Love Is (Not) a Mirror

What does love look like to you? What does it feel like? To me, it looks like the soft, black lashes of the person I love, staring in concentration at a book. It smells like a meal prepared for me after a long-awaited homecoming, like pipe smoke, like laundry detergent, like a new baby’s peach-fuzz head. Love sounds like laughter, my own name called out to me with playful correction or the tenderness of deep knowledge. Love feels like warmth, comfort, ease, arms in which I can totally relax. It tastes like a cup of tea I didn’t make, like lips that have made and kept promises to me.

The experience of love is, for most of us, visceral. And this is the case not only in its abundant presence but also in its tragic absence. We feel the abandonment of love, the betrayal of love in our stomachs, between our eyes, welling up in our throats, or making our whole bodies numb. Love and its wreckages form much of the poetry and meaning of human existence. When we love someone, we feel this rhapsodic necessity to describe what is precious about them, and what is amusing, confusing, compelling.

When we lose love, be it through abandonment, death, or betrayal, we feel sick until we know how to speak the loss of it out loud. It feels important to be able to speak about love, even as it feels impossible to do so. When we love someone, whether it is a lover or a child or even sometimes a very, very dear friend, they become our world, and so we use our whole world to describe them, because everything reminds us of the beloved. This is particularly poignant in grief, when the whole world becomes a reminder of the beloved, everything in its presence a reminder of absence; they are everywhere and nowhere we look. And what we want to describe is not only the beloved but also the love itself, this force that overcomes us and orients us in the world.

Love is so integral to our lives that we seem to use almost everything to describe it. And each of those descriptions shapes how we think about love—whether it is dangerous, nourishing, or even possible. And with each of the metaphors we place ourselves in different postures toward love, different points of access, different levels of safety. Though there are innumerable metaphors for the mysterious and undoing experience of love, I propose to look at the metaphor of love as a mirror. 

The British band the 1975 open their song “Happiness” with these words: “She showed me what love is; I’m acting like I know myself.” It is a clever play on words; profundity treated lightly. On one level, the lead singer (Matty Healy) says he’s acting as though he himself knows what love is, even though it’s as opaque to him as it is to the teenager wading through the murky waters of romance. But there is another meaning we could wring out of this play on words; Healy is acting like he knows himself, as if he has a clear vision of his own motivations and desires and character, when those are as murky to him as the mystery of love itself. These questions belong together; if I don’t know myself, how can I know my motivations are not selfish, self-destructive, or simply the result of my own needs and traumas?

It’s a theme that shows up again and again in the band’s oeuvre. In the song entitled “Sincerity Is Scary,” Healy writhes his way through multiple posturing, virtue signaling verses and choruses about postmodernism and society and drug use and social media before bringing himself to admit that he just wrote the song because he was mad a girl blew him off after a concert. It took all that hot air to blow away the mist that was covering his honest feelings. How can we know what love is when we’re acting (falsely) like we know ourselves? But if we don’t know ourselves, where would we begin? In one song addressed to God (in whom he ostensibly does not believe), Healy ends by asking, “If I’m lost, then how can I find myself ?” nine times.

It is not coincidence, I think, that at the end of First Corinthians, the famous description of love read at weddings innumerable, we have a description of a mirror. What is love? This is the question First Corinthians seems to answer. The passage describes love in action, as if love it- self is a personified metaphor: a person is the basis of the metaphor whose qualities are carried over to love, and the chapter tells us the way love would act. We know the list:

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:4–8

Just like the woman in the 1975 song, this passage “shows us what love is.” Love acts in ways that are patient, kind, content, humble, and honoring. This is what love looks like, how it acts. And then the passage almost abruptly turns to the metaphor of a mirror: “Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror. . . . Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (13:12, italics added). Love has to do not only with seeing and knowing the beloved, but also being seen by them. Just as Matty Healy’s lover helps him “know himself,” it is in seeing love, and experiencing it, that we begin to truly know ourselves. In earthly love, we are offered a mirror, a clearer view of ourselves, but someday we will see through this dark glass as though it is a window; in loving we will not only see a reflection of our own needs and desires but truly be able to behold the beloved, and to be beheld.

The poet and artist William Blake once wrote that “the most sublime act is to set another before you.” To love someone is to stand before the mystery and terror of another human being, their need and blessedness and woundedness, to not only see, but behold. When I think of the word behold, I think not only of the act of sight, but of the posture of attention, of honor, of witness. In Romanticism, sublimity came to be a complex concept bound up with nature and the divine. Though its definition is contested, its basic sense is this: beauty and terror. To behold and be beheld is both a terrifying and a beautiful thing, but the closest, it seems, we can get to being like God. 

Excerpted from You Are a Tree: And Other Metaphors to Nourish Life, Thought, and Prayer by Joy Clarkson. Copyright 2024. Published by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Joy Clarkson
Joy Clarkson

Joy Marie Clarkson is the author of Aggressively Happy and host of the Speaking with Joy podcast. She is a research associate in theology and literature at King’s College London and the books editor for Plough Quarterly.