Our Animal Condition

On Being Animal, part 1

What does it mean that we are human?

We’ve been asking what it means to be human for millennia. But lately we’ve been learning that a better question to investigate, if we want to understand ourselves, might be: what does it mean that we are animal?

Poets, philosophers, and scientists have long explored “the human condition.” What about the mammal condition? The warm-blooded condition? The vertebrate condition? It's a worthy and important question, What are the distinctive attributes of our species? But to understand what it means to be the sort of being that we are requires equal attention to other questions: What are the distinctive attributes of our genus? What are the distinctive attributes of our order? Of our class? Of our phylum?

Our animality is more important than our humanity. By that I mean: the parts of ourselves that we have in common with other species tells us more about what we are than the thin sliver of our genome that distinguishes homo sapiens from its near relatives.

Research has been closing the perceived gap between humans and other animals -- and that gap has been closing from both directions. We've learned a lot in the last fifty years about primates, mammals, birds, reptiles, and all vertebrates. So far we've found that the most unequivocal test of self-consciousness has been passed by humans, chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, rhesus macaques, bottlenose dolphins, orca whales, elephants, and European magpies. But all vertebrates, at least, think, solve problems, learn, and feel, and experience fear and gladness, anxiety and comfort. They want to live, and flourish -- and mammals are particularly complex and nuanced in the ways that they exhibit these qualities. It's worth looking into these findings and what we've been learning about a great many animals. I shall focus today, however, not on how we've closed the gap by learning more about nonhuman animals, but how we've closed the gap by learning more about human animals.

In particular, we now know: intentions don’t cause our action. Brain processes outside of your control or awareness already decided what you were going to do BEFORE the conscious intention formed. You think you do things because you meant to. Actually, that feeling of “meaning to” is an after-the-fact illusion. Neural signals for motion precede the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds (.3 to .5 seconds).

Why do our brains create this illusion of conscious intentional control? The brain’s decision-making circuitry, unconscious and out of your control as it is, does learn and change from experience and in order to do that, it needs to distinguish between actions that are “mine” and those that just happen. That feeling of conscious intent you have is just your brain putting an “I did that” stamp on its memory of an episode – so that it can learn from its experience.

We can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhuman animals are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or, if they are, so are we.

Michael Gazzaniga’s split-brain experiments further confirm that the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing is an after-the-fact fabrication. The right brain can process input and arrive at decisions that we carry out – but only the left brain has language centers. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a Coke," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes. This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know. My story about myself as intentional, purposeful, and rational is fabricated later to rationalize that behavior. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I “meant” to do. That’s the delusion we live in.

Knowing about the ways we are fooled, and how our fundamental animal nature is at work, can help us begin to befriend our animality, our selves. We were made, as a number of species have been, to walk the savannas and woodlands of this wild earth. It is where deep parts of ourselves find their greatest comfort and ease.

Today, many of us, like me, find ourselves sitting indoors in front of a computer for hours at a time. If I am in touch with all of myself, then I feel those other parts biding their time, quietly yearning for their element.

David Abram writes of “becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.”

Mary Oliver tells us we find our truest place in and through the sounds – and sights and smell and feel – of animals and the wild: “You do not have to be good,” she says. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I do not disparage the fine things my neocortex can do, nor the level of detail of envisioning the future that my more developed forebrain can do, nor the wonders of abstract and symbolic language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. These functions are great. But, a couple things about that:

Number 1, these features that are more developed in a human brain are only a small part of who I am.

Number 2, great as they are, those functions cause problems – aside from the delusion of intentional control. The forebrain that envisions the future is prone to obsessive worrying about that future. Recalling and reconnecting with our animality can help with that anxiety. It can bring us what Wendell Berry called the "peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief."


So They Won't Change Me

Some years ago I read about A.J. Muste and something he said. Looking for that quote, I came across this passage from Denise Roy's essay, "The Mother is Standing" in the anthology, The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change (2008) -- which includes the line from Muste that I was looking for:
"Our protest that Good Friday morning did not change the world, at least as far as we can see. Nevertheless, it changed me, and it changed our community. A reporter once asked A.J. Muste -- a social activist who, during the Vietnam War, stood outside the White House night after night -- 'Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?'

