The Four Things That Matter Most, Part I: I Love You
Love is strong as death and beautiful as fire. —Song of Songs 8:6
Ira Byock is Professor Emeritus at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University and has been a palliative care physician since his medical residency in 1978. He’s really one of the pioneers in the field of hospice care and has been working with the terminally ill and their families for 40 years.
You learn a lot about a good death in the exceptional, intense crucible of hospice care where patient and loved ones all know that time is so short.
In 2004, Dr. Byock wrote a book called The Four Things That Matter Most. There are four things we all need to say to those we love before we say goodbye for the last time: “I love you.” Please forgive me.” “I forgive you.” And “Thank you.”
The book is ABOUT people for whom time is short, but the book is FOR all of us. We act as if we have all the time in the world, and maybe we do.
Maybe you don’t plan on dying for another 60 or 80 years, but you never know. You know how Ray Charles puts it: “Live every day as if it were your last, because one day you’re going to be right.”
Shakespeare has Richard II say it like this: “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me.” Don’t waste time, or it will waste you. Let’s start thinking now about the four things that matter most. Sounded like a promising sermon series to me, so here we go.
There’s a reason “I love you” is the first of the four things that matter most. Love is a sine qua non of human existence, a without-which-not. Without it, we die, quite literally. It is as essential to our existence as the air we breathe and the water we drink. “Three things abide,” St. Paul famously says, “Three things abide—faith, and hope, and love—and the greatest of these...”
The Song of Songs thinks it knows why love is so important. My own paraphrase of the passage I read just a moment ago: “Love is strong as death and beautiful as fire.”
A couple of interesting things about the Song of Songs. First, the title. Almost none of the books of the Bible came with titles at the beginning, of course, including this one.
We call the Four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but those are just educated guesses. The original documents didn’t call themselves by those names. So the synagogue and later the church had to supply those titles.
For a long time, we called this book the Song of Solomon, because King Solomon had 300 wives and 700 mistresses, so who knew more about love than he?
More recently, scholars have pointed out that the vocabulary of this little book is not courtly and the subject matter is not princely and the prose is more rustic than royal, so scholars have come to doubt that attribution to King Solomon. The synagogue and the church changed the title to Song of Songs.
That’s just another way of saying that this song is “The Most Excellent of Songs.” That’s the way the Hebrews talked—right?—When they wanted to label something which was the most excellent example of its kind?
Yahweh is God of Gods and King of Kings. The most sacred space in the Temple was called the Holy of Holies. This is the Song of Songs. The Mother of All Songs.
They say that more scholars have poured out more ink over this short little book—per verse—than any other book in the Bible, not because of its importance to the history and self-understanding of the synagogue and the church, but because for centuries scholars have been trying to figure out how a box of old love letters made its way into the Hebrew scriptures.
God is not mentioned anywhere in this book by any name. It is one of only two books in the Bible where God is not mentioned and if you can tell me the other one, I’ll give you a dollar.
That’s all it is: a box of old letters. The two verses I read a moment ago are about the only two verses in the entire book that I can read in church without getting fired. It is positively erotic.
In The Christian Century, Stephanie Paulsell pointed out that it was only eight years ago, in 2010, that the U.S. Navy lifted its ban on women serving aboard Naval submarines, so until fairly recently, all submariners were men.
The Navy used to limit communication between those submariners and their wives back home to eight words at a time.
But the Navy counted a Bible verse as one word. So the wives back home and the sailors aboard submarines developed a code.
She would write “SOS 1:2,” and the submariner fathoms down below the surface of the ocean would look it up in his Bible, Song of Songs 1:2: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.”
And then he would write back to her: “SOS 4:7,” and she would check her Bible and read “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” So many prayers coiled and hidden in a single verse: I miss you. God go with you. Please come home. SOS: Save our Ship. SOS: Song of Songs.
The Song of Songs: a woman writes a letter to her lover and he responds; that’s all it is. But you might be surprised by the predominance of the feminine perspective in this otherwise intensely patriarchal Hebrew Bible. She gets 56 verses to his 36.
Oh, and another surprising thing: she is probably from Africa. She is black as pitch.
And in the middle of her erotica, she writes the most beautiful thing. She says, “Love is strong as death and beautiful as fire.”
