather says it all. A child may love his mother, but he is affectionate with her — he loves as one who is with him, part and parcel. It is affection that has the old lady remark, beaming, “Why, I knew you when you were only three years old!” If we didn’t intuitively grasp and yearn for affection, the comment would ring odd — as if an increase in size were a reason to grab someone and shower their head in kisses. But affection makes size into a symbol for continued relation. It says, “Why, I knew you then and now” and delights in the shared history, the common life.
Affection is a less intense form of love than, say, eros, and it hardly amounts to self-sacrificial outpouring of agape — it is not yet selfless. It includes a delight in the person, not for her own sake, but as a tested part of one’s own community — whether marriage, family, or town. It does not say “how good you are” without adding “how good you have been.” Its bodily manifestations are often confused for silly, infantilizing gestures: the grandmother pinches her adult grandson’s cheek; the wife gives her husband a playful squeeze; the girl throws her arm around her friend and begins chattering in some outdated childhood lingo. The emotion always wells up in response to a revelation of the good of the beloved over time, and thus our physical expressions often treat the beloved as she was then — a visible incorporation of the past into the present which captures and celebrates the beloved as an enduring presence of a lifetime.
Like all loves, affection is prone to disease. One can be affectionate towards someone as a part of a shared history without being honest as to the value of that part. The “town drunk” is a stereotypical object of this diseased affection. One speaks fondly and comically of him, but views him as a character in a stage-play, not as a real man suffering from alcoholism. Affection can also get in the way of higher, harder love — as when we “give someone a pass” for a real evil because we’ve known them since kindergarten. Affection can devolve into nostalgia when it ceases to celebrate the beloved then-and-now and begins exclusively celebrating then. There is a fine line between the reminiscence that celebrates a shared existence and the reminiscence that serves as a shelter. If you’ve ever been in the house of a family where the latter kind reigns, you know that diseased affection can feel like a nuclear war; that good memories can be wielded like daggers; that a sigh for days past can sound like a curse for days present.
But the most dangerous kind of affection is an overvaluing that takes it as the end-all-be-all of love. Affection delights in the shared life, but for this reason it is more prone than other forms of love to break with St. Paul’s description and “take offense” at the unshared life. The mother that cannot let her child leave; the husband who is sarcastic and dismissive of his wife’s friends; the wife who grimaces at her husband’s hobbies; the friends who learn to avoid speaking of certain topics. These “take offense,” celebrating the shared life with the beloved on the condition that she does not exceed this shared life, but limits herself to it.
But it is the pain and glory of any relationship worth its mustard that it does not fear the unshared life — that it breaks open to let in what is really “other” about the other person, refusing to belittle or compartmentalize unshared existence as unimportant. Family life either exercises this self-abasement of affection or it suffocates its members. The Christian is reminded of this constantly. For him, family does not take a shared life as its chief end, rather, the shared life is for the salvation of the family. We might say that the shared life of earth is a means for selfish sinners to grow accustomed to The Shared Life of heaven. Affection grows corrupt when it takes the training-field for the final reward, imagining that, after death, we will still enjoy the special, limited experience of our family.
In fairness, there are few easier heresies to fall into than the cult of affection — a religion that comes with little, wooden signs that say things like “in this house we laugh, love, and forgive.” If we’re honest, the fact that our earthly loves will be broken open and that we are doomed to love all of our neighbors without exclusion is terrifying. Unbroken affection is a far safer bet — to close the circle of love around one’s family and friends and remain warm, safe, and unchallenged. But this is the worldly peace to which Christ comes to destroy — and for good reason. If you prod it hard enough you’ll find that affection, taken as an end in itself, is no longer love at all, but hatred — hatred of the unshared life, the other, and the outside. The unity that it establishes is not a unity of love, but the unity of what Rene Girard calls the scapegoat victim — a unity achieved by a common enemy, that limits love to an “us” by the subtle creation and immolation of a “them.” A family sitting under the unbroken seal of affection is one that sorrows over growing children, flies into jealousy over outside affections, mocks accomplishments and despairs over death.
Ultimately, this affection closes the soul off to God by placing him and his strange demands beneath the prime value of family. Practice it, and you’ll find yourself making concessions to evils of your loved ones over and against your Creator. Above all unholy devotions, the cult of affection is the temptation weaponized against Christians in order to assure their obedience to the powers of the world. Refuse to attend the homosexual wedding of your brother or sister, and the fury of the family-god will rain down on your head. “Put aside your beliefs for the sake of love” goes the argument — meaning “limit your love to affection.” Less topically, but more common, is the horror with which good Christians react to any rebellion against an evil economic order that threatens the comfort and well-being of family. Try refusing a 401k plan on the basis of its investment in the pornography trade; try refusing a health care plan for its complicity in abortion. Your children will be dangled in front of you as a prime value — and you’ll feel your knees buckle. “It’s all well and good to be religious,” the logic goes, “but don’t let your family suffer for it.”
The courage of the Christian is increasingly marked by the willingness to “let your family suffer” over and against the temptation to limit love to affection and transform the shared life into a god to which the unshared life is violently sacrificed. That doesn’t mean we have to forsake affection — but like all good things, we have to order it. If we do not, affection grows tyrannical, its warmth becomes nauseating and its closeness becomes suffocating — a living-room hell presided over by loved ones who squeeze you until you break.