"'Oh,' Muste replied, 'I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me.'

"When I am willing to cross the line of how much I think I can love, I am changed. When I am more in touch with what I love than what I fear, I take a stand. My prayer is that more and more of us, on behalf of all children, will use the energy of a mother to touch the seeds of courage and love within us for the sake of the world."
Don't get me -- or A.J. Muste -- wrong: knowing what we stand for, and standing for it, does change the country. And the world. There's certainly a place for strategic thinking, and choosing where to put our energy for maximum effect. But we never get to the strategy questions unless we are clear and firm about who we are -- what we are willing to stand for even when a particular instance, or a million particular instances, make no apparent difference at all. Taking action that grounds us in our own values is ultimately the only thing that can change the world.

On Sun Feb 25 afternoon, Cindy Davidson and I were outside Governor Andrew Cuomo's home in Mt. Kisco. We were there participating in a vigil calling for the Governor to be more active on climate change: stop statewide fossil fuel projects, including shutting down the Algonquin pipeline; release the results of a risk assessment study of the pipeline that the Governor ordered two years ago; and commit New York to being fossil-fuel-free by 2030. It was a chill and drizzly afternoon. Soon there was no feeling in my toes. Still I was glad to be there -- glad to be putting my shivering body on the side of love for our planet.

When a reporter asked to speak with me, she asked a few questions and then pointed out that the Governor did not appear to be home -- so how could we hope to have any affect on him? At that moment, A.J. Muste's words came to mind. I didn't quote them quite right, but was close.

When we place our bodies into the postures that show what we love, what we care about, it changes us -- and strengthens us against the kind of change that would be a weakening of our commitments. It solidifies us as the beings we are, screws our courage to the sticking place, secures us against the dissolution, dissipation, and distraction that so easily happens. When we are unmoved in our resolve to be people who stand for loving life and our planet home that sustains us -- people who will not be changed into anything more complacent -- then power that changes the world can take root in us.

Channel 12's News Story

See also:
The Examiner, "Protestors Rally Outside Cuomo’s House, Demand Pipeline Risk Study"
LoHud, "Governor must reveal risks of fracked gas pipeline near nuclear storage"
MidHudson News, "Activists call on Cuomo to be ‘a climate hero’"
Patch, "Faith Groups Hold Environmental Vigil At NY Governor's House"
FIOS 1, "Activists call on Gov. Cuomo to take up commitment to clean energy: Interfaith group held vigil outside of governor’s home in Mount Kisco"


True Spirituality and Bypassing Spirituality

The Spiritual Bypass, part 2

True Spirituality

Robert Augustus Masters’ book, Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters cautions about ways that spirituality can become a way of hiding from ourselves, denying parts of who we are, avoiding acknowledging and coming to grips with what is painful. He’s not arguing against spirituality. Rather, his point is that various forms of faux spirituality preclude authentic spirituality. True spirituality enters into our pain rather than bypassing around it. The road in, as opposed to the road around, can be quite messy and seem not at all spiritual, but the path of liberation requires going in. Masters describes it this way:
"Life after spiritual bypassing is a committed apprenticeship to What Really Matters. Every situation is part of the curriculum and practicum, offering the same fundamental opportunity to deepen our awakening, especially when we release our experience from any obligation to make us feel better or more secure. In so doing we can still the mind and ground the body, breaking open to what we were born to do and be. Spiritual bypassing is worth outgrowing. All we have to do is stop turning away from our pain and consciously enter it. This means an end to disembodied living, an end to spiritualized dissociation, an end to emotional illiteracy and relational immaturity. As we commit ourselves to a full-blooded awakening rooted in the cultivation of intimacy with all that we are, we find a willingness to bring what ever we have kept in the dark out into the open. And from this newfound openness we emerge with the gifts of our hard work: firsthand wisdom that benefits one and all. Authentic spiritual life is the opportunity of a lifetime. It is a constant dying into a deeper life. Emerging from our own ashes becomes no big deal; it’s just the way things are. Here the ten thousand sorrows and the ten thousand joys intermingle in unparalleled song, and we are the infinite music that goes on, in the one moment that is all moments." (Spiritual Bypassing, 176-77)
The practices and insights of spiritual wisdom can be liberating. But they can also become stuck places -- ways of avoiding directly coming to terms with the pain in our lives that needs confronting.

