There’s a scene near the end of Battlestar Galactica where one of the main characters (Caprica) has a miscarriage. Overcome with grief, the father of the unborn child (Saul) goes to his friend (Bill Adama) to seek solace and comfort. “I know it’s not the same as Zak,” Saul admits to Adama. Zak was Adama’s son, who had died before the events of the series began. Adama, however, doesn’t respond with words. He simply embraces Saul and they weep together.
This scene captures something potentially central to but too often missing from our personal interactions with others’ pain. When we are devastated we often reach out to others through a “protocol of suffering,” a way of pleading for love and mercy without violating perceived principles of justice. We downplay and minimize our pain, emphasizing that we understand that we don’t have it as badly as others might. We are calculating that if we follow the protocol faithfully, then we will be allowed the love and concern we so desperately yearn for. Otherwise, we say nothing, and allow ourselves to be consumed.
If it were possible to observe from a ledge of objectivity, we might see the sense in saying that Adama’s experience losing his son was “worse” if only because he accumulated memories and experiences with his son that sharpened his absence in ways that Saul couldn’t understand. But for precisely that same reason there’s a sense that Saul’s experience was “worse” because any potential relationship with his son and the chance to accumulate similar experiences had now been foreclosed to him, something Adama wouldn’t be able to understand.
And yet, Saul needed the empathy of a friend, someone who could genuinely mourn with him. But he didn’t think he was worthy of such empathy until he spoke the protocol of suffering and “squared” his pain with Adama’s suffering. He didn’t think he could be allowed the full measure of his pain until justice had been satisfied.
But real love is not and cannot be given in that way. We could easily imagine that Adama understood this, which is why he silently dismissed the protocol and embraced Saul and wept with him. That’s grace. Grace doesn’t tally and measure and compare lashes; it sees all suffering as a crack in being, every person’s suffering as a world on fire. If it can help put the fire out it will, but if not it will sit in the fire and bear it with you. Because we’ve all suffered we know what it’s like for our world to be on fire. There’s nothing that bonds us to one another more than that worst of familiar feelings, and no aspect of the life of beings who are fully conscious that exacts a higher toll. And it’s not that others require us to submit ourselves to them in this way, but that we require it of ourselves, because sometimes we believe we do not deserve to be loved, that our pain is a sign from the universe that our existence is a mistake and our continued living cannot be justified. And if someone or something doesn’t challenge that logic with the grace of true love, then we will truly come to believe we are worth nothing, or even that nothing really matters, and therefore that nothing is real.
In the end this is all that love is if it is anything, all that lovers are if they are really lovers, and all that God is if God is worthy of that name: that which refuses to leave you, that guards and affirms the reality of all your sufferings, that will sit with you even though you might refuse to believe it is real.
Real love is nothing more or less than presence.