A Theory of Love for a slightly Broken World.
Kevin P Clements
Diane Ackerman says of love:
“What a small word we use for an idea so immense and powerful, it has altered the flow of history, calmed monsters, kindled works of art, cheered the forlorn, turned tough guys to mush, consoled the enslaved, driven strong women mad, glorified the humble, fuelled national scandals, bankrupted robber barons, and made mincemeat of kings. How can love’s spaciousness be conveyed in the narrow confines of one syllable? “
Love is one of those emotions that is critical to the good life. It is extremely difficult to develop well integrated individuals where there has been no experience of being loved unconditionally. Certainly, those who have not been loved, or have experienced broken love or suffering are more inclined to be aggressive and hostile than those who have known love.
Love is an animating emotion. Whether its love of another person or a vocation ; love of art or music, politics or even a pet; love will drive us in all sorts of different and wonderful ways. It figures in most world religions. It has both egoistic and altruistic qualities.
Love is passion, deep friendship , loyalty, trust and commitment. Love is compassion and care. It is the glue that binds family, friends and community.
It is love of self and others that gives us enlightened and caring communities. Remove love and all sorts of other important things like trust, friendship , relationships harmony and peace become quite problematic.
If we wish to be fully human, therefore, we need to be loved, to know how to love and from acts of love to build trusting relationships. We ensure our own well being and security by loving others more than we love ourselves. A life without love would render work meaningless and we would never be able to flourish as human beings. Love is not an optional extra , therefore, it lies at the heart of what it is to be fully human.
The Greeks knew this and they also knew that it’s importance could not be captured in one word so they had three different words for it…. Agape unconditional love , Eros, physical passionate love, Philia, loyalty, deep friendship and Storge natural affection. When thinking about or looking for love in relationship, therefore , we need to be conscious of these different dimensions.
Tom Lewis and his colleagues wrote a fascinating book entitled A General Theory of Love. In this book they explain the way in which we human beings always maintain a dialogue about love-who do we connect with and why? Why do some people turn us on and others leave us cold? They are interested in giving scientific understanding of emotions, intimacy and love. Their basic argument is that all of these emotions evolve from our central nervous system which is directly affected by the ways in which we are treated by others from womb to tomb. If we are abused as children we will always be love challenged as adults. If we are loved as children and have strong and positive attachment to others we will have a better chance of being successful in love later on. It is these dynamics that will determine who we are attracted to and why.
Throughout our lives, therefore, we reach out time and again, for that old familiar love—the kind we knew in our families, the kind that came our way, for better or worse, from mother, father, siblings, nanny. We are always looking for people who look like people who have loved us in the past and we are always wary of people who look like those who have harmed us in the past.
If we think of these dynamics in the Middle East right now it helps us understand something of the challenges confronting those who seek to unify and build bridges across boundaries of difference. Why would you want to connect with those who across generations have harmed you in different ways? The good news according to Tom Lewis is that the brain is plastic and we can work on what is known as “limbic revisioning”. It takes time but if successful it can help us love again. It will certainly enable us to deal with those who are not like us or who dislike us.
But the critical message is that if we want to prevent the endless cycles of hatred and revenge which are gripping us at the moment- we need to start young. We have to create loving conditions for the next generation. We have to love all new born babies and young children with care, compassion and dedication so that they are willing to be vulnerable in adult relationships. If this does not happen,or if this love is problematized by others who marginalise, humiliate and hate us , we will be socialising bitter and embittered adults who will never discover the virtues that flow from trusting, loving connection.
Love is inextricably connected to questions of truth, integrity, mutuality, community, loyalty, persistence. It is what enables us to deal with life’s vulnerabilities. It is what gives shape, meaning and purpose to our lives. It shapes the ways in which we respond to all of life’s challenges. It is extremely difficult to understand because we understand in terms of our frontal neo cortex . Neo cortical explanations are only part of the story we have to understand the ways in which we were loved and by whom and are loved and by whom and whether all these ways are generative or destructive. If we conclude that they are destructive, i.e they do not enable spontaneous, vulnerable trustworthy relationships then we need to discover ways in which we can engage in our own “limbic revisioning” and alter our moods, dispositions so that we might nurture seeds of love and eradicate seeds of mistrust and fear. Dunedin based poet and artist, Claire Beynon sees it this way.
