The Meaning of Sex: Part 4, A Love Like That

A few years ago I was on the campus of Belmont University, a guest speaker for their "Sex and Soul" week. The afternoon of my visit I met with a group of students in an auditorium to take their questions about sex. 

Interestingly, a lot of the questions I was asked assumed a cost/benefit approach to marriage. Was it worth it? It seems that the younger generations are increasingly approaching issues regarding sex and commitment as an economic issue, as looking for a return on investment. 

After a few question in this vein, I shared the following story about Hayley and Harrison Waldron.

In 2015 Hayley and Harrison were newly-weds, a year married, just out of college, visiting New York state for a friend's wedding. Harrison went out on a ride on an ATV. On the ride he had a horrific accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. In critical condition, Harrison was care flighted to a hospital in Erie, PA, where my parents live. 

Harrison survived the brain surgery, but his life was dramatically altered, cognitively and physically. And importantly for my college student audience at Belmont, Hayley faced a very different sort of love story from the one she had imagined, a martial future where she would become Harrison's primary nurse and caregiver.

The vow says, "In sickness and in health." But for a twenty-two year old, married just over a year, the vow was demanding a lot of Hayley. I don't know if anyone would have faulted Hayley if she did the cost/benefit analysis of her future and decided to step away from the marriage. But heroically and sacrificially, she didn't. Hayley remains Harrison's wife to this day. You can read about their story here. 

I've never met Hayley or Harrison, but I know their story, and have followed it since 2015, because my parents opened their home to the family while Harrison was cared for in Erie. 

So I shared Hayley and Harrison's story with the Belmont students, in the face of their economic approach to love and marriage, highlighting Hayley's choice to remain with her husband after his accident. And after sharing the story, here's what I asked the students at Belmont: "Raise your hand if you want to be loved the way Hayley loved Harrison. Specifically, if something traumatic ever happened to you, and you had to be cared for your whole life, raise your hand if you want a partner who wouldn't leave you but stay by your side."

Every hand in the room went up.

And then I asked this: "Now, raise your hand if you'd be willing to be the partner who stays, who makes the sacrifice to stick with your partner, to keep your promise, knowing you'll have to be a caregiver and nurse for the rest of your life."

And no hands go up.

I don't think that reaction was because the Belmont students were selfish. Rather, the question I had asked them--"Could you do what Hayley Waldron did?"--was so heavy, demanded so much, that none of us in the room could say, off the cuff, if we would have the courage and strength to make such a heroic choice. 

After a pause, I brought home my point.

"Of course, we all want to be loved liked Hayley loved and loves Harrison. It's our dream to be loved like that--heroically, sacrificially, and unconditionally. We all want to hear the promise "in sickness and in health" and know that the person making the promise to us is actually going to keep it. No matter what. We all want to be loved with a love like that.

"And yet, while we all want to be loved like that, are we willing to give it? We hope to be as fortunate as Harrison in love, but are we willing to be like Hayley? Because isn't that the great asymmetry facing us? That we desire, dream, hope, and want, even demand at times, a love that we are not willing to give?"

I would never question or blame someone for making a different choice from Hayley, or Hayley herself if she ever makes a different choice. My point here isn't to set a heroic moral ideal and demand we all hit the mark. My point is that there is a fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of the modern world when it comes to love, sex, and marriage. We are unwilling to become the lovers we are longing for. And if that's the case, no one will ever find love anywhere. Ever. For we are unwilling to give what we each expect to receive. 

The Christian sexual ethic boils down to this: Become the lover that you yourself wish for. And if you think that sounds easy and trite, it is not. Because the love you wish for isn't eros, it's agape. Just imagine yourself in Harrison's shoes. Imagine you are the one who is sick after the vow "in sickness and in health."

The moral logic of the Christian marital vow isn't moralistic or pietistic. It's not about creating or perpetrating a "purity culture." The logic of the vow is to get two people buying into the Golden Rule when it comes to love and sex, becoming the lover you wish for. You see the telos of this moral logic come into view in a story like Hayley and Harrison's. The meaning of sex is to get us to a love like that.

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