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Quotations I love: P. D. James on pain and love

Lynne Baab • Tuesday February 23 2021

Quotations I love: P. D. James on pain and love

“The world is a beautiful and terrible place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.”
          —P. D. James (1920-2014)

These are the last four sentences of P. D. James’s last book, The Private Patient, published in 2008. The setting is Adam Dalgliesh’s wedding (finally!). Adam and Emma have processed out of the church, and the organist is playing Bach. Annie, a friend of Emma’s, is sitting in a pew remembering her recent court testimony against the man who brutally raped her. As she reaches over to grab her partner’s hand, she thinks the words in the quotation above. You may want to re-read the quotation, imagining what those words might mean for a rape victim.

P. D. James wrote those words more than a decade before the pandemic that has made the world’s horror and screams more real. When I read those four sentences a few weeks ago, I thought it was amazing how James captured what I’ve felt during the pandemic. However, with or without a pandemic, horrors and screams have always accompanied human life.

“But we have love.” Love from family members and friends. Love from God, the source of all love. Receiving love humbles us, helping us see how connected and even dependent we are. Receiving love nurtures a grateful heart.

We also have our own love for family members and friends. Our own love for God. Every time we give love, we are following the model of Jesus. Giving love is one way we participate in our transformation into Jesus’ image through the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). Giving love trains our hearts and minds.

“But we have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.” The giving and receiving of love transforms us in so many ways.

In my P. D. James reading binge over Christmas, I read her last five novels, as well as her 1999 memoir, Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. The memoir is written like a detailed diary of a year in her life, beginning on her 77th birthday. She recounts her daily activities as well as her memories. I was impressed with her energy at 77. She kept up a travel and speaking schedule at that age that I wouldn’t be able to cope with at my current age, almost a decade younger. I was also impressed with the energy she put into her friendships. We must hold fast and believe in love, for it is all that we have. For James, this love clearly related to her friends, children and grandchildren, and God. She was a faithful and very traditional Anglican.

I’ve written many times on this blog about the life-transforming idea that maturity means holding grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. I wrote a series of posts about that idea in late 2019, and it has been the single most helpful practice for me in pandemic times. I love the way that P. D. James’s words reframe or amplify that idea. We can sit with and grieve the hugeness of human pain, so profound that the stars would shake if we all screamed at the same time. We can cry for the horror and pain we and others experience. We can pray lament psalms (try Psalms 10, 38, and 130, and the pair of psalms that make up one poem or hymn, 42 and 43).

And we can also hold fast to love, in whatever form we experience it. We can pay attention to the love lavished on us by God, and return thanks. We can express our love to God through music, prayers, awe at the beauty of nature, and so many other forms of drawing near. We can also pay attention to the human love we receive from family members and friends. We can reach out to someone we appreciated in high school or give a small gift to a family member. We can patiently listen to a spouse or parent or child or sibling or friend when we really don’t want to. We can make an effort to show love to someone on the margins. We can remember the love that lies behind meals we prepare, other acts of service, our attempts to bring justice, and the work we do.

“We have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world, but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all that we have.”

(Next week: journeying homemaking – what it means to be both at home and on a journey. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.)

Some favorite posts in my earlier series on quotations I love

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