To get us started.
First, as I am sure you will agree, when taking on such a difficult subject we will need to get our terms straight…
What is “love,” anyway?
I want to draw our group’s attention to five different, widely-shared human experiences – all confusingly grouped together under the one word “love.”
(See what you think I have left out.)
1. First there is, of course, romantic love.
Let’s call this Eros.
This is the love that we talk about when we talk of “falling in love” with someone.
Think Danté and Beatrice, Tristan und Isolde, Romeo and Juliet… Scott and Zelda… I don’t know… The Captain and Maria?… Danny and Sandy?
Popular culture is rife with examples… You know this one: the unquenchable fire, etc. etc.
It is often, though not always, short-lived.
2. Second, there is the love of parents for their children.
This kind of Parental Love often has an intensity comparable to that of “Eros,” but with a difference…
Where Eros is blinding, dizzying, intoxicating, Parental Love is steady, protective, adoring, demanding.
It is not thought to be as subject to the vicissitudes of time. (On the contrary, the challenge for parents, they are often told, is the letting go!)
3. Third, there is the love we can potentially feel for all of our fellow human beings, even for strangers. In the Christian tradition this is referred to as “agape ” or “caritas.”
In the Buddhist tradition it is sometimes rendered lovingkindness.
Let’s call this Compassion.
4. Then, fourth, there is the love between monogamous married people, longtime partners, grown children and their parents, and often, close friends.
This is sometimes called “companianate love,” but for our purposes I prefer to call it, simply, Commitment.
5. And finally, there is the love we have for the non-human world around us: other animals, as well as flowers, plants, trees, rocks, waves, seas, all living things and even particular places (the concept of a “God,” as the symbol or embodiment of these things, comes in here too).
We often discover this form of love through our work or other daily practices, and our consequent attention to details as we acquire knowledge and skills.
This is a kind of love too, and I think it should be included in our discussion. I propose that we call this love Reverence.
These five types of love, then – Eros, Family, Compassion, Commitment and Reverence – will be what I am talking about in the thoughts that follow.
They often overlap. They sometimes stand apart.
They even stand sometimes in opposition!
But these five types of love constitute, I believe, the core of our deepest experiences in life.
Okay. With those terms cleared up, I will talk a little bit about each in turn…
So. At least five forms of love. (Did you want to add one or more? Please do in the comments!)
1. Eros →
2. Parental Love →
3. Compassion →
4. Commitment →
5. Reverence →
But there’s only one love that leaps to mind when we think of… well, when we think of lovers.
The one that all but consumes us when we are young.
Golly Miss Molly Great Balls of Fire!
Come on baby light my fire!
Just a hunk – a hunk – a burning love!
This is the One that Lies in Wait. This is the one that… if you try to shake it, dodge it, own it, best it, subdue it, suppress it—it will take you down.
The ecstatic one.
The violent one.
Eternal font of inspiration. Dependable source of humiliation. Elixir of our lives. Bane of our existence.
Or as we know Shakespeare put it, in the final line of all the sonnets: “Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love…”
You guessed it: Eros.
The thing is: one thing we do know, if we know nothing else about the experience, is that Eros often triggers a condition of… weakness and vulnerability.
Weak in the knees.
Soft on her.
Soft on him.
Even our common expressions for the state of “being in love” in English reflect this.
And this is not a condition that is warmly welcomed in the larger culture.
So… it makes sense that we feel a little squeamish talking openly about it in any semi-public setting.
(Do you? I do.)
It’s understandable that as we grow older we focus our energies on other aspects of our lives (the challenges of work, the pursuit of pleasure, our daily efforts at earning respect, doing what we consider “good”… to name a few).
But let’s not shy away from it.
What is Eros? How does it arrive in our lives?
Our culture teaches us that same story in many different forms: in fairy tales, of course, but also in poetry of all ages, in plays, in the awkward rhymes on Hallmark cards, in all those sappy Hollywood movies, good and bad, in ads on TV, in almost every pop song ever written.
…a burning love…
When a maaaan needs a womaaaan….
If not for yooouu, babe, I couldn’t find the door, couldn’t even see the floor…
They all make it sound very, very cosmic.
It gets fuzzier, though, when you actually fall in love.
For, as most of us learn over time, the experience of falling in love, as lived, is more complicated than that.
