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

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