With or Without You, I Can’t Live: Jaybirds and Bluebirds



As a young kid, U2’s The Joshua Tree was the first real album I listened to. I loved it immediately.

The track “With or Without You” has always bothered me a bit. The sentiment is classic, “I can’t live, with or without you, I can’t live.” The paradox always struck me as rather stupid. Come on, Bono, make up your mind and stop whining. On the other hand, he is onto something: as much as the beloved might make one happy, there is a fly in the ointment, because she can’t make you that happy. The song suggests that the key to our happiness resides somewhere else.

Of course this goes hand in hand with the track “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It’s gospel angst at its finest. Bono belts out his belief in the “kingdom come” and that “He broke the bounds” and “Carried the cross of my shame,” but ends declaring “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

As Augustine puts it, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” The rest doesn’t finally come to us until we slip the mortal coil. 

I digress but will return to this point.

As of late, I’ve been rather hard on bluebirds (see here and here). This “with or without you” sentiment is classic bluebird and my wife chirped it often before opting to leave. The tyranny of the bluebird, indeed.

But, despite the inherent tension between bluebirds and jaybirds (with or with out you…), they actually work well together. It’s quite simple: Bluebirds want to be happy, and jaybirds want to win (making her happy), so you have the ingredients for a virtuous cycle. Of course, this often goes awry.

There are at least two reasons for this. One is that the jaybird relaxes once he’s won. He’s got the girl and got hitched. So now, ok, babe, I’m going to go hang with the guys tonight; or, babe, I got work to do (conquer!), we can hang out tomorrow night. It can become neglect plain and simple. Oh, and sex would be great too!

Naturally, the bluebird doesn’t take any of this well. Wait, wait, wait, where did all that attention and love go? Well, he got you, so what do you expect? He’s got other (non-sexual) conquests he’s working on. He’s secured you, and it’s great coming home to the castle with the wife, but the battle is somewhere out there!  The woman hangs on because she remembers the good old times, and thinks she can whine him back into it. And she does. This is where guys make the natural adjustment; after all, who wants to come home to a grumpy wife? Ok, ok, he’ll say, I’ll pay you more attention, and means it because he does really love her.

At this point the story gets ugly or it gets better. Resentment can easily build for the bluebird (I shouldn’t have to ask for his attention and fight for my happiness like this!) and jaybird (good grief, I do all of this stuff, and it’s never enough. X plus Y should equal Z happy wife. Get off my back!). It’s a well-known trope based on an inherent tension between the birds. Of course this need not go sour. And good days the jaybird acts out of love for the bluebird, on bad days he acts out of duty with the hope that it will be better tomorrow. Regardless, they still are haunted by that earlier marital state of bliss and the expectations that come with it even as the callouses and sore spots begin to accumulate. With or without you.

There will always be nicks and bruises in marriage. As C. S. Lewis puts it,

[T]hese lapses will not destroy a marriage between two “decent and sensible” people. The couple whose marriage will certainly be endangered by them, and possibly ruined, are those who have idolised Eros. They thought he had the power and truthfulness of a god. They expected that mere feeling would do for them, and permanently, all that was necessary. When this expectation is disappointed they throw the blame on Eros or, more usually on their partners.

Eros: the tyrant of love that we moderns labor under.

But the over-promising and under-delivering tyrant must be ruled. Eros creates the desire, but cannot fulfill the desire. As Lewis puts it elsewhere, “The god dies or becomes a demon unless he obeys God.”

And what God did Lewis have in mind? The sort that dies for the worst of the worst and through death reconciles them not only to himself but to each other. This is our cue: what all good lovers know is that it won’t work “except by humility, charity, and divine grace.” The birds are different but they need each other as both wound and are wounded by each other differently and subsequently make each other stronger in their weaknesses. For this to happen they need grace to die to themselves and live for the other. In this way, holiness precedes happiness. The happiness, you can’t get that from Eros alone.

Restlessness will remain, still, but hopefully it’s not as torturous as Bono’s situation in “With or Without You.”


A parting thought. Bluebirds, in their desire to be happy, are far more present-minded (Do I feel happy now? Have I felt happy recently? What are the prospects for continued happiness in this situation?). Jaybirds tend to ignore present difficulties for future accomplishments (I will make it better. I will fix this.) The jaybird finds satisfaction in accomplishment, in progress, in growth, in development, which means he (or she) can put up with discomfort in the present. The bluebird, on the other hand, finds satisfaction in security and emotional satisfaction in the present.

That doesn’t mean jaybirds will put up with a bad situation indefinitely, or that a bluebird isn’t willing to work to make a situation better, but the inclinations differ.



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