Rethinking Love As A Skill To Be Mastered
The prevailing understanding of love is that it occurs primarily between two people whose souls are intertwined by fate: love is intimate, personally esoteric, powerful, easy. Each of us has a mate and we’re all waiting for the universe to align so our paths will cross. It is an intensely passionate sensation that overwhelms reason and dooms star-crossed lovers.
But that’s a myth.
When we view love as a magical and mysterious force, raise it on a pedestal that towers above life and escapes comprehension, it is obvious why it fails so often. We crave love like oxygen but never study how to breathe. “Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the whole world, not toward one ‘object’ of love,” writes psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his wonderfully insightful book The Art of Loving.
Where do we start?
First we have to shake ourselves of those fettered Disney concepts. Princes and Princesses don’t fall in love and conquer their anxieties, worries, and troubles; love does not bubble to the surface as a passive affect. Love is an action, a ripple that begins with learning to love ourselves and spreads across the ocean of humanity. For, if we do not learn to love ourselves how can we expect to love another?
“The affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love, i.e. in care, respect respect, responsibility, and knowledge.”
This step to cultivating love may be the most challenging. It’s easy to become lost in the maelstrom of doubt, regret, feelings of inadequacy, and failures. Mistakes creep upon our dreams and haunt our desperate moments. To love others we have to forgive ourselves. For what is more intimately tied to love than accepting other’s faults, their shortcomings, their differences: to accept their humanity?
Understand yourself, respect yourself, see yourself as an object worthy of your love.
What about sexual desire/erotic love?
In an interview with Truman Capote, David Frost turns to the writer of In Cold Blood and asks him about love. Capote responds “I think friendship and love are exactly the same thing.” The audience exhausts a nervous laugh and Frost reveals a coy smiles. Capote continues, “Obviously sex is not love. Sex can lead to love. Real friendship inevitably leads to love.” Erotic love is the desire for complete fusion with another, but far from being exclusive, its resilience rests on friendship.
“Erotic love is exclusive, but it loves in the other person all of mankind, all that is alive.”
When you first fall in love with another it’s an intense, exhilarating whirlwind that transports you to another planet where only the two of you exist. Your heart bangs against your chest, begging to be with that person every moment. But time dulls initial love’s desire as we become intimate, and mystery’s curtain is removed one hook at a time. Soon, all that’s left is orgiastic oblivion unless we cultivate a love for humanity, thus a love steeped in friendship.
Love Of All People
The basis of love, is love for humanity. As my mother repeated when I raged against her discipline, “You don’t have to like me to love me.” It is the embodiment of that superlative moral edict in the Bible: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love’s cultivation inevitably leads to love for not just yourself, your lovers, your family, but all humanity.
Only in the love of those who do not serve a purpose, love begins to unfold.
Love is an individual orientation; I don’t need my neighbor to like me to love them. As Spinoza relates in The Ethics, if we could only view the crystalline web of events which create an individual, we would learn to forgive them, to understand that their lives have been shaped by forces beyond control.
It is a Utopian vision to believe all peoples can learn to love each other, but what is wrong with utopia?
Understanding love as an art means it can be nurtured, that it is a seed requiring attention and dedication. And like playing the piano, writing poetry, or painting landscapes, love can be mastered. “The capacity to love demands a state of intensity, awakeness, enhanced vitality, which can only be the result of a productive and active orientation in many other spheres of life.” It requires conscious dedication and discipline, understanding of the human condition — extending beyond the realms of family and friends to every person.
We all crave love. We all need love. It is as central to our existence as air, water, and food. To live a life imbued with love is first to understand its nature, and to then devote your entire life to its practice: reflection, meditation, forgiveness.
What the world needs now more than ever is love and understanding. It begins with you, the individual. It begins with an “active striving for the growth and happiness of the loved person, rooted in one’s own capacity to love.” Only through the cultivation of love can we see past the superfluous differences that separate us, to recognize a common string between all people, to elevate our lives and humanity.
“Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” -Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving.