It’s easy to point out what’s off base about what passes for love in most pop songs. Most ‘love songs’ are really ‘lust songs.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with desire — far from it. But let’s be honest about what we’re talking about.

It’s rare to come across a love song that actually expresses what love is about. Which is why I love Sara Bareilles’ “I Choose You” so much. It captures love’s innocence and optimism but in a way that isn’t naive. Its love is a grown-up love, a love that recognizes that at the end of the day its magic is the magic of choice — of grace — and that it takes a lot of work and humility to see through.

The whole song is beautiful, but the part I want to highlight today comes from the bridge:

“We are not perfect, we’ll learn from our mistakes
And as long as it takes I will prove my love to you
I am not scared of the elements; I am underprepared,
But I am willing, and even better —
I get to be the other half of you.”

Sara Bareilles, “I Choose You”

This is simply the most honest expression of the reality of love and relationships I’ve encountered in a pop song. A relationship — no matter what heart-swells, signs and wonders might accompany it — is always just two people fumbling through the world together without a map: flawed and imperfect but capable of learning and growing together. There are things that will happen beyond their control; the only thing they can control is how they choose to face them. Which gets back to the song’s title, “I Choose You.” 

I know couples who have overcome serious accidents, cancer treatments, poverty and career problems, infidelity, and other violations of trust. I also know couples who were doomed by far less significant trials. If two people choose each other, there is very little they can’t overcome in life. If they don’t — if one of them doesn’t — then there is very little they can get through. 

And this is where the idea of grace comes in. Romantic love is grace. It isn’t something that can be earned; isn’t a matter of how good you are, how worthy you are, of what you can contribute. It’s simply a matter of whether someone you choose also chooses you. I say “simply,” but of course it’s more complicated than that. It’s both simple — it’s either there or it’s not — and complicated — it’s a complex alchemy that no one has ever figured out. (And being 0 for 4 in the unrequited love department, I certainly don’t have any suggestions!)

When you’re in a place where this two-way grace feels a long way away, it’s easy to dismiss it, as in the words of the song, as “just love’s illusion.” But, there’s always a ‘but’. And that’s where the hope lies: “But then you found me / And everything changed.”

My whole heart
Will be yours forever
This is a beautiful start
To a lifelong love letter