Most people’s early romances have plenty of passion, astonishing coincidences, kisses in the moonlight. But then… in most cases, after a while, they sour, don’t they?
Some end in recriminations or regrets. Some end in astonishment that we ever cared.
Sure, some mellow gradually into friendships. But most deteriorate surprisingly fast: when they go, they go.
(Honestly now, how many of your exes are you friends with now? A couple, at best?)
Looking back, we see that the element of lust was hard to disentangle from the elements of devotion.
More than that, when we reflect back on our early relationships, the feeling of fantasy, of some kind of ego-projection of the relationship you thought you should be having but not the one you actually wanted, haunts many of our memories of how we conducted ourselves.
If you are anything like me then you found that each time, when the fantasy grew unsustainable, when the edges started to brown… all those romantic gestures, those unspoken rules of a proto-commitment (the obligatory tender kiss good-bye, the endless making of plans), quickly became a nuisance.
I found with every break-up, mixed with the sadness, a feeling of relief too.
At last, you said to yourself as he gave you that last hug, got in his car and drove away. Done with that charade!
That old cosmic feeling faded every time.
So what in the end is Eros, then?
Is the whole thing a fraud?
Is it, at best, merely a passing neurochemical trance, triggered by what is actually a trivial assessment of looks or smells or other available resources?
What’s going on?
What Eros is, I humbly submit to you, is, pure and simple, a feeling.
Not much else.
But that’s a lot, actually!
What’s the point of a feeling?
I am convinced that Eros is a transitional experience.
It is not about knowing someone else intimately. In fact, not knowing the lover all that well is an essential part of it.
Romeo hardly spoke with Juliet, but we get it: he’s in love.
Shakespeare again: “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” (that one’s from As You Like It).
There is a flash, the proverbial bolt from the blue, and we fixate on this one person.
Why would we do this?
Evolutionary biologists will point out that each human being, being a carrier for a particular set of DNA, needs to replicate that DNA by a union with another.
This union, to be achieved despite the nuisances and distractions caused by the company of others, simply cannot be based on a rolling calculus of this person’s… favorability.
I mean none of us is all that, when you get down to it!
So it has been suggested that this process is more effective if there is a precognitive, non-rational basis for the bond between two people making babies. Otherwise it would be just too unstable.
I tend to buy that explanation.
It certainly feels hapless and uncontrollable, falling in love. It feels as if forces are acting on our will, forces that are only marginally concerned with our own welfare – as a whole person – and are more concerned with a fervent urge to reproduce so as to promulgate a particular DNA sequence.
Water cools not love; love heats water!
You can’t apply the water of human reason, consideration, thinking, to the raging fire of Eros, and expect to master it.
It doesn’t have much to do with you – “you” is merely a shell here, something tossed about by the force of nature.
Of the five forms of love that I mentioned at the beginning, therefore, I think that Eros deserves the least sustained thinking and mulling over, oddly.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a ravishing experience for anybody presently having it– worthy of poems, worthy of art, of song. Thank god for Aprhodite.
It is overwhelming, uncontrollable. It it is ubiquitous. It is hugely determinative of the paths we take in relationships.
Yet it is also, ultimately, somewhat easy to dismiss, somewhat laughable even, because… well, because it burns out.
The crazy neurochemical bonding often remains even after a relationship ends – a neural network linked deep to the limbic brain. But whether or not the relationship goes on or not, this bonding will remain somewhat static, once it is it achieved.
After all, ecstasy cannot be improved upon, can it?
Hence this kind of love becomes more and more irrelevant as time goes on.
You’ve got the breathless head-over-heals feeling? Good! Still there? Good! Let’s hope it lasts a long, long time…
Will this determine whether the relationship works?
Not really that much, I think.
In other words, it definitely isn’t cosmic. It’s quite the opposite.
It is, seen plainly, a very earthly, very material thing:
What is Eros?
It is the beginning of a relationship.
Now the fun is really about to start!
How could I say those disparaging things about Eros, about romantic love, Tom?
It is tremendously important to the people in it! It’s life and death! Have you not watched Pride and Prejudice? Have you not read The Sorrows of Young Werther? Have you never listened to Lionel Richie?
I get it. It works!
People come careening off of the high of the first 3 weeks or so of a dizzying love affair, and that makes them bear down and endure the next 6 months of “getting to know each other.”
