In 1976 I was sitting in my dormitory room, a freshman at university, reading a 1971 book by Walter Trobisch, entitled Love Is a Feeling to Be Learned. That September I had moved in with a high school acquaintance, Rick, a stocky design school student who was the son of one of my mother’s good friends. It was an antiquated building, the oldest dormitory on campus. A clanging announced the onset of radiator heat; a Southern Railways train periodically roared noisily through campus a block away, rattling our single window; and goings on by the less studious echoed off the uncarpeted hallways. But I kept reading. The noise receded to the background. Trobisch’s prose was riveting.
More booklet than book, Trobisch’s point was not novel and yet was paradigm-changing for me: Love is not merely or primarily a feeling but an action, verb and not noun. Scripture gets at it when it observes that God “set His love” on Israel (Deut. 7:7). God sets His love on us. In His case, it was His deliberate choice to love the loveless, to reach across time and space, the infinite to the finite, and love, with all that entails. When we set our love on someone, we choose, irrespective of feeling, to commit ourselves to relationship with them, to do the work of love. But I didn’t know that then. Until then, I thought of love as something you fell into and out of - a frustrating roller-coaster of emotion. Trobisch changed that.
I still have the book 42 years later and, on recently re-reading it, marveled at its relevancy, frankness, and wisdom. More than that, reading this book or any book by Trobisch is a warming and resuscitative experience. A pastor and counselor, you sense that he is almost across the table from you, having a conversation with you and only you, the world dropping away.
Still more, Trobisch evinces a willingness to get involved, reaching out of the pages of his book and across the decades to the reader - to the perplexed, despondent, and lovelorn. Evidence: In the front of the book, he writes this: “Some of the readers of this booklet may also feel the need of a personal conversation with a trustworthy advisor. It is certainly preferable to find such a counsellor in your vicinity whom you see often at regular intervals.” Then this amazing invitation: “However, in case you find no one, you may write to me and I shall try to help you by correspondence.” He signed his name, followed by his personal address: Lichtenberg 6, A-4880 St. Georgen i.A., Austria. I would write him if I could, if nothing more than to thank him.
Rick is eating cold pizza for a late breakfast, fuel for tackling introductory calculus problems. He warned me: It’s an all-male dorm, yet there’s a girl in the shower, a sometimes live-in down the hall. I thank him. “How can you eat that,” I say. “How can I not,” he says. He teeters back in his chair and sips hot tea, before diving back into the inexplicable: calculus. I don’t think Rick has a girlfriend or dates, but I don’t ask him.
“You may write to me and I shall try to help you.” This and other books by Trobisch had a worldwide publication. Many of them, beginning with 1965’s I Loved a Girl, were based on such letters as Trobisch invited. Who today would carry on such correspondence? Who today would make such an unselfish offer? Trobisch founded no ministry, sought no donations, charged no fees. He simply offered to help, if he could.
Trobisch was born in 1923 and came of age in Nazi Germany. At 18 he was drafted and sent to the Russian front. He survived the Battle of Stalingrad, but was severely wounded. During that tumult, he embraced Christ, the faith in which he had been schooled at home. After recuperating, he was sent to the Russian front again, where he was wounded again and narrowly escaped. During recuperation in Vienna, he was able to study theology. Yet once recovered, he was sent to the front for a third time, this time in Italy, where he was wounded yet again. In recovery there, he became convinced of the evil of the Nazi empire. Recalled to Germany to defend the Homeland, he was captured by Americans. When he was found to be a theological student, he was released. He walked 300 miles to his home in Leipzig, through a country littered with the destruction of war. Finding that the communists of now East Germany were in control, he fled to West Germany. Ultimately, he completed his studies in the United States, at Augustana University, where he met his wife Ingrid.
Walter and Ingrid accepted a call to Cameroon, in West Africa, in 1953, where he became a chaplain and teacher. It was there that he entered into a counseling ministry focusing on relationships, marriage, and sex. His correspondence with Francois and Cecile, two West Africans, became the letters that make up I Loved a Girl and I Love a Young Man. In them, youth world-wide found that the particular cultural context in which this couple’s problems arose were overshadowed by the universal experiences they shared with all.
Returning to Austria for a study sabbatical in the 1960s, he was inundated by hundreds of letters from young people seeking answers. He answered them. Sometimes Ingrid answered them. Yet all were answered.
“Happiness is only a part of love - this is what has to be learned,” wrote Trobisch. “Suffering belongs to love also. This is the mystery of love, its beauty and burden.” I put the book down on my desk and look out my dormitory window. In the park across the street, couples sit and talk, leaning in toward one another. Rick left for the cocoon of his design studio. In a few minutes William will come by for a visit, and we’ll talk of love and lack of love, of how to navigate relationships with women, of frustrations and trouble, much of our own doing.
I don’t know what happened to Rick. I moved out after that year and lost track of him. I lost track of William as well. I don’t know if they married or remain alone. I don't know what they learned or failed to learn about love in the decades that followed. The next year I met my wife. I set my love on her. It’s still setting right there.
I’m not nearly as wise as was Walter Trobisch. You probably shouldn’t write me for advice. But I can tell you that he was right: Love is a feeling to be learned. You learn it in the doing of it.