Love is not a zero sum game
Or, how love will help us to grow the fuck up
I have loved men from an early age. Like, full on into boys and having boyfriends from first setting foot in public school. In Kindergarten, I had not one, not two, but three (three! Imagine!) make-believe husbands I played house with in the make-believe play kitchen in the corner of our classroom. What’s interesting to me about this is it seems our little five year old selves knew something wiser and more intuitive than our minds probably had the capacity to understand at the time: love is not a zero sum game. If I give some to one person, it does not mean I’m all outta love for others.
Our precocious little selves also couldn’t have possibly understood at that time that being make-believe polyamorous and living together in our make-believe communal house would be, had we been practicing it for real as our future grown up selves, largely rejected and shamed by the society we were growing up in.
For, the story of love most of us know goes something like this: love is a mysterious thing. It exists between two people at a time, who are joined in a committed union, in a finite space with clear boundaries, rules and definitions. That is to say, according to the invisible norms that program so much of our behaviour, romantically, we are to love only one partner at a time. Other kinds of love are lesser than romantic love in this story, and they are restricted to being shared with family and some close friends. To know romantic love with more than one person at once, or to admit to loving more than one person at once, is deeply stigmatized. Just ask a polyamorous person.
Despite what these early explorations might indicate, I myself do not actually identify as polyamorous. Tending to the complexities and putting in the necessary work to sustain one romantic partnership at a time is enough for this lady. While I might prefer monogamy however, it is not true that I only love one person at a time. These are not mutually exclusive, nor contradictory ideas. Or at least they shouldn’t be.
I still love every person I have ever loved romantically. And, because I am still friends with my former partners, I tell them I still love them pretty regularly too. Of course the behaviours and actions by which this love is exhibited and expressed have morphed with the new terms and boundaries of our friendships. And, it is still love nonetheless. When I was in committed, monogamous partnerships with each of those men, I was very clear that I still loved and was friends with my former partners. I give credit to each of those men for understanding and accepting this.
But why should that seem something to be celebrated or out of the ordinary? Why should it need to be of special note that I could possibly love beyond the expiration of a single partnership, and that a current partner would be accepting of this? We seem to all be capable of holding as true that we love our family members and friends freely and simultaneously, so why is there an expectation in this culture that when it comes to romantic love, we must do it one at a time? Why, when a relationship ends is it expected that the love we shared with that person does too? It (apparently) didn’t make sense to me when I was five and it still doesn’t make sense to me now.
One person who has some answers to some of these questions is bell hooks. In her book All About Love, she posits love as a political act. She teases out the relationship between love, lack of love and violence, patriarchy and white supremacy. She explains why in capitalist societies love must exist as a finite, restricted thing that happens only in specific contexts (romantic partnerships) so as to keep us in lack thus perpetuating desire and strengthening the marketplace economy.
One of the other more important things hooks explores in her book is the idea of love as a verb; love as an action; love as a choice. Love as a thing you DO not a thing that simply exists or does not. She builds this understanding from M.Scott Peck’s definition of love:
“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
Here I want to focus in on this definition.
But before I get on with it, let’s address language quickly. I know the term spiritual growth will make some of you squeamish so let’s just talk about it like this: love is an act that can fuel us to grow the fuck up.
There. Now, where was I?
Right. Love. Growing the fuck up.
I’m going to leave the the detailing of how love as a verb is part of how we #smashthepatriarchy to hooks (or even this great article by Josephine Hedlund). What I want to talk about is why we desperately need to update our understanding of love so we might have a chance of growing the fuck up and why that is so damn important. To get there though, we need to first add a few more people’s ideas to this love-day party…
Another favourite book* of mine is Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul (*ok, another favourite few chapters of mine, because, tl;dr. Give me a break, it’s a fucking treatise. I’m working on it). His central point is this: the multiple, intersecting, interlocking crises facing humanity in this moment require our (mass) maturation to transform. He takes a developmental perspective on our collective psychological state and argues that Western democracies are basically the equivalent of teenagers. We need to figure out how to collectively step into adulthood.
Said another way? We need to grow the fuck up.
When I layer Plotkin’s thinking on other favourite thinkers like Otto Scharmer, Joanna Macey, or Charles Eisenstein, his position becomes ever more important. Their descriptions of this moment in time bear striking resemblance and all paint a picture of historical transition and transformation: the transition from ‘empire building to well being for all’ (Scharmer); the ‘Great Turning’ meaning moving from an ‘industrial growth society to a life-affirming society’ (Macey); or that we are living in ‘the space between stories’ when the cultural myths that guided us are falling apart but new ones have yet to take their place (Eisenstein).