And that 6 months, or two years, or three years, what have you, can make them prepared to raise babies together and to create a stable home for an extended period.
Without Eros where would we be? …A bunch of lonely hipsters sipping coffee at Philz, doing crossword puzzles, something like that.
Let me say it again: GO FOR IT. Enjoy Eros to the hilt.
But don’t worry too much about it.
Oh, and when you have enjoyed romantic love” to the hilt” for a while, funny how it happens about nine months later, you may experience a new kind of passion…
The thing about this love you feel for your children – it is not anticipated by anything in your life.
It hits you like a piano falling from the sky. Crunch! Tinkle! Twaaang!
One day you are a person with wishes, dreams, opinions, habits – and then – CRASH – you are a protector of your little ones.
This is what Eros hath wrought.
Welcome, milk and diapers.
You thought falling in love was bad. This is the one that really gets under your skin.
It commands you.
It surges through you when you look at your babies, sleeping in their cribs, curled up in your arms, crawling or waddling across the room for a Cheerio or to pet a gray kitten or to grab a tipped-over bottle or to fall into your outstretched arms again, pressed against your chest.
It is a passion, like Eros. Sure. But it is usually a more lasting one, and it has its own qualities.
I am wondering if you will agree with this… But for me, being Dad has meant, above all else – from the beginning – a constant alternation between two opposing states: exaltation and worry.
The exaltation part is easy.
Whenever I so much as look at my children, from each of their births up to today, I feel it. (Parents, you know what I am talking about.) I can’t help it: I look at my children and I am convinced… they are perfect!
Absolutely perfect! They might frustrate me, fuss, whine, spill their drinks, break a window, forget their manners, but all of that is superficial. Underneath, I remain convinced that everything about each of them is exactly as it should be in the best of all possible worlds.
This was a new experience.
Things are never supposed to be perfect!
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” right? (Originally a line from Immanuel Kant, appropriated by our old friend Isaiah Berlin)
So it came as a surprise to discover that, when you become a mom or a dad, there is something that strikes you as perfect in this world after all.
I hadn’t thought that was possible. But then, I hadn’t had children yet.
And the opposite? The worry part?
Unfortunately, this part is easy too. For me it began right away, from the first minutes of my first child George’s life outside the womb, right through Cole’s and Adeline’s births to the present.
What if he falls and hits his head?
How can I keep her warm?
What if I don’t do the right things as a parent?
Where should they go to school? What if others are cruel to them? Are they eating the right food to get the nourishment they need? Should we be putting them to sleep earlier?
Why doesn’t her fever go down?
Is that cough the beginning of the croup?
It is endless.
As all parents do, though, Renée and I soon learned to carry on, despite our worries.
We even learned to mute that exaltation part on occasion, so as not to annoy our friends more than we could help (an all-important skill for any new parents: training yourself to shut up, on occasion, about your own children!).
My outlook on life, which had been so caught up in what I wanted to achieve, shifted immediately upon becoming a dad.
The central question of my and Renée’s life became:
What is best for our babies?
But Parental love is not merely an alternating effusion of tenderness… and concern, adoration… and terror, exaltation… and worry.
As any parent soon learns, it involves boundary-setting, rules, discipline – in short, it involves the setting down of values, the use of frames of reference, the imposition of some kind of order, to all the blooming, buzzing confusion of everyday life.
When you express disapproval for a child’s rude tone, when you take away the driving privileges of a teenager who spent a weekend binge-drinking with friends, when you have a tearful talk about how you, as the parent, or she, as your child, or both of you, may have overreacted and your need to apologize – all of these actions are grounded in a set of largely unchanging (though constantly revised) values that trump the effusions of feeling.
So Parental love, we might say, unlike Eros, is as I see it, a commitment to an ongoing process.
This is not to say that the rewards aren’t huge. That you don’t have moment of supreme satisfaction and dizzy joy in your children’s company.
But the interface of your Parental love with everyday obligations is – it seems to me – notably different from that of Romantic love.
It is something akin to a long, nuanced code, a collaborative work by the parents (or any other responsible adults involved), with actions and consequences dictated by changing circumstances as you age, but constraints written into the programming.
And this code, if read properly, tells much about who you are as a person (not only what you do as a parent).
What can the contrast of Eros and Parental love reveal to us about the nature of love?
Is it even useful to compare them, considering how different their expression is?
I think so.
First, the similarities…
They both, obviously, release enormous reserves of passion and emotion and dedication.
The lover can perch under her window, all night, hoping for a glimpse of his beloved on the balcony.
The parent can sit at the side of a child, all night, applying damp washcloths to his head.
But there are obvious differences too…
Whereas one is a wild ride, a heart-throbbing trance, damn the consequences – the other is a drawn-out act of devotion and service, informed by clear values. (Well, in theory – though on a day to day basis it too feels like a wild ride.)
This progression is a natural one, as we age.
But I believe that it is significant; my sense is that it represents a progression from the springs, the waterfall, the source, to the thing itself, the river.
Parental love, I want to suggest to you therefore, is a kind of preparation.
We are – it seems to me – learning, through our acts of devotion to our children, what it is to love more deeply.
We are learning that love is not simply a feeling. That it is not a single gesture.
It is a sequence of actions over time.
It is a modulation. It is us, in time, interacting with the world around us, grounded in our deepest estimation of what matters in that world.
(Is this true, this progression that I am perceiving? Or this just a crackpot valuation, based on my own psychological needs as a dad? Do the different forms of “love” really have different depths? Again, I am going to rely on you all to challenge me on all this.)
So we started with love for another human being, specifically.
And now we have arrived at the third form of love in my breakdown: love for all human beings, generally.
How do we get from one… to the other?
This one, the awakening of compassion, is the most widely venerated and celebrated form of love in the world, perhaps.
This is the one that Buddha awakened to. The one that Jesus preached. That Saints emulate. That Gandhi showed.
Love for a stranger, uncaused, unprompted, unprovoked, naturally occurring.
We all bow down to it.
(Well, except some hard-core libertarians, I guess? Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, do you want to comment?)
Let’s conjure some examples in our minds.
The Good Samaritan stopping to give aid and comfort.
The stranger giving mouth-to-mouth to a near-drowned child.
The neighbor stopping by with a casserole, a fresh peach pie, an electric drill.
The congregation praying. The doctor healing with a hug. The driver stopping to give a homeless man a blanket.
The soldier, rescuing an injured enemy from the battlefield.
The love that needs not specificity.
The love that is powerful for the very reason that it is not specific.
The first thing to remark about compassion is that it is… highly unreliable.
Sometimes we can experience it, access it, without trouble.
Watching some play or movie full of strong sentiment, Schindler’s List or the like, we want to bolt out of our seats to help. We want to defy the authorities that be and risk our lives in helping someone else. At these times we are all but compelled by emotions, and an unusually clear narrative.
What about the other times, though? What about the times when we are late for work, fixated on a deadline, feeling grouchy, just about to run out of fuel, stressed about our own finances?
What about when the person is annoying, or disgusting, or odd?
What about when we know we will be dragged in to another family’s drama, a friend’s relationship?
In those times, unless we are a saint, then — we have to admit it, don’t we? — we may very well want to keep walking, live and let live, narrow our focus.
What, then, is the importance of this form of love we are calling compassion, if it is so unreliable?
And why should we have celebrate it, venerate it, consider it, anyway?
In some religious traditions there is a command from God to love other people. In others, there is a belief in some kind of unity, some divine Oneness, which leads humans to care for one another.
Even in secular thinking, as it has emerged over the past two centuries, there are fundamental precepts that protect the dignity of all human beings and the sanctity of all life. These have, in many cases, been inherited from religion but then stripped of God-references. Often they are grounded, instead, in some kind mix of Natural Law theory and Utilitarian ethics – the unexamined, hand-me-down moral presumptions of our contemporary culture.
But when you look at ourselves more accurately, of course, as the products of evolution, a particular species of nearly hairless, bipedal primates, who evolved over time to have quite complicated methods of manipulating symbols and the material world around us for purposes of survival – well, you start to wonder where compassion falls into this.
A person might privately wonder:
Is it really so useful for me?
Should I bother to aspire to it anyway, if it so arbitrary and unreliable – and often so hypocritical?
The obvious, first-line response to this is that we do – each of us – have an interest in survival of our gene pool through community defense.
