Love in modern times.
Nowhere does the paradox of modern times scream louder than in our perceptions towards that most wondrous and elusive of concepts, love. Opportunities to connect surround us minute by minute, and yet it appears people feel less connected today than ever before (1).
Social networks, the cult of celebrity and the compounding of experience contrive to send us the message that to be lovable, before it’s too late and we lose our looks, we need a combination of popularity and sex appeal. The subtle assumption is that it should be fairly easy to love, but to find the perfect object for our love, who might also love us in that perfect way, is approaching impossible. We make a shopping list of special-person characteristics and scan every corner of our designated and socially-appropriate universe for the one who might deliver us our happy-ever-after. Or we feign aloof disinterest or delegate our love result to serendipity, self-help mantras and the power of intention.
How ever did we get here?
The buzz of romance, love and sex surrounds us. Every advertisement, rom-com and music video screams it. So accustomed are we to this barrage that our attention span suffers. Only when events stretch beyond the boundaries of normality do they become newsworthy, skewing our perceptions of what it is to play a part in this life. We measure ourselves against these extremities of 24 hour media celebrity. To be normal or average is to be plain and indifferent by this measure: we must each be special. But setting the hurdle so high is exhausting, and so we calm ourselves with consumption, as if all the inhibitions and inadequacies within us will scrub shiny clean with more stuff. The expectation of what a fulfilled life should be requires a herculean effort to shake off: we itch with insecurity when we inevitably fail to live up to this nonsense. Shopping and sugary drinks placate us, giving us a whiff of choice, control and power. We find meaning in buying all that we can afford.
We are so attached to this habit that it is all too easy look at love in a similar way, as if in ticking the romance box we move one step closer on the road to a fulfilled life. We shop for people like prizes. Falling in love needs to be a fair trade, where our strengths and potentials compare well and neither partner feels cheated of their deserved prize. We measure our purchasing power, photoshop our joy and plaster it wherever we most need brand improvement. The inescapable conclusion is that our actions pull us away from the connection and intimacy we crave most of all.
Understanding the basis of our perceptions
Human beings are complicated: we are self aware. Aware of our past, our place in society, the potential and unpredictability of our future, our death. Probably more than anything else, we are aware of our aloneness and separateness. We reach out and unite with others to overcome that separateness, to transcend our individuality and become one with something greater. But in reaching out, we are forced to confront all within us, every misgiving, insecurity, fear or inadequacy, and that can be very uncomfortable.
Antidotes to alienation
People tend to avoid their uncomfortable feelings: man’s presumptuous brain can always be relied upon to rationalise them away. Any quick fix can distract us and, if effective, can become a long term habit. Drugs, sex, worship, war, self indulgence, arrogance, art, self sacrifice, control, sadism, masochism, ascetic love, brotherly love, romantic love or even transcendental meditation can be used to divert and swamp our uncomfortable feelings.
One very common way to heal the pain of separateness is to affiliate with a group. We save ourselves from the frightening experience of aloneness through camaraderie. But uniformity within a group doesn’t placate our separateness: it is too routine. Our individuality suffocates in the uniformity that being part of a group requires and we don’t feel special enough to pacify our anxiety of separateness. The inner individual craves connection on his or her own terms.
Another way to distract ourselves from the pain of separateness is to plough our energy into the glittering prizes of material success – prestige, money and power – and deliberately leave precious little for the gentle pursuit of loving others and caring for ourselves.
A third way might best be called a flow state of creativity, where we lose track of time and attain union with something greater than ourselves, perhaps through art. Sadly, this unity does not solve the intrinsic separateness of the individual, it just counterbalances it with a universal union.
It seems nothing provides the deep, permanent and interpersonal solution to our human separateness other than love.
So what is love?
Love comes in many forms; romantic, affectionate, playful, brotherly, obsessive, self, enduring and selfless love. Add to this wistful or sentimental love and you can, with a little imagination, create a cocktail of emotions ranging in intensity from the barely perceptible to the utterly breathtaking. Urgency to unite the feminine and masculine poles within lifts and frees us from earthly constraint, perhaps even briefly distracting us from our own mortality.
Falling in love is a very different experience from being in love. When the wall between two strangers breaks down and they fall in love, it is one of the most exhilarating experiences in life. The more isolated or without love we are, the more wonderful that exhilaration feels. Sexual attraction and consummation provide the exact rush of emotion needed to completely mask our feelings of aloneness and alienation. The intensity of infatuation can easily be taken as proof of love when it may only prove the degree of loneliness that preceded it.
