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Toni Morrison, writer and winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote these words: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”
“Thin” love. Interesting choice of word. What does the word “thin” imply about love? A kind of superficiality, shallow, no real depth – which could refer to insincere or incongruous or even forced.
Consider some of the ways we might manifest a thin love: saying we love but not really backing it up with appropriate action; giving conditionally (a quid pro quo approach – if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours); being manipulative rather than honest and straightforward (sort of a passive-aggressive strategy); refusing to ever take off the self-protective mask, to not risk being vulnerable and truly present; and the list goes on. Thin love.
But the context of Morrison’s quotation adds another powerful dimension to the meaning. This statement comes from her tragic novel Beloved, the epic story of a fiercely defiant runaway slave woman named Sethe. The story is based on the true case of Margaret Garner, a renegade slave who tried to kill her children with abortions rather than allow them to be born and returned to the plantation from which she had escaped.
One of the run-aways Sethe meets, Paul D, considers Sethe’s unconditional love “risky”: “For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love.” The far safer way was “to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.”
And it is this “weak love” that Paul D tells Sethe she must accept. When Paul D tells her love is “too thick,” however, Sethe insists: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t no love at all.”
Thin love plays it safe. Thick love takes a risk. Thin love worries about and protects itself. Thick love sacrifices everything for the other. Thin love is conservative. Thick love is freedom. Thin love controls. Thick love gives away. Thin love is afraid. Thick love is courageous.
I think of the phrase people often say, “Love is thicker than blood.” What does that mean? It’s often used in reference to being loved by someone who isn’t necessarily your biological family but who loves with you a faithfulness and loyalty that you might not experience from blood family. Thick love. Someone who shows up for you no matter what, no strings attached. Someone who stands beside you through thick and thin. Someone who refuses to let you go, who has your back in every situation. Thick love. Feels good when you experience it, doesn’t it?
This last weekend I had the privilege of flying to Portland and celebrating my prayer partner and best friend’s 50th birthday. He invited 7 of his guy friends to spend two days together, sharing stories of our journey with him, giving advice for his next 50 years, celebrating the milestone of his life and how we each have enjoyed friendship with him. One of the things that struck me as I listened to all the guys share the meaningful parts of our experience with him and how his friendship had impacted each of us was the quality of “thick love” that manifested itself through the years. He had chosen to stand by each of us in meaningful and supportive ways, especially during the difficult and ominous times we each had gone through. Though others had forsaken us in our failures, he had stood by us and loved us and believed in us unconditionally. That “thick love” was one of the huge gifts we ended up sharing and expressing our gratitude to him for. I was reminded how important thick love is in building great friendships and relationships and how much we all hunger for this kind of love. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to others!
I love the way this proverb puts it: “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12) Now that’s thick love – the transforming effects of great friendship and relationships. You help the other when they fall (loving support), you keep the other “warm” (pay attention to physical and emotional needs in ways that mean something to that person), and you defend the other (have each other’s backs in every way). Thick love so thick (like a triple-braided rope) that it can’t be broken (solid, long term, committed).
Love is or it ain’t. Being “thick” certainly isn’t the easy way (you might get attacked in your personal support of the other, you might not get all your needs met, you put your own heart on the line at times, your caring might not always be appreciated or recognized, you risk loss, you make yourself vulnerable). But in the end, maybe it’s the most fulfilling because it’s the most congruent with the very nature of love (which of course is at the core of spirituality). The way we were meant to really love and be loved. It’s the heart of divine love that is given to us unconditionally and extravagantly. Thick love. Toni Morrison is right: love is either thick or not love at all. So I’m voting for thick love. It’s changed my life. And I want the love I give to others to be thick, too.