There may have been a process of natural selection that favored those homo sapiens who were willing to share their resources, on occasion, with others, even, on occasion, sacrifice for others. These genes – and these tendencies – may have survived more assaults, diseases, and other catastrophic events and threats, through the millennia. (The scientist and writer E.O. Wilson, for one, is a vocal proponent of this point of view. Others dispute it.)
Yet, even if this were true, that compassion and self-sacrifice and altruism fulfill some evolutionary function (in replicating our DNA), why should we practice compassion now?
Knowing now, in the light of modern science and knowledge of the universe, that there is no dictate from God (at least, we can all agree, there is no evidence in support of such a hypothesis), then what is our relationship with compassion?
Should we foster it? Nurture it? Continue to venerate and celebrate it?
Studies show that everyone’s compassion has definite limits. We are more inclined to send money in response to an ad with the image of a single African child with a hair-lip, rather than a large group of children with hair-lips. Advertising campaigns for non-profits know this.
Our brains seem designed for personal, face-to-face compassion. Oddly, as the numbers get larger – 10, 10,000, 1,000,000 – our compassion is reduced rather than increased!
Also we have a remarkable tendency to feel compassion for people who look like us. If we consider someone “one of us” we tend to care for his or her welfare more than if we… other them.
These may be familiar quirks of the human brain. But they are significant for our discussion, because they indicate to us that our compassion may very well be merely a neurochemically induced adaptive behavior…
Again: why should we care?
I want to argue that, just as for Parental Love, the form of love that we call Compassion is – in its best form – not merely a reactive experience.
The sensations of empathy and moral righteousness that we watch when we see a stirring movie, or that prompt us to send money to a cause based on a photo of a child with an unfortunate birth defect – these are more feelings than true compassion. They represent a neurochemical surge, a habit of the mind, an evolutionary gambit by our genes.
Nothing wrong with that at all. We all enjoy feelings of empathy and moral righteousness – I do… Don’t you?
Still, let’s be honest.
When we talk about the love of the form of Compassion, I believe that we are more accurate if we talk about it in terms of a series of underlying commitments.
We choose certain commitments, in this case about the larger world that we want to live in, and then we act on them.
For me, one commitment I am making is that the world I want to live in has a default position of concern and care for each individual. Even strangers to me.
There are times, no doubt, when this is trumped by other considerations, such as emergency conditions, threats to my own immediate family and close friends, or even a persistent lack of efficacy, when weighed against the costs to other aspects of life. But these exceptions don’t delegitimize the default position.
There are aspects of my experience that lead me to experience compassion…
Coming as I do from a resource-rich country, when I look at the global distribution of resources and opportunities, I am willing to subscribe to a basic world-wide safety net, through aid programs and the like, even though it will impact my personal resources.
Or another: I want the political framework of my own country to reflect the value and dignity and life of each person individually – as we do under the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment for example, or the Bill of Rights.
When I can, I want to donate my money or time to reliable groups serving those who are poor or otherwise hurting.
At the same time, if I am honest then I have to recognize that there are limits to my compassion.
I do not drain my bank account by thousands of dollars to send my resources to, say, victims of the international sex trade, or tsunami victims, or struggling farmers in Somalia. (Even though I have a feeling that I would like to do more.)
The brutal truth is that, in these cases, I don’t calculate that my dollars and resources will effect enough of a change to compensate for the loss of opportunity and pleasure for myself and my own family.
There is no doubt, that to each of those victims and recipients, my generosity would certainly compensate for the marginal loss of utility I would experience. But not to me!
In other words, there is, sadly, a limit to my compassion.
I would guess that it is a limit to yours as well?
If we didn’t have these limits, we would be spending every waking hour working on the behalf of defenseless and abused children, wouldn’t we? (Is there something we should be doing instead of that on grounds of compassion? I don’t think there is.)
So what am I saying?
Do we love too little? Are we too uncharitable?
That’s not what I am saying. No.
My point is that each of us has made commitments – some of which we would die for.
If the government of the United States began rounding up the poor or homeless, we would, I am confident, form a militia and go into rebellion – at the risk of our lives, even if we face no threat ourselves.
We are committed to a basic vision of how we want the world to look, filled with concern and care for others.
But our vision has limits. This is unreasonable only if you think that this world is perfectible. Only if you think that we could have an agreed-upon distribution of resources ensuring everyone’s happiness.
I suspect that the key to this form of love (as in all love, ultimately?) is the tragic sense, knowing the limits: i.e., sadness.
