Love Is Life


Taken from an address delivered to the student body of Brigham Young University on February 14, 1984.
It is the beginning of eternity, a force that permeates the universe.

“Love,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “is life, and life hath immortality” (in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1960, p. 267, no. 549). Though no one ever really knows exactly what is in the poet’s mind, there is a special thought suggested here that is universally recognized as truth. Life without love has a peculiar, haunting quality of resignation and stagnation about it. But love is a force that makes life volatile, and the contagion of it sweeps like wildfire from heart to heart. Where love is, life begets life and love begets love, and in all its compounding there is born a quality of immortality.

Let me share with you one of my favorite and true love stories. I happened into the story very late in its development. One night I went with my husband to a company dinner party. I sat next to an older man who was there with his wife. She had suffered a stroke, so consequently he would lean over to cut her meat and help her with her food. His manner was tender and very solicitous. As he finished the meal he turned toward me with a sigh. I said to him, “You are so good to your wife.”

His reply, “Why shouldn’t I be? I love her.”

Then he told me about how they met and about their courtship and their life together. “The first time I saw her,” he said, “was at a party in Canada. She was giving a reading. She had long golden curls and wore a beautiful white eyelet dress with a pretty blue satin sash. I was so taken by her that I told my mother that that was the woman I was going to marry. Mother laughingly indulged me. I went on my mission, and when I came home she was engaged to another. I was asked to take a special assignment by the bishop, and when I protested he told me that if I would always put the work of the Lord first I would find that the Lord would always take care of me. I made the long trek to Salt Lake City. When I came home, she had broken her engagement. We started to date, and then we married.”

His wife rarely accompanied him in public after that dinner. It wasn’t long until her condition worsened, and she was completely bedridden and virtually unable to speak. He was a General Authority and went out on his regular conference assignments to visit and counsel the Saints. It was his practice to come home and tell her all about the conference. One day as he finished, he teased, “If you are not going to speak back to me, then I am not going to tell about my experiences. You must not love me anymore.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and with great effort she rallied enough strength to form the words, “I do love you.” It was laborious and extremely slow, but with great effort she got the words out. He determined he would never again treat their love lightly, for the love they knew transcended even the crippling hindrance of her physical impairment.

At the funeral of this special woman, Zina Card Brown, every speaker commented on her love both for her sweetheart, President Hugh B. Brown, and for others. Elder Marvin J. Ashton declared, “Some of us are where we are because of her.” President Marion G. Romney said, “Wherever she was she was a loving lady.” President N. Eldon Tanner declared that President Brown was so successful because of her love. President Kimball said that the love of President and Sister Brown was such that they would soon be together again everlastingly. Her love pulled them toward immortality—a beginning of eternity.

It is this love of which the scriptures speak. It is the eternal life-giving force which permeates the universe and governs the heavens and the earth. It makes the weak strong and lifts us over the great difficulties that fall in our paths from time to time.

During the last week of his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ was approached for the third time by the Pharisees in an attempt to confound him. One of them, a lawyer, asked:

“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

“This is the first and great commandment.

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:36–40).

This is the same teaching that has been given in each dispensation. Over and over again in every period of time the Lord has repeated this core instruction to his children. Sometimes he says that if you do not have love then it doesn’t matter what else you know or do. At other times he says, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). But always, he stresses that the very heart of the gospel is to love God and man. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

After spending a lifetime studying and writing about men and events, Will Durrant, the famous historian, was 92 when he was asked by a reporter what he could say that would distill more than 2,000 years of history into one simple sentence.

The message Mr. Durrant chose was: “Love one another. My final lesson of history is the same as that of Jesus,” he said.

Durrant added with a laugh, “You may think that’s a lot of lollipop. But just try it. Love is the most practical thing in the world. … If you take an attitude of love toward everybody you meet, you’ll eventually get along” (Pam Proctor, “Durrants on History: From the Ages, with Love,” Parade, 6 Aug. 1978, p. 12).

Really loving people hasn’t been tried very often in the world of international relations, and it’s rare even in the world of national affairs. But at least one very notable experience comes to mind. Mahatma Gandhi was the man who led India to independence. Many have recently seen the film made of his life.

Remember how Gandhi began to realize that turning the other cheek and doing good for hateful deeds would unloose great powers for his people? One distraught man came to him in his suffering. His son had been killed by the Hindus; in retaliation he took the life of a small Hindu boy. Heavyhearted, he sought relief from Gandhi. And Gandhi told him he could find comfort if he would find an orphaned Hindu boy and raise him as his own—only he was to raise him as a Hindu, not as a Moslem.

There is a sacrificing in love, a sacrificing that brings immortality. Gandhi suffered a great deal, but ultimately millions of people were granted more freedom. Only the assassin’s bullet cut his life short. One wonders what he might have contributed further to sacrifice and vulnerability in the development of the new nation had he lived.