Strong as death and beautiful as fire. That is to say, love both what grounds and what launches us. Love is roots and wings. Love is our strength, stability, and support; but also our joy and our passion. Love is both the comfort of home and the adventure of the journey.
Love is strong as death. True love is the most invincible force in the universe. It does not capitulate to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It does not surrender to illness, or age, or divergent career paths, or a houseful of rambunctious children, or changing dreams, or passing whims, or your partner’s sometimes difficult eccentricities.
Opioid addiction is all over the news right now, probably the worst health crisis of this century, 115 deaths a day in America. My heart just aches when I watch the families of those addicts go out to bring them home over and over again. Retrieve him from the detox center yet again. Bail him out of jail another time. Send her for 90 days to the rehab place in Minnesota for the third time. Stab him with a Narcan hypo after an overdose again and again. The persistence of that loyalty and love is just harrowing but also awe-inspiring. Love is strong as death.
Love is stronger than death. Someone put it like this: “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” We do not stop loving them when they pass out of our lives into whatever comes next; that love goes on and on.
So love is stronger than death and beautiful as fire, because it is mystery, romance, passion, adventure, combustion, and flame which will keep us warm all the days of our lives.
Do you know Emily Dickinson’s poem?
To my small Hearth His fire came—
And all my House aglow
Did fan and rock, with sudden light—
'Twas Sunrise—'twas the Sky—
Impanelled from no Summer brief—
With limit of Decay—
'Twas Noon—without the News of Night—
Nay, Nature, it was Day— 
We think of Emily Dickinson as this timid, pale recluse, but she had crushes and she was in love more than once and she yearned for that adventure and passion. “To my small hearth his fire came and all my house aglow did fan and rock with sudden light.”
So love is strong as death and beautiful as fire. That’s why it’s the first of the four things that matter most. It is vital to our existence. But here’s the thing: love can’t just exist; it has to be spoken; it has to be told; it has to be shared.
Does silent love even exist? Maybe. Some people are great at love but bad at expression. But Dr. Byock wants all of us to know how important it is to speak those words before it’s too late. We will regret the beautiful words we never spoke.
Because we’re all a little vulnerable, right? We’re all a little fragile. We need to be told.
Do you remember at the end of The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader is about to freeze Han Solo alive in a block of carbonite? Princess Leia doesn’t know if she will ever see Han again, so she takes Dr. Byock’s advice and says, “Han, I love you,” and he says, “I know.” Most of us are not that self-confident; we need to be told.
By the way, do you know that Harrison Ford was supposed to say, “I love you, too”? That’s the way the screenplay was written. Mr. Ford thought it would be more Han-Solo-like to say “I know.” Carrie Fisher was furious with him, because he didn’t discuss it with her before they actually shot the scene, but it became one of the most iconic scenes in the entire franchise. Most of us don’t know unless we’re told.
Dr. Byock tells the story of Susan Armstrong. She was 42 years old when she was diagnosed with ALS—Lou Gherig’s disease. Her daughter Allison was six.
Well, you know how the disease progresses. First a cane, then a walker, then no mobility at all. Within a few months, Susan could move only one index finger and blink her eyes at a chart of letters and words.
She knew her time was short, so before the end she gathered all her best friends at her bedside and sent them on errands for dozens and dozens and dozens of birthday gifts. Birthday gifts and Christmas gifts and graduation gifts, a gift for Allison’s wedding that her mother would never see. Susan’s friends wrapped them up for her and stored them in the attic until the various milestones arrived.
And then with halting, grueling communication via eyeblinks and finger pointing, she dictated dozens of messages to her friends, who wrote them down in greeting cards and books in their own hand. For every birthday and major life milestone until Allison was 20 years old: a gift and a message.
“Dear Allison, I hope your seventh birthday is terrific. I hope you have the best party ever. Don’t forget how much I love you and that I am with you always in spirit. I did not want to leave you. You will always be my little girl and I will always be your mother. Happy birthday, Sweetie!” Every year till Allison turned 20.
Do you see how love is stronger even than death? And beautiful as fire?
All of this is borrowed word for word from Stephanie Paulsell “Deep Messages,” The Christian Century, June 19, 2010.
Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie (Doubleday Publishing, 1997), 174.
Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little Brown, poem published c. 1862), #638.
Ira Byock, The Four Things That Matter Most (New York: Atria Books, 2004), pp. 214, 216–217.