Once we recognize that the world is tragic, that there are always costs and benefits, trade-offs, compromises, irreconcilables, then we can accept love as it really is: a hodge-podge, a compromise itself, but a glorious one.
The strictures of the world’s religion were certainly helpful for many millennia.
They had a downside too though: they often inspired us/them thinking, ingroup/outgroup mentalities, stubbornly perfectionist thinking and its attendant moral guilt and confusion. (Not to mention they encouraged habits of looking for absolute certainty and respecting lies and disregarding evidence…)
When we get clearer about the nature of compassion, then we see that this form of love may be amazing, may bring tears to our eyes… But at the same time it is inextricably human, the experience of one particular nearly hairless bipedal species of primate on one planet.
Keeping both aspects of compassion in mind clears our vision, makes us more capable of loving this way.
We aren’t as sanctimonious. We aren’t as hypocritical. Neither are we as paralyzed by indecision.
So, the way I see it anyway, the question for this kind of love is not: How can I care for all of humankind?
Or: How can I get a strong emotional hit from Doing Good today?
No, the question is more modest, something along the lines of: Who needs my help today, to the extent I can give it?
Or: What am I willing to do that, even considering the cost is worth it, because it is how I want the world to look?
Sympathy is part of this, but only part. More important, it seems to me, is whether we have gotten clear about our underlying priorities. This is what makes compassion an act of love and not simply a one-off, a gesture, a mere feeling.
I want to reemphasize, though, that I don’t think there is anything wrong with feelings.
They are the core drivers of what we do. They are the basis of reason, in fact – contrary to most people’s dualistic way of thinking.
It’s just that love is, I think, not merely a bunch of feelings – it is not a quiver of emotion-tipped arrows, ready to shoot at a given target (a date in the candlelight, your new-born child, a refugee from a war-zone).
It is – is it? – so much more than that.
Which brings us to the most important one, in my estimation…
What do we mean, in practical terms, if we say that we are trying to love more deeply?
So far, we have looked at three forms of love: Eros, Parental Love and Compassion.
As we progressed from Eros – pure passion – to…
Parental Love, which, although passionate, requires clear values and unyielding attention over a lifetime – to…
Compassion, which, if meaningful, must be based on an underlying moral outlook, willing to stake claims and make distinctions…
We have seen these streams meet, and our idea of love has deepened along the way.
To love more deeply (I have said too many times already) is not merely about feeling more deeply.
My point is that loving more deeply is, surprisingly, weirdly, wonderfully, about getting clear on values.
It is, in fact, living.
Now we come to the deep, dark channel, the one I am listing (quite arbitrarily, I know) as the fourth kind of love.
This one underlies the others, I think; it absorbs them.
It is lined with green life, with tangled trees, with weeds, with bird life and water-scooters and reptiles and fish. The mud oozes. The bacteria breed. The dragonflies buzz around our heads.
This dark channel is deep because it is bounded only by your whole life.
It is bounded by the limits of your character, the preferences and habits you accumulate, the reach of your language and even your imagination.
This form of love I am calling Commitment.
What are the commitments I am making in my life?
What are the commitments you are making?
(I’ll leave this here. Thinking is one thing… actually going there is another! Let’s all take a moment to go there on our own…)
Are we done? Have I gotten us started? Have I provoked you enough, then?
(How long is this ramble going to go on for anyway, Tom?)
Almost. But we are not quite done.
There is one additional form of love – one additional stream – that I don’t think we should neglect:
It strikes me that Reverence is far more organic than the other kinds of love I have been talking about.
It grows, unguided, unnoticed even.
The Zen practitioner begins to love the chilly air in the morning. The glint of light on the side of the mountain.
The marine biologist begins to love the chirping sound of an approaching dolphin.
The football fan loves the “ba-ba-ba-baaa” of the opening theme music for Monday Night Football.
These experiences become habits, become rituals, become written in our hearts.
Reverence, we might say, is the echo of the choices we make in our lives.
It is the after-image burned on our eyes.
Even better, perhaps we should think of it as the shape that is pressed into the raw material of the world around us, each of us individually, by our bodies and our brains.
If you grow up in the Sierra Nevadas. With that crisp pine needle smell in the air, the dry boulders, the quiet whisper of rivers and the borders of lakes – these become a great love. A wild fire burning the mountaintops is more than a news story. It is a wound, a source of heartbreak.