One evening as I conversed with President Harold B. Lee, I said to him, “President Lee, you seem different someway tonight.” He smiled and said, “You know what it is, don’t you?” I shook my head and said I really didn’t know what it was. Then he shared with me his remarkable experience saying:

“After I became the President of the Church, I thought a great deal about what the Lord wanted me to do. One night, while I was sleeping, President McKay came to me in a dream. He pointed his finger and looked at me with those piercing eyes of his as only President McKay could do, and he said, ‘If you would serve the Lord, you must love and serve his children.’ I awakened with a compelling desire to learn all I could about love that I might serve the Lord.”

He said, “After I had read everything the scriptures had to say about love, I began to put into practice all that I had gleaned from my study. That’s what you can feel. It is my newfound ability to truly love and serve his children.”

I watched President Lee even a little more closely that night and noted that not one person who came to the table to shake his hand left without receiving a special word of encouragement or an extra question that indicated the concern of the prophet. No one went away without seeing his smile or hearing his words of love.

I have thought of his wonderful example many times as the years have come and gone. President Lee is not with us now, but the spirit of love which he exemplified still lives in my memory. He has helped me to understand what Orson Pratt meant when he said, “The Children of Zion love in proportion to the heavenly knowledge which they have received; for love keeps pace with knowledge, and as the one increases so does the other; and when knowledge is perfected, love will be perfected also” (“Celestial Marriage,” The Seer, Oct. 1853, p. 156). We saw this, also, in the life of our beloved prophet Spencer W. Kimball. Love had long been part of his life even before he became the president of the Church.

A stake president in Logan, Utah, kept a guest book, and after he passed away that book was given to his son. When the son thumbed through the pages, he was impressed with the signatures that were there. Most of the General Authorities had signed the book. One entry he saw was:

  • Name: Elder Spencer W. Kimball

  • Date: 1954

  • Position or title: Apostle

  • Hobby: “I love people.”

He thumbed through many more pages, and then he saw an almost identical entry ten years later:

  • Name: Elder Spencer W. Kimball

  • Date: 1964

  • Position or title: Apostle

  • Hobby: “I love people.”

We all knew President Spencer W. Kimball as a man of love. He thought of love as a way to overcome even unknown offenses. Such an incident occurred with one of his neighbors who would go out and talk to President Kimball whenever he saw him in the yard. Until one day the neighbor’s wife said, “You mustn’t do that. The only time President Kimball is alone is when he is in the yard, and then you go over and impose yourself upon him.” After that the neighbor stayed in and just watched President Kimball through the window. A few weeks passed before President Kimball rang the neighbor’s doorbell and handed him a casserole. “What’s this for?” the neighbor asked. “I don’t know,” replied President Kimball. “I’ve come to make amends for whatever I’ve done to offend you. You never come and talk to me anymore, so I decided I must have done something wrong.”

It was President Kimball who so lovingly explained to us that the Lord whispers to our hearts to go and do and in this way he answers the fervent prayers of others. President Kimball said the Lord has chosen this method of answering prayers because he knows it is the way we will learn most effectively to give love.

I was recently made aware of two visiting teachers who did all of the grocery shopping for an invalid sister for over a year. Then when she needed to have her blood pressure taken daily, they assumed that responsibility willingly.

In another ward, the Relief Society sisters were organized to supplement the time that the husband was out of the home and unable to care for his wife who was a native of Thailand, whose English language skills were limited. She had a disease that attacked every organ of her body. The sisters learned to operate the respirator. They bathed her, combed her hair, brushed her teeth, cleaned her house, and prepared meals as well. I heard this woman cry words of gratitude for the love and patience of those who served her.

After the first year of the Relief Society’s existence, Eliza R. Snow, the secretary, wrote: “We hope the Ladies of the Society will feel encouraged to renew their exertions, knowing that the blessings of the poor are resting upon them: We feel assured from what has passed under our personal observation, that many during the inclemency of the winter, were not only relieved, but preserved from famishing, through their instrumentality. More has been accomplished than our most sanguine anticipations predicted, and through the assistance and blessings of God, what may we not hope for the future?” (Times and Seasons 4:287).

We are in that future they spoke of now. The work of love in that one little band of women is being carried forth in ten thousand bands of women in 82 countries. Like those sisters before, they are teaching the concepts of love and of charity and urging individuals to give love.

They are organizing long-term programs of assistance to each other as need arrives and giving sustenance to neighbors, and they are teaching the life-giving concepts.

Let me tell you of the ongoing story of love as I have seen it around the world.

Early in my administration as Relief Society General President, a Relief Society group from one of the BYU student wards came to my office and presented me with a long scroll on which were listed the names of those who had completed the New Testament adult scripture reading course for that year. That Relief Society unit had determined that they would not only commit themselves to completing the Church reading assignment, they would live it and make it part of their lives. They wept as they told me that one girl who wanted very much to participate was blind, and so each member of their Relief Society unit took a turn reading the scriptures to her so that she could participate in the project.