First I’ll mention some spiritual-sounding slogans that I don’t say, and then, in a segment called, “But I don’t mean…” I’ll go through a longer list of things that I often have said and caution against misusing those points in a “spiritual bypass” around what we need to face.

Things I Don’t Say

“Everything happens for a reason. There’s no such thing as coincidence.”

I don’t say this because I do believe there are such things as coincidences. I’d agree that everything has a cause, but many things happen without any particular purpose.

It’s true that there’s almost always something that can be learned from any experience. It’s a good practice to reflect on things that happen to us, whether pleasant or unpleasant, and see what lesson may be discerned. But that doesn’t mean that the experience happened for the purpose of giving us that lesson.

Some one who says “things happen for a reason,” might be expressing what I would call a sense of grace. Cultivating the sense of the grace of the world and of life is a wonderful aspect of spirituality connecting us to the all the unearned, undeserved conditions that support our life. Life FEELS more wonderful when we simply notice that it IS wonderful, and we didn’t have to do anything to make it so.

It’s also true that we can choose to make meaning of something that is a coincidence. On New Year’s Day every year, LoraKim and I shuffle a deck of animal cards and draw a left-hand companion and a right-hand companion for the year ahead. My animal spirit guides for 2018 are the antelope (which, according to the book which accompanied the deck, represents action) and the weasel (stealth). The pure coincidence of the cards produces a message: be active, but maybe look for ways behind the scenes to make things happen. That’s a good message and worth taking to heart, howsoever random was its generation. LoraKim’s animal totems for 2018, by the way, are the dove and the porcupine. I’ll let you ask her what she understands that to mean. Choosing to make meaning of certain coincidences can be a good spiritual practice, a practice of reflecting on messages that we didn’t ourselves generate – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t coincidence.

To say that “things happen for a reason” seems awfully ego-centric. Suppose you got stuck in a terrible traffic gridlock and missed your appointment, but because you missed that appointment, something else happened to you, and it was really great. I would resist the temptation to say that the reason for the traffic jam was to give you this really great other thing. What about all the other 500 cars? Did they all have to suffer just so you could have this great thing? The world doesn’t revolve around any one of us that way. (I suppose you might imagine that every single other person stuck in that traffic jam also found that the delay somehow turned into a good thing for them – but that’s too much of a stretch for me.)

“You create your own reality.”

I don’t say this either, and for similar reasons. It's awfully self-centered to imagine that you have that much control.

I think connecting with people – love, and friendships, empathy and relationship – is at the center of a good life. In order for that to happen, we have to have a shared reality. If we’re each wholly making up our own reality – as though we’ve all selected a different virtual reality game to play – we can’t connect with each other. A self-made reality is very lonely.

Also: the world couldn’t teach us its important lessons if we decided everything for ourselves.

The slogan that we create our own reality often leads to self-blame when reality doesn’t work out well. Such a path of guilt and shame leads away, not toward, true self-accountability. We’re responsible for how we respond to conditions, and what we’ve done in the past often has some influence on what conditions are now, but a large part of those conditions never were under your control.

NEXT: Some things that I do say -- but could be misused as spiritual bypasses

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This is part 2 of "The Spiritual Bypass"
See also
Part 1: We're Here to Help Each Other Get Unstuck

The extemporaneous version:


We're Here to Help Each Other Get Unstuck

The Spiritual Bypass, part 1

On Feb 16, I was leading one of the sessions at our monthly "Friday Faith Development" evening. I shared with the group this story by Jessica York from the UUA "Tapestry of Faith" curriculum (adapted, abridged). It's about the First Unitarian Society of Chicago in 1948, and how the function of congregations is to change us:
In 1948, most congregations in the United States were segregated by the color -- either by policy or by custom. The First Unitarian Society of Chicago (1USC) was one of these congregations. Although their church was located in a neighborhood with many African Americans, only whites could join, according both to custom and the written bylaws of the church.