If you grow up in Berkeley, as I did, and we grow accustomed to the feeling of fall in the air in November (it comes late here!), then you grow into a great love for the red berries that cluster on bushes, the rivulets of rainwater in storm drains on the sides of the residential streets, the yellow-leafing Japanese maples with their jagged edges dancing, the smoke from chimneys lingering in the air in the evening. This becomes a form of love, a reverence we have for place that is quite different from that of the Sierras.
When we encounter, over a lifetime, the patter of squirrels chasing each other in the branches, or…
the time we entered into the green eyes of a black panther in a random National Geographic we were reading when we were young, or…
when we became interested in the patterns in the webs of spiders in a school lesson, or…
when we follow, for many years, the political scene, with its claims and cross-claims of freedom and equality and, above all, fairness –
all this can become for us a form of love.
Work is born of such love. Many careers are born of such love.
Love what you do, goes the maxim.
But this implies that they were ever separate.
In fact, when people “love what they do,” they actually have grown love – in the form of Reverence – alongside their devotion to the tasks involved in their work.
The doing and the loving are overlapping – and in many ways inseparable.
This understanding of love helps me to understand religion, actually.
For surely, the study of the Talmud, the practice of Zen meditation, the discipline of praying to Allah, the door to door persistence of the Jehovah’s Witness – all of these are forms of Reverence as well.
They are, of course, entirely without any evidence to support their claims.
They pledge themselves to an imaginary God – or a make-believe mythos, in the case of Buddhism – crafted by men and women of… the Bronze or the Iron age, as the case may be.
But I see now that this suits some people’s purposes just fine – it gives them a mental image, a guide, a useful structure, if you will, upon which to project their anxieties and wisdom and intuitions.
Looking at religious devotion through the prism of love, then, we can see that, what religious devotion is enacting is… at its deepest level, not a truth-claim about the existence of God or a particular mythos (nirvana and the world of illusions, heaven and hell, etc.).
Rather, it is enacting a set of associations with the material world – an active and ongoing relationship, actually.
Hence Christian devotion, for example, is a form of love because it asks of its followers to adopt a set of habits and resources, as well as the aesthetics of a particular sect (the Roman Catholic Latin mass; the African-American gospel choir; the paunchy, sunglasses and Hawaiian print shirt-wearing parishioner of the glass-windowed, high-tech, Californian evangelical church, and so on).
Jewish devotion and love is attached to the rituals and identity claims of the Jewish temple, but also the idea of Israel, the Sabbath, the story of Yom Kippur, Manischewitz wine, and all the rest. Islam is… well, you get the point.
This is a more understandable way of looking at religion, for a secular person like me. It comes as a relief.
So this is why when you point out the unsupported nature of the truth-claims in a given religion you make no headway at all with a believer! For the “beliefs” that you are shattering are only a surface, a thin sheet of ice.
The stuff that lies underneath – the Reverence that lies underneath – remains untouched.
Hence the utter failure of atheists to de-convert religious people.
(At least in the moment… Over time I suspect that even our Reverence for places and things and rituals and habits requires, on some level, a sense of the accuracy and truth-telling of the choices that formed it. So the effect of breaking the taboos surrounding criticizing religion might be delayed, but still may be worth it in the interest of saving the planet.)
Reverence can also become excessive.
Think of Sinatra’s “I did it myyyyyyy way!”
Think of the narcissistic personality type.
Sometimes the contour of one’s life choices and variegated experiences becomes more than a form of love. It becomes, itself, an object of adoration, of self-love.
Or someone’s attachment to a place or a thing can take the form of fanaticism – nationalism, tribalism, an “in-group” mentality and all costs.
Or it can lead to unthinking submission to authority, passivity, even sloth.
In the end, though, this form of love, like a waterfall tumbling over rocks, often has a beautiful form of its own, despite being an organic creation.
The fuller the life lived, I suspect, the greater feeling of reverence at the end of it.
Not a bad way to end the play, with that glow you get as the leave the theater.
Okay. That’s a lot of words. Take anything you find useful and forget the rest! See you at the meeting. What shall we do there? I hope this helps us to clarify what we are talking about when we talk about love. A more difficult question, perhaps, is how do we actually go about loving?