Another girl became ill, and so they all helped her keep up with her class assignments so that she could do her scripture reading as well.

There is great value of combining the efforts of Relief Society members to go beyond theory into life-enriching experiences.

The love that makes the world have life is the love that Jesus taught us. It creates life in marriages; life in families; life in neighborhoods, communities, nations, and in the world. We must love the Lord, trust in his word, love and trust in immortality.

The little things we do for each other bring tenderness and joy into our day-to-day lives. They make life worth living.

The loving things we do for those who have despitefully used us bring even more love into our lives. They stop the perpetuation of hate and add to the component of good. The power of love is generative.

I think my young son understood this when he was only three. One morning I stepped to our back door to see the children off to school. Our little three-year-old son followed the children to the edge of the yard and watched them as they cut across the grass of a newly moved-in neighbor. Enraged, the neighbor called out, “Don’t you kids ever cut across my lawn. Don’t you dare step one foot on it again.” He couldn’t see me, but I could surely hear him, and so could every other mother that was out to see her child off to school. As sweetly as three-year-olds can talk, ours turned to this angry neighbor and said, “You can step on our lawn if you want to.” The next day that neighbor came out with a big smile and a darling teddy bear, and he gave it to our little son. There was never again a problem over that lawn.

Receive love. Let others step on your lawn. Open yourselves to receive another.

Perhaps you will remember the story of Corrie ten Boom, a 50-year-old spinster who became a militant heroine of the anti-Nazi underground during World War II. I would like to share with you two examples of how love worked in her life to help her do good when she had been extremely ill used.

The first time was when she was a young woman in Holland. She was very much in love and had thought her love was returned. But then one day the young man came to her door with another young woman. He wanted to introduce Corrie to his fiancée. The family rallied around to help her face this crisis. After the young couple left, Corrie fled to her bedroom, where she lay sobbing. She writes: “Later, I heard Father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. For a moment I was a little girl again waiting for him to tuck the blankets tight. But this was a hurt that no blanket could shut out, and suddenly I was afraid of what Father would say. … Of course he did not say the false, idle words.

“‘Corrie,’ he began instead, ‘do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain.

“‘There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill the love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or, Corrie, we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel. … Whenever we cannot love in the old, human way, Corrie, God can give us the perfect way.’”

Later after the terrifying experience of a wartime Nazi concentration camp, she found herself face to face with one of the S.S. guards.

“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, [her sister] Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

“He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,’ he said. ‘To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!’

“His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

“Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.

“I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

“As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

“And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself” (Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place, New York: Bantam Books, 1971, pp. 44–45, 238).

I’ve known great love in my marriage, with my children, as the president of the Relief Society, and as I grew up in a loving family who looked forward to the occasional visits of one of my mother’s older cousins whom we called Aunt Lillian. She had been a teacher in the public school system for more than 30 years. We were entranced as we listened to her tell of the problems she had as a teacher with disruptive students and of those in the school system who made a great impact for good upon the life she lived alone.

One day she invited me to her apartment to help her entertain the young daughter of a school teacher friend. Everything was meticulously prepared for us—the food she served and all of her surroundings. Her thoughtful ways evidenced a life-style of noble living. I was deeply impressed with the love she showed both of us that day, and it continued year after year for me.

When she was 70 years old, she bought her first car, a beautiful brand-new blue Plymouth, and she took driving lessons. When she got her license she decided to drive to California to visit her sister and invited me to go along to keep her company. I was then about 12 years old. I was so excited. I’d only been to Wyoming and felt that if I went to California, I’d become a world traveler. However, because she was such an inexperienced driver, I saw very little other than the road and other cars and was frightened most of the time. But we arrived safely and enjoyed our time with the family members I hadn’t known before.

She always gave so much of herself to make me happy. This continued on through my growing years and even when I married. Doug and I decided to name our second daughter after her. Her love was showered upon me and all of my children. At Christmastime, she would bring them lovely gifts. She knew the value of good books and beautiful flowers and people. She often tended my children and gave them a love for these things. All through those years I was the recipient of her love. And the day came when I was able to have her with us and do for her and ease some of her lonely hours. I received so much more love and enrichment to my life because of her.

That, you see, is what love is. It is the investiture, the immersing of ourselves in the lives of others and watching that change us and our surroundings.

Because of her I know that love is the life-giving force that renews the spirit of men and women and brings a new life to the world, a life that brings a longing for immortality.

She helped me understand the French scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, who is quoted as saying: “Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love: and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

May each of us think of love as the great and powerful force that it is. May we take teachings about love literally and work at mastering the skill of giving and receiving love. Love is the force by which we can renew the world. “Love is life, and life hath immortality.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry G. Clarkson