Our very essence thrives in the highs and lows of the polar extremities of life and when we deny or numb that polarisation, idle minds seek to find it elsewhere. The rise of compulsive addictions to melt away the anxiety of separateness can be understood to some extent in these terms. Falling in love can provide one such intense extremity, but it is an equally short -lived experience: as a couple become more acquainted, they come to know the other person as well (or as little) as they know themselves and their miracle becomes mundane. Any refuge – falling in love, drugs or orgasm – may provide an intense relief in mind and body, but it is only momentary. Once the orgiastic surrogate for mature love and affection is over, the result can be even greater alienation, greater separateness and a need for increased intensity or frequency of the ‘fix’. One needs to transform a new stranger into an intimate to grasp that exhilaration again, under the illusion that the new love might be different from the last. The moral insanity that leads to impulsive selfishness is often sanctioned or even rewarded by society, especially in business and politics. Many such characters do very well in the world, reaching positions of great power and influence.
By contrast a state of being in mature love, absent any form of manipulation, is a true union where each partner retains their integrity and individuality. Two beings overcome their feelings of isolation and separateness, becoming one and yet remaining two.
To reach a state of mature love, an individual acquiesces to the power of giving over receiving and lets go of the need for a favourable end result. We replace dependency, need, manipulation and narcissistic superiority with courage and faith. Only when we let go of our ego and of the need to be right can a mutually beneficial love of trust and integrity flourish. Paradoxically, in giving we receive in abundance.
Love is not just a matter of giving, though. Mature love is to care and be concerned for the person in which we love, to freely offer our responsibility, to give up our manipulative tendencies and respect and understand the other deeply. We acquiesce to an unfathomable universe and find joy and humility in knowing and not knowing. We acknowledge our fear of hurt or abandonment and choose the brave and often scary path that our heart divines. To the degree that we cannot let go of our manipulative tendencies, we remain afraid to give ourselves fully and, either consciously or subconsciously, avoid love.
Where is erotic love in this cocktail? Freud may chuckle, but sexual desire can be easily stimulated by things that have nothing to do with love: the anxiety of aloneness, the wish to conquer or be conquered, self loathing and the implicit need to be obliterated or even the wish to hurt others. Sexual desire can be triggered by almost any strong emotion and so erotic love can very easily be an illusion, another antidote which leaves partners as far apart afterwards at they were before. Erotic love may help two egos find solace and passion in each other, uniting to protect each other against a harsh world, but unless it is part of a harmonious act of universal mature love, it alienates us from that world.
Where does this leave us?
Swiping left and earning reward points. Consuming and standardising. Searching for our ‘type’. Binge, purge, alienate, rinse and repeat. My preferred definition of insanity is to carry on doing that which you know doesn’t work, and yet here we are: the number of people feeling utterly alone, pacifying with social media and sugary food, continues to rise.
We have a sense of this and yet somehow it is bigger than us, like a universal steamroller. We allow all that is good within us to be sacrificed, over and over, to the temporary fix of consumption. An endless stream of meaningless nonsense becomes our comfort blanket, our way to delude and distract ourselves. Man is a social animal and we have a constant need to fit in, but by doing so we become the average of our peer group. It feels very uncomfortable indeed to lift your head above the scrum, pause, reflect, and reject the norm. But man is not an automaton and we each deserve more than idle distraction, numbing routine and consumption. Our inhibitions dehumanise and stop us from reaching the very feelings that could unite us all in love.
We are all enough. We may be bombarded by images that say the contrary, but we are absolutely, definitely, enough. Every single one of us is loveable. Painful past experiences may haunt us and conspire to wear down those feelings of self worth but deep within our hearts, we did all those things, at the time, because that’s where life was leading. There was no choice, really. We tend to look back upon past events as if we could have changed the outcome, and then we define ourselves in judgement of those terms. But yesterday is yesterday and no amount of thinking will change that, not even if we punish ourselves. It is the richness of our experience that leads us to who we are right now. That is precisely what makes us what we are, what makes us the fascinating, loveable individuals we all are. Sometimes, to love others, we must forgive ourselves.
Can it be so difficult to drop our facade, drop our need to be right, and become fallible? It is such a freedom to speak from the centre of our existence and show what is alive within us. But it requires us to let go of the end result, own and take responsibility for our own feelings, and accept the possibility of disapproval by others.
So what is my suggestion for life, the universe and everything? Open up. Take a risk. Have faith and accept that we learn and grow from leaving our comfort zone and by truly being ourselves. Live. Life is social, not exclusive, and we all deeply need each other. But we also all know what is fake and what is real, so let any armour drop and allow the world see what an amazing, fascinating person you truly are, warts and all. That’s what being human is all about. Leap with courage and passion in the full knowledge that pain and disappointment might possibly follow. Understand that life is rich and joyful only when we live and breath our purpose and our truth. Love blossoms in that truth and self acceptance; otherwise, we perish as individuals and society aches.
(1) Discrepancy between an individual’s subjective report of loneliness and the number of connections in their social network (e.g., see Berscheid E, Reis HT. Attraction and close relationships. In: T GD, T FS, Lindzey G, editors. The Handbook of Social Psychology. 4 ed. Vol. 2. New York: McGraw Hill; 1998. pp. 193–281.)