Put a different way, what these folks are collectively describing is living at the end of systems; living in age of disruption and rage. They might have PhDs but I don’t think you need one to know their descriptions are true. Evidence that capitalism is driving us rapidly off of a cliff; that the political system as we know it is not just beyond truth, but it is beyond broken (no attribution link necessary here); that the education system was built to serve the logic of a different century; that the climate is in such chaos even the Pope had to address it and that the machines are about to take most of our jobs, abounds. These are just a few of the indicators of the systemic metamorphosis accelerating all around us.
What happens at the end of systems? We have choices to make. An evolution (or perhaps devolution) will occur. We might not know what is next, but we do know it is within our capacity to create it.
I would argue — I am arguing — that learning how to love in the way hooks and Peck describe for us is one of the most important capacities we can develop in ourselves during this deterministic moment in history. It is one equally pregnant with the potential of dystopian and utopian futures. It is up to us to choose which direction it will go. Love is one of the choices we must make if we are to arrive anywhere but a future that looks and feels a lot like the child of a Huxley-Orwell union (and to be fair, some feel like we’re already in the first chapters of that future as it is). It is the fuel we need to grow the fuck up in the way that Plotkin asks us to. It is the container we need to create other possible futures.
We need to learn how to love in a way that is bigger than it being a thing that exists between two people who want to share a life together as a couple. We need to learn how to operate from love as individuals. We need to learn how to make love an active choice; an investment in the possible and in the potential of the people around us; a way we move through the world; the quality with which our actions are imbued. We need to be able to love our family, friends, current partners and former partners, colleagues and neighbours with an intent toward theirs and our own maturation.
I’ll leave the final words on this to bell, as written in All About Love:
When love is present the desire to dominate and exercise power cannot rule the day. All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic. Concern for the collective good of our nation, city or neighbor rooted in the values of love makes us all seek to nurture and protect that good. If all public policy was created in the spirit of love, we would not have to worry about unemployment, homelessness, schools failing to teach children, or addiction.
What Loving Like This Looks Like
As to what this kind of love looks like in action, what the behaviours of choosing to practice love that creates the conditions for growth, I think we have to turn to a different group of thinkers: psychologists who study love and attachment. What they offer is this:
Loving like this requires our attention. It looks like focusing and noticing. It looks like quality time. It looks like eyes up, phones down, laptops closed. It looks like a long list of actions that are imbued with our presence.
It requires us to attune to each other. That is to say to be aware of our own and another’s emotional state and needs and then meet that state and those needs with compassion and care.
Responsiveness is another aspect: when we notice a need in another we can make a choice to demonstrate a response to that need that shows we understand, support and value the other. Instead of turning away from that need, we turn toward it.
Love like this requires us to be accessible. It looks like showing up. It looks like being available with some measure of consistency and predictability.
It requires voicing our appreciation and gratitude.
It looks like affection. Hugs. Warm expressions. Touch. (Within boundaries and when safe!)
It is allowing and accepting: allowing yourself and others to be exactly as you are and then accepting that without judgement or a desire for you or them to be different.
It is letting another know they are seen, understood and valued.
This may seem like a tall order. This world moves exceptionally fast. Who has time to do this?, your mind may be protesting. We were also not taught to do this. This is the whole point hooks makes; loving like this is incompatible with our current harm-perpetuating culture. Learning to love as an investment in your own and another’s growth is a revolutionary act. It is culture jamming. It is culture-creating. It is life affirming. It is the bridge to the More Beautiful World. Alone it might not be enough, but as the quality and intent with which we undertake our action it is a transformational force.
This year on valentines day*, consider trying to love like this. Love big. Love bright. Love with the intent to make space for yours and another’s transformation. Fiercely reject the idea that love is a zero sum game and must be shared only with one person at a time. Love like the revolution is dependent upon it. Because it is. Our capacity as a species to grow the fuck up requires you and I both to learn to love like this.
My experience as a five year old points me to hope: we know how to do this. We can make a choice to live from love. We can grow the fuck up, together.
P.S.: *Fuck valentines day and the hallmark card it rode in on. I’m publishing this a day late in protest.