The day came that many members began to believe that if they really wanted to live their values and principles, they needed to take action against racism. The minister, the Reverend Leslie Pennington, was ready for this day and ready to take action. So was James Luther Adams, a well-known and respected liberal theologian and social ethicist. Adams taught at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, right across the street from the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. And he was a member of 1USC's Board of Directors.

Reverend Pennington and James Luther Adams joined with others to propose a change in the church's bylaws to desegregate the church. They saw this as a way to put their love into action.

But in 1948, anything about skin color or racism was controversial. Even those who supported equality and civil liberties for African Americans sometimes believed in a separate, but equal policy.

When the congregation's Board considered the desegregation proposal, most of them supported it. However, one member of the Board objected. "Your new program is making desegregation into a creed," he said. "You are asking everyone in our church to say they believe desegregating, or inviting, even recruiting people of color to attend church here, is a good way to tackle racism. What if some members don't believe this?"

Respectful debate ensued at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. Both sides felt, in their hearts, that they were right. The debate went on in the Board of Directors' meeting until the early hours of the morning. Everyone was exhausted and frustrated. Finally, James Luther Adams asked the person who had voiced the strongest objection, "What do you say is the purpose of this church?"

Silence settled over the room. Everyone wanted to hear how this question would be answered. The Board member who opposed opening the church to people of color finally replied. "Okay, Jim. The purpose of this church is to get hold of people like me and change them."

The First Unitarian Society of Chicago successfully desegregated.
I believe that the good of congregational life is that it changes us. The purpose of our being here is to get hold of one another and change us. When I say this, it might arouse a shadow of suspicion – that I have some agenda for what I want you changed into. But when I say “change,” I mean, “unstuck.” Each of us gets stuck in different ways, stuck on different sticking points. And what any of us will find ourselves becoming if we get unstuck is unpredictable and likely to be quite different from what anyone else becomes. The only agenda is for you to come into the fullness of your uniqueness. I don’t know what that will look like – though I usually can recognize it once it happens. Like the next painting or music that will blow you away: you have no idea in advance what it will be, but you know it when it happens.

Spiritual practices are helping us get unstuck, whatever stuckness we may be having. Each week I suggest a “Practice of the Week.” (Over 150 practices have been described so far -- see the index of practices HERE.) Some of them are in the “Might be your thing,” category – gardening, yoga, quilting, martial arts, cooking, etc. There aren’t all for everybody, but one of them might be perfect for you to jump into and make into a spiritual practice.

Then there are “occasional” or “worth a try” spiritual practices. Try them at least once, and some of them are good for coming back to every once in a while. Make a home altar, create and use as needed a playlist of your most uplifting songs, list three good things that happened to you in the last 24 hours and reflect on your role in making them happen, fast, empathize, simplify. These are some sample things worth doing every once in a while.

The third category is “slogans to live by.” These are mottos to repeat to yourself and to call to mind to give yourself guidance as you face the various situations of your day: be generous, smile, say yes, identify your emotions, claim desire, stop blaming, be curious, be grateful, take breaks, etc.

As we develop our spiritual resources for becoming more joyful and more compassionate, we develop certain habits of thought – and those are often tremendously helpful. Especially at first. Here’s the thing though: The very insights that might help us get unstuck can themselves turn into sticking points.

Some spiritual idea or other can become an excuse for staying stuck. It can become a device for disconnecting from a part of ourselves. It can be a tool for trying repress or excise our pain, shame, anger, frustration, moral outrage, or fear.

When that happens, it’s called “taking the spiritual bypass.” It means using the ideal of calm, equanimous, centered, inner peace to avoid confronting the fact that you hurt, or are angry, or are scared. It means employing spiritual tools and teachings to deny and repress our real pain.