“Love is a powerful force, one whose purpose is to open us and open us again, a place to bring everything we are to the communal table.
Love is a potent, transformative energy – as meticulous in its honouring of the other as it is in its insistence on truth, even (and especially) when that truth is difficult.
Love is as tough as it is glorious. It is a hard task-master that supports mutual exploration and the potential for new and unfolding insights – a guide, if you will, in support of both participants and their aspirations to live a life of goodwill, integrity and service.
Love advocates clear and honest communication and a willingness both to teach and be taught.
Love always aspires towards authenticity and generosity of spirit. It is multi-coloured, multi-textured, mutli-timbred.
It is bold, sensitive, empathic and brave. It takes risks. It colours outside the lines.
It is as accommodating towards Self and the Beloved as it is challenging.
It is capacious, audacious and courageous. It has a sense of humour and commitment to justice.
It is not some neat and tidy ‘thing’ – ‘nice’, ‘pleasant’ or ‘beige’; it is not overly-measured, obsessively monitored and strategically metered out.
Love accommodates mess, uncertainty and difference. And whilst it may not always be or look pretty, it has at its core the facilitation of some or other mutually transformative process. It is certainly not about compromise and the formulaic. Love in the context of partnership encourages at least 100% presence, 100% participation and 200% empowerment in both members.
Let 1 + 1 = 3 or a multitude (heaven forbid the old sum 1 + 1 = 1 or 1 + 1 = 2). Alongside this, Love supports the creation – and nurturance – of a safe and disciplined emotional and spiritual environment that allows for solitude and independence and seeks to bring out the very best in both.”
In all of this we need to rediscover the simple basic truths about love. It begins at fertilization, continues in the womb and is profoundly affected by the nature of the attachment that occurs between mother and child in the first 5 years of life. It is then profoundly affected by all the adult and peer relationships that follow. When these are loving, inclusive and trustworthy the emergent adult trusts, loves , empathises with the other. If these relationships are prejudiced, exclusive, biased and untrusting the emergent adult is likely to be anxious, fearful and distrustful of others. Add violence into the mix and love is replaced with loathing, trust with murderous intent. As a species we have to get the mix right. We have to ensure that most of our relationships most of the time are loving, empathetic, trustworthy and reliable. As adults we have to be gentled by and learn from children so that we can nurture their curiosity and ours. We need to have unconditional responsibility for children’s welfare and the welfare of all peoples. When people come along and disrupt our capacity to love and be loved then we have a responsibility to stop the suffering they are causing in order to generate new spaces for love and welfare.
Mary Oliver got it right in her poem:
In the city called Wait,
also known as the airport,
you might think about your life —
there is not much else to do.
For one thing,
there is too much luggage,
and you’re truly lugging it —
you and, it seems, everyone.
What is it, that you need so badly?
Think about this.
Earlier, in another city,
you’re on the tarmac, a lost hour.
You’re going to miss your connection, and you know it,
and you do.
You’re headed for five hours of nothing.
And how long can you think about your own life?
What I did, to save myself,
was to look for children, the very young ones
who couldn’t even know where they were going, or why.
Some of them were fussing, of course.
Many of them were beautifully Hispanic.
The storm was still busy outside, and snow falling
anywhere, any time, is a wonder.
But even more wonderful, and maybe the only thing
to put your own life in proportion,
were the babies, the little ones, hot and tired,
gurgling, chuckling, as they looked —
wherever they were going, or not yet going,
in their weary parents’ arms (no!
their lucky parents’ arms) —
upon this broken world.