Saturday, June 19, 2010

Reflections on "love."

My mother, certainly the most influential woman in my life, was sparing in her praise. I believe that child-rearing practices in the 1940s, when I was being reared, emphasized discipline rather than affirmation. And the world “love” almost never crossed her lips - at least in my presence. Apart from literary allusions - she could be the most vibrant, engaging conversationalist I have ever met - I only heard her use the word twice in serious conversation. Once she told me she believed I was “in love” with someone. Since we had never discussed such matters, I was dumbfounded at her perceptiveness. It was true. On another occasion, when I told her that I “loved” a difficult close relative we had in common, who was facing a crisis in her life, she responded “I don’t know what that would mean.” I know others whose use of the term is equally infrequent. Perhaps they believe that their “love” is like a precious jewel that would lose its value if reproduced in large quantities or a non-interest drawing savings account that would run a deficit if too many withdrawals were made. My mother said as much about her view of the matter, when I once asked her about this.

Christian marriage vows include promises to “love and honor” however I am convinced that most individuals making such pledges have little appreciation of what they might mean. Certainly this is true in the case of first marriages but frequently in the case of second or subsequent marriages as well. For many, perhaps most, a more descriptive pledge would be, “I promise to love and honor you, as long as we both shall live, so long as you fulfill my expectations.” Why is this so?

My thinking on the topic of “love” has been enriched by a distinction - between “love” and “attachment” that the Dalai Lama emphasizes in several of his books. Being “in love” which is the initial basis for most intimate relationships and, I believe, most decisions to marry, is almost always based on “attachment.” Attachment is significantly tied to physical attraction, but also, typically, to shared interests, congeniality, shared cultural compatibility and perhaps a need to feel loved and to feel secure. For women, especially in traditional societies, a stable income source to provide for themselves and children has also been a consideration, though this less true today. Attachment often involves dependence, which stifles authentic communication. This complicates the possibility of lasting relationships and lasting “love” still further. When circumstances change, attachment fades. “You are not the woman - or man - I married” one or both ‘partners’ will say or feel. This, of course, is inevitably true - not only of marriages but of any long-term close relationships.

“Compassion” is a term the Dalai Lama sometimes equates with love. In one of his writings he offers a powerful illustration. He tells of a monk who spent seventeen years in “a Chinese Gulag” where periodic torture was part of the regimen. Later they became friends. “On several occasions,” the monk recounted, “I faced serious danger.” “What was the danger?” the Dalai Lama asked. “Being unable to love and show compassion toward my Chinese guards” was the response. Mahatma Ghandi, believed that God was love and that oppressors should be loved, though not their evil deeds. A similar message is found in many quoted sayings of Jesus, chronicled in the Gospels of the Christian Bible. I common theme in all of these equates love with unconditional acceptance.

Perhaps my favorite passage on love is from a friend of many years, the late Donella (Dana) Meadows. Dana wrote:

Love is receiving someone in a space of total trust, openness, good will, acceptance.

I can take each person I know and rank them on a scale which is the degree of openness and love with which I receive them – the amount of careful attention I am willing to give them, the ability I have to be with them. Notice that the quality lies in me, not them.

Some people in my world are objects, which I have a fixed concept about and am not at all open to any information to the contrary.

I can change who they are just by opening myself to them.

What Dana is saying, in a somewhat more personal way, is similar to the wisdom offered by the Dalai Lama, by Buddha, Jesus, by Gandhi, by the monk who was released after 17 years of imprisonment and many others. The world around us and those who inhabit it are, in large degree, an artifact that we create. Should we wish to live in a world that is mostly inhabited by lovable people, and have such a “reality” be the basis for loving relationships, we have that choice.

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Blogger Beth S said...

Thank you for that thought-provoking post, John. I'll be thinking about it today.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my opinon, love is care about others, not just yourself. The degree of love broaden when you care about your family, friends, neighbours, local people, country people, humanity, animals, living things in the earth, and even living things in the universe. "Bad" guys are just self-interested, behaving to benefit themselves without considering others. If more people become more self-interested, the cohesiveness of the (local, national, global) society will be weaken, which can have undesired consequences.

2:27 AM  
Blogger I.Me.Myself said...

It is so hard to keep pace in are always left with longing ;)

10:50 AM  

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