We all do it. I do it. Probably even the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh – whoever your model of spiritual serenity might be – also take the spiritual bypass sometimes. In the following posts, I'll describe some of the common ways the spirituality undercuts itself by bypassing real issues of hurt, outrage, or frustrutaion.

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This is part 1 of "The Spiritual Bypass"
See also:
Part 2: True Spirituality and Bypassing Spirituality
A parody of "spirituality":

The extemporaneous version:


Thelma and the Existential Dreads

Love and Desire, part 3

Thelma, age 70, declares herself “hopelessly, tragically in love.” But it doesn’t look like love to her psychiatrist, Dr. Irvin Yalom -- or, if it is, it is “monstrously out of balance – it contained no pleasure at all, her life wholly a torment.”

Eight years before, Thelma had had, she said, “a love affair” of 27 days. The affair had been with Thelma’s former therapist – so, that’s problematic. The former therapist, Matthew, knowing the relationship was wrong, broke it off after the 27 days that Thelma describes as the most blissful of her life.

Since then, for eight years, Thelma has obsessed about Matthew – she hardly thinks of anything else. She re-lives over and over every memory from their time together. “My life is being lived eight years ago,” she says.

Yalom reflects:
“Her love obsession was powerful and tenacious, having dominated eight years of her life. Still, the roots of the obsession seemed extraordinarily friable. A little effort, a little ingenuity should suffice to yank the whole weed out. And then? Underneath obsession, what would I find? Would I discover the brutal facts of human experience that the enchantment concealed? Then I might really learn something about the function of love....So far it was apparent that Thelma’s love for Matthew was, in reality, something else – perhaps an escape, a shield against aging and isolation. There was little of Matthew in it, nor – if love is a caring, giving, need-free relationship – much love.”
Yalom goes on to note that
“a love obsession drains life of its reality, obliterating new experience, both good and bad.”
For Thelma, however,
“the obsession contained infinitely more vitality than her lived experience.”
How is Thelma to be understood in terms of the four existential dreads:

Aloneness: During the 27 days of the affair, aloneness had dissolved into merger and fusion. Thelma described it as
“an out-of-the-body experience....I had no weight. It was as though I wasn’t there, or at least the part of me that hurts and pulls me down. I just stopped thinking and worrying about me. I became a we.”
But in the eight years since the affair ended, the obsession has only painfully exacerbated her feeling of being alone.

Meaninglessness: the obsession gives her life a twisted sort of meaning while cutting her off from all other avenues of meaning.

Responsibility for one’s freedom: this is the one that Yalom comes to believe Thelma is most terrified of. Thelma has surrendered her power to Matthew
“in an effort to deny her own freedom and her responsibility for the constitution of her own life....It is extraordinarily hard, even terrifying, to own the insight that you and only you construct your own life design.”
Thelma’s psychic strategy is to accept the price of aloneness and highly attenuated meaning in order to escape the terror of responsibility for herself.

The remaining existential dread, death, is also playing a key role, Yalom thinks:
“I felt strongly that Thelma’s fear of aging and death fueled her obsession. One of the reasons she wanted to merge in love, and be obliterated by it, was to escape the terror of facing obliteration by death."
This synopsis of Thelma's case affords a glimpse into some of the complications of this business of being human.

Last week I said, Pay attention. Notice. We will be able to attend just so far as we care, so far as we love – love this life, love this world, love each other our fellow travelers. We need a lot of help to do that. We need friends, and sometimes counselors, who can help us notice – notice the very things we most hide from ourselves. We’d rather hide from ourselves our dread of death, of freedom, of aloneness, of meaninglessness. But those are the very things to which we most need to pay attention if we are to emerge at last into a way of being that truly loves this life, loves this world, and loves our fellow travelers. Attention to these dreads also takes us into the paradoxes of a full life of fullest love.

Dwelling continuously on death, we come to genuinely apprehend the wonder and miracle of this brief life.

Grasping that we are responsible and blameworthy for everything, we learn to stop constructing self-blame as a shield against responsibilities right here and now.

Beholding the ineradicability of our aloneness, we open more and more to others.

