taylor swift and the terror of “lover”

On her latest offering, Lover, Taylor Swift – my longtime friend, thinker of my selfsame thoughts, provider of the soundtrack to every heartbreak in my life – sings a lyric that, when I first heard it, struck me with fear. “I hope I never lose you, hope this never ends / I’d never walk Cornelia Street again / that’s the kind of heartbreak time could never mend”.

How could Taylor tell me that some heartbreaks might never heal? Isn’t her entire discography devoted to the incredible elasticity of the heart to last through any trial? This song took me back to a time when I thought I’d never recover from heartbreak. Unsurprisingly, I did. But “Cornelia Street” makes me wonder: is the next heartbreak the one that’ll really end me?

This lyric scares me because it confirms my deepest suspicions: that love is impossibly intertwined with fear. Lover captures the delicious highs and delirious confidence of a new and deepening love: “He’s so obsessed with me, and boy, I understand,” Taylor sighs, and in another song declares that her lover will “never find another like me”. But at the same time, Lover also chronicles the dark self-doubt that comes with risking vulnerability, belying any initial bravado. “Who could ever leave me, darling? But who could stay?” she asks, and also admits, “Why’d I have to break what I love so much? It’s on your face / and I’m to blame”. It’s not just romantic love that’s plagued by uncertainty, though: we also get a glimpse of the pain Taylor walked through as her mom underwent a cancer diagnosis. “Holy orange bottles, each night I pray to you / desperate people find faith / so now I pray to Jesus too”. No matter if it’s my boyfriend or my mom, to love someone is to be exposed to the potential for so much pain: whether that comes because they hurt me, or because it hurts to see them hurt, or because they can’t possibly withstand the weight of my love.

Because love is heavy, especially when I make it the thing that gives me meaning. David Foster Wallace said that we all worship something – and that if our worship is based on something that will pass away, “pretty much anything you worship will eat you alive.” Taylor’s devotion to her lover is just that – worship. In “False God”, she sings, “We might just get away with it / the altar is my hips / even if it’s a false god / we’d still worship”. That sounds to me like a recipe for disaster: the disaster of making a person your whole world. The lyric from “Cornelia Street” is Taylor imagining the day when her lover leaves her – and imagines the never-ending heartbreak that will swallow her when he does. If a person is my everything, it will crush me when they leave. Even if they don’t leave, it will crush me when they hurt or disappoint me. Is that a healthy picture of love?

If I don’t want to face a heartbreak that “time can never mend”, maybe I should just not love. But to do so would be to ignore the deeper problem of my heart: my tendency to give my identity, and as David Foster Wallace noted, my worship, to things that aren’t strong enough to hold it up. The solution isn’t to not love at all – the solution is to put my trust in something eternal and lasting so that, even when I do hurt and get hurt by imperfect people, the core of who I am will not be shaken. I’ve realized, too, that this is the only healthy way to love someone. Otherwise, I won’t uphold proper boundaries because I’ll be afraid to lose them. I won’t treat them how they want to be treated because I’ll want my way to triumph. The solution to my imperfect love is to know the love of God.

This is a love that doesn’t have to come with fear. “There is no fear in love,” John writes, “but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). He explains that this perfect love is embodied by Jesus: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (v. 9). Therefore, since Jesus loves us, we are set free to love each other, because “if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (v. 11) – with the promise that as we love each other, “God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (v. 12). In knowing Jesus, my imperfect love, my crushing love, my love that could break me and someone else, is replaced day by day with the pure love of God. He perfects my love and, by his Spirit (v. 13), causes it to bear fruit – after all, what is love without action? If perfect love bears action, it takes down walls of fear. Perfect love extends a hand to touch and heal, not hit and tear. That’s the gospel itself: Jesus stepping into a human body to fix our relationship with a holy God.

If “perfect love casts out fear”, as John promises it does, it follows that “whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (v. 18) – but this is not a discouragement, as if I need to make my love more perfect. No – my love for others is being completed and becomes more evident in me day by day as I walk with the LORD and as I put love into action. And God’s love for me is already complete, which means I don’t have to worry about whether or not someone else’s love will be enough for me. It turns out someone else’s love is a gift and not the foundation of my life.

A little while ago, I asked God, Why do I struggle with fear all the days of my life? If my identity is hidden with Christ, I should be over it by now, right? Instead, I felt the LORD remind me that faith is not the absence of fear, or else it wouldn’t be faith. Faith is persevering in the midst of fear, trusting God to be with me. Because the LORD is my foundation, I can sing with the Psalmist: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken” (Psalm 62:5-6 ESV). This doesn’t mean I’ll never be heartbroken… but it does mean that heartbreak won’t kill me, because I know that that Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33 ESV).

The prophet Jeremiah spoke the words of the LORD to a lost people who had long ago forsaken Him, saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love”. Everlasting. Love that moves me to love even when it’s scary. Love that actually casts out fear from my heart and from the hearts of those who encounter it in me. Love that endures with me and promises me that even if I go through a “Cornelia Street”-level heartbreak, I’ll be able to walk those streets again. It may end up being the kind of heartbreak time may never mend… but Jesus already mended it.

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