Falling willingly into the abyss of absence of permanent meaning, we are able to create ever-evolving, ever-richer temporary meanings.

Expressing passions even as we let go of passions, we regard every day as both Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Lent. Celebrating resurrection of life and hope and salvation while seeing it as all a giant practical joke, we find that every day is both Easter and April Fool's Day.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Love and Desire"
See also
Part 1: The Wobbly Middle Path of Love
Part 2: Falling in Love? Or Standing in Love?


Falling in Love? Or Standing in Love?

Love and Desire, part 2

Too much aloneness destroys a person. At the other end, not enough aloneness can dissolve us. This happens when the need for connection drives us to become so connected that individuality is lost. Autonomy dissolves and personal boundaries become permeable and unclear.

One form of this is called enmeshment. In enmeshed families, one person’s emotions become the whole family’s emotions – one member’s anxiety or depression is taken on by other family members. A couple over-involved in each other’s lives can become like one person, rather than a relationship of two distinct people. This isn’t loving too much – rather, it’s a misdirection of the drive which could have been steered into love, but instead was steered into something unhealthy.

Another misdirection of the drive for love is obsession. Technical enmeshment takes a while to form, but an obsession can arise quite quickly. What we call “falling in love” has a certain obsessiveness to it – and that’s OK as kickstarter for a relationship. At the beginning stage of a romantic relationship, it feels ecstatic: we are awash in a truly intoxicating cocktail of neurotransmitters, like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin – hormones, like testosterone, and estrogen – pheromones, and natural amphetamines like phenylethylamine. Our love object appears to us to embody all our hopes and dreams, fulfill our every need. That’s one delusion.

Another delusion is that this will never end. But that level of production of those chemicals is not sustainable. Usually in about six months to a year those hormones, pheromones, amphetamines and neurotransmitters begin to ebb. If the relationship continues it becomes more settled, sustained by a trust that grew strong enough to withstand the subsiding of the initial obsessive, delusive euphoria. This kind of temporary obsession can be a nice place to visit, but you can’t live there.

Irvin Yalom says that “therapy and a state of love-merger are incompatible” because the fusion of this stage eliminates the self-awareness necessary to make progress in therapy. He writes:
“Beware the powerful exclusive attachment to another. It is not, as people sometimes think, evidence of the purity of the love. Such encapsulated, exclusive love – feeding on itself, neither giving to nor caring about others – is destined to cave in on itself. Love is not just a passion spark between two people. There is infinite difference between falling in love and standing in love. Rather, love is a way of being, a ‘giving to,’ not a ‘falling for’ – a mode of relating at large, not an act limited to a single person.” (Love's Executioner)
Standing in love is that middle path I was talking about. On the aloneness scale, our individuality occupies the middle ground between on the one hand being isolated, and on the on the other hand being dissolved into the other – merged, fused, enmeshed.

On the meaning scale, we inhabit a world between on the one hand the meaninglessness in which nothing matters, nothing is important, and, on the other hand the meaninglessness of having no choice because everything is dictated. We stand in a context of meaning and values that gives us purpose and direction – yet also leaves us free to creatively engage with what we value. It isn’t love itself that goes awry, but our attempt to get to love -- to steer those middle paths between too much aloneness and not enough, between an absence of meaning and overly rigid meaning -- can go off track.

None of us is perfectly balanced. We are, at best, wobbly tight-rope walkers – now leaning too far one way, then over-correcting and leaning to far the other way. Back and forth, we wobble our way through life – and that’s how it must be, for only by wobbling too far on one side can we learn that that isn’t balanced, and begin to feel the need to correct.

Dr. Yalom’s patients show us some significant derailings. The fortunate among us are spared from the extremes his case studies illustrate, but all of us wrestle with the same imbalances in some form. There is something of ourselves to recognize in each of his case studies. Yalom’s patients also illustrate ways that the other two existential dreads – death (of ourselves and of loved ones), and responsibility for our freedom – are always in the mix as we wobble along.

Take Thelma, for example . . . NEXT: The Case of Thelma

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Love and Desire"
See also
Part 1: The Wobbly Middle Path of Love
Part 3: Thelma and the Existential Dreads


The Wobbly Middle Path of Love

Love and Desire, part 1

Our annual celebration of romantic love, Valentine's Day, is on February 14 -- which, this year, is also the beginning of Lent. So: Paradox. Valentine’s Day is, we might say, about indulging certain passions, and Lent is about giving up certain passions, so, if you observe those annual events, you might want to give some forethought as to how you’re going to negotiate that.

By the way, years in which Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are co-incident, which happens on average about every 30 years, are also years in which Easter and April Fools Day are on the same day – so I’m warning you now that you might want to be on the look-out for pranks involving eggs. Or those yellow marshmallow chicks.

Where was I? Oh, yes: Love. In last week’s last thrilling episode, we were looking at whether it’s true that “all you need is love.” Particularly, when it comes to being a good and moral person, is love all you need? I said that when deciding what to do, we take in the details of the situation, the reasons present in the case. When those details – the reasons present in the case -- are seen in the light of love, including love for ourselves, then we are guided to respond in compassion and care. We heard from philosopher Jonathan Dancy urging: "Look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case." That is: Pay attention. Notice. And I said: We will be able to attend just so far as we care, so far as we love – love this life, love this world, love each other, our fellow travelers.

Today, I’m here to add: it can get complicated. I will resist saying that love goes awry. But it's certainly true that our need and desire to love and to be loved can lead us into territory that isn’t love. I’m going to draw here on some work by the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom. Adam Kent (Music Director and CUUC) and I were discussing that the theme for February would be love, and it was he who suggested Yalom’s book, Love’s Executioner.

In the Prologue Yalom lays out the four existential dreads: death, responsibility for our freedom, aloneness and meaninglessness:
“I have found that four givens are particularly relevant to psychotherapy: the inevitability of death of each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.”
Love – relationships of care and intimacy – at their best, pull us out of our aloneness and into a context of meaning – the meaning that relationship affords our lives. So I’m going to focus first on aloneness and meaning – and toward the end indicate how the dreads of death and freedom also get into the mix.

What’s best – healthiest and most vital – when it comes to aloneness and meaninglessness -- is a middle ground: not isolated and cut-off, but also not so dissolved in others that we lose our individuality. For meaning, we need value and purpose that guide what we do, but not so much guidance that everything is dictated, that we lose the freedom of creative engagement. We need room for surprise, and for growth, as we dynamically work out how to embody our values and purposes.

Love, at its best, negotiates a wobbly middle path in response to the existential dreads of aloneness and meaninglessness. Whether love takes the form of eros, romantic and erotic love, or philia, the love of friends, or storge, the love of parent for child and child for parent, or agape, a spiritual, universal love, or loving all beings, or hospitality to the stranger – the need is for the connection and meaning that we only find and make in relationship with others. We learn who we are by seeing ourselves in other people’s eyes. We become who we are through our relationships. Our lives have meaning by meaning something TO someone else.

There can be too much aloneness, and there can also be not enough aloneness. The extreme of too much aloneness is evident in the torture of solitary confinement. It is such a deprivation of deep human need that it often drives prisoner’s mad. Human beings are such social creatures.
Without the benefit of another person to "bounce off of," the mind decays. In solitary, prisoners experience anxiety, panic attacks, depression, emotional flatness, mood swings, hopelessness, lethargy, anger and rage, poor impulse control, deep paranoia, cognitive disturbances such as short attention span, poor concentration and memory, confused thought processes, disorientation, perceptual distortions such as hypersensitivity to noises and smells, distortions of sensation (e.g. walls closing in), hallucinations, hearing voices. Self-mutilation and cutting and suicide attempts are common. We really need connection.

And with too much aloneness, we also get meaninglessness. Meaning – the reality that we inhabit – is collaboratively created, and without others to collaborate with, we start to lose reality itself.

NEXT: The problem with not enough aloneness.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Love and Desire"
See also
Part 2: Falling in Love? Or Standing in Love?
Part 3: Thelma and the Existential Dreads