Friday, August 28, 2015

The Choice (and Risk) That Is Love

For reasons that I won't get into here, I've been thinking a lot about love lately.

And so it was that one recent sleepless night I found myself leafing through bell hook's book All About Love: New Visions. I first read this insightful book shortly after it came out in 2000. I remember being very intentional in reflecting and journaling about it . . . and one part, in particular, has always stayed with me. It's when hooks highlights M. Scott Peck's definition of love in his classic book The Road Less Traveled.

Echoing the work of Erich Fromm, Peck defines love as "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," continues Peck. "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." This definition, notes hooks, because it emphasizes the choice that's made to nurture growth, "counters the more widely accepted assumption that we love instinctually."

This evening I share more of bell hooks' thoughts on M. Scott Peck's definition of love. With its emphasis on choice, risk and growth it's challenging stuff, to be sure. But I also find it hopeful, helpful and inspiring. Perhaps you will too.

Most of us learn early on to think of love as a feeling. When we feel deeply drawn to someone, we cathect with them; that is, we invest feelings or emotion in them. That process of investment wherein a loved one becomes important to us is called "cathexis." In his book Peck rightly emphasizes that most of us "confuse cathecting with loving." We all know how often individuals feeling connected to someone through the process of cathecting insist that they love the other person even if they are hurting or neglecting them. Since their feeling is that of cathexis, they insist that what they feel is love.

. . . Like many who read The Road Less Traveled again and again, I am grateful to have been given a definition of love that helped me face the places in my life where love was lacking. I was in my mid-twenties when I first learned to understand love "as the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth." It still took years for me to let go of learned patterns of behavior that negated my capacity to give and receive love. . . . It took me a long time to recognize that while I wanted to know love, I was afraid to be truly intimate. Many of us choose relationships of affection and care that will never become loving because they feel safer. The demands are not as intense as loving requires. The risk is not great.

So many of us long for love but lack the courage to take risks. Even though we are obsessed with the idea of love, the truth is that most of us live relatively decent, somewhat satisfying lives even if we often feel that love is lacking. In these relationships we share genuine affection and/or care. For most of us, that feels like enough because it is usually a lot more than we received in our families of origin. Undoubtedly, many of us are more comfortable with the notion that love can mean anything to anybody precisely because when we define it with precision and clarity it brings us face to face with our lacks – with terrible alienation. The truth is, far too many people in our culture do not know what love is. And this not knowing feels like a terrible secret, a lack that we have to cover up.

Had I been given a clear definition of love earlier in my life it would not have taken me so long to become a more loving person. Had I shared with others a common understanding of what it means to love it would have been easier to create love. It is particularly distressing that so many recent books on love continue to insist that definitions of love are unnecessary and meaningless. Or worse, the authors suggest love should mean something different to men than it does to women – that the sexes should respect and adapt to our inability to communicate since we do not share the same language. This type of literature is popular because it does not demand a change in fixed ways of thinking about gender roles, culture, or love, Rather than sharing strategies that would help us become more loving it actually encourages everyone to adapt to circumstances where loving is lacking.

. . . Some folks have difficulty with Peck's definition of love because he uses the word "spiritual." He is referring to that dimension of our core reality where mind, body, and spirit are one. An individual does not need to be a believer in a religion to embrace the idea that there is an animating principle in the self – a life force (some of us call it soul) that when nurtured enhances our capacity to be more fully self-actualized and able to engage in communion with the world around us.

To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility. We are often taught we have no control over our "feelings." Yet most of us accept that we choose our actions, that intention and will inform what we do. We also accept that our actions have consequences. To think of actions shaping feelings is one way we rid ourselves of conventionally accepted assumptions such as that parents love their children, or that one simply "falls" in love without exercising will or choice. . . . If we were constantly remembering that love is as love does, we would not use the word in a manner that devalues and degrades its meaning. When we are loving we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust.

– bell hooks
Excerpted from "Clarity: Give Love Words,"
chapter one of All About Love: New Visions

There's so much to think about, isn't there? . . . Love as an action. . . . Love as a choice involving risk. . . . The difference between cathecting (a word I'd not come across before) and loving.

Like most people I long to meet someone with whom I experience a mutual and deep sense of attraction and connection. From this basis we would choose to embark on a shared journey, a relationship, of love. You could say that the oxygen for such a relationship would be the daily conscious choices we would make to risk and extend ourselves for each another and for the relationship we'd be forging together.

I hope to experience such a loving relationship one day – a relationship that would be experienced and embodied in a range of ways, including sexually and sacramentally. I'm certainly ready to take the risks involved in embarking on and creating such a relationship. It's just that the experience of a mutual and deep sense of attraction and connection with another eludes me. Why this is the case is a mystery to me, one that I must admit can leave me feeling dejected at times. Approaching 50, I can also find myself feeling impatient and fearful that time has run out for me. But then I connect with family and friends or spend time in quiet prayer and/or in nature and soon hope and balance return. More often than not, I live in hope and with the "radical attitude" of active waiting, trusting that one day life/God/the universe will provide an opportunity for me to choose (and risk) being, as Nada Surf* sings, "on the inside" of a loving relationship.

. . . Making out with people
I hardly know or like.
I can't believe what I do
late at night.

I wanna know what it's like
on the inside of love.
I'm standing at the gates,
I see the beauty above.

Only when we get to see
the aerial view
will the patterns show.
We'll know what to do.

. . . I'm on the outside of love,
always under or above.
I can't find my way in,
I try again and again.
I'm on the outside of love,
always under or above.
Must be a different view
to be a me with a you.

. . . I wanna know what it's like
on the inside of love.
Of course I'll be alright,
I just had a bad night.
I had a bad night.

* Thanks to my friend Pete for introducing me to Nada Surf's "Inside of Love."

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Love as "Quest and Daring and Growth"
Quote of the Day – October 5, 2010
Getting It Right
The Longing for Love: God's Primal Beatitude
Love as Exploring Vulnerability
The Art of Surrender
The Gravity of Love
To Be Held and To Hold
To Know and Be Known
"I Want You to Become a Part of Me – Each to Become a Part of the Other"
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace
In the Garden of Spirituality – James B. Nelson
Passion, Tide and Time
Quote of the Day – September 11, 2012
Love Is Love
Love at Love's Brightest


Mary Lynn Murphy said...

This is a very thoughtful article, and touching comments by you, Michael. I very much admire your openness and sincerity. You are one in a million, and you set a high standard for the rest of us! I loved The Road Less Traveled. It retains its relevance after all of these years.

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael. Thank you for such a wonderful reflection. It was honest moving and spoke to where I am in life, and my fears and hopes. Thank you for reminding me and others of what we seek to affirm and believe... And this is prayer-for what is prayer but a reminder of our deepest desires. aB

Anonymous said...

One problem our culture burdens us with - if we let it - is the imagining of our lives as a cinematic narrative, with a narrative arc. In reality, our lives are a succession of moments including moments where things happen - and, importantly, DON'T happen - randomly. The common notion that all souls have at least one romantic Soulmate in this world is actually one that can wreak terrible damage on people.

For example, there is in the USA a narrowed demographic for urban gay men in their early 50s. The peak demographic cohort for gay men who were infected with HIV was a five year period from 1960-64 (some studies put it at 1958-62, if memory serves). There's a lot fewer gay men in their late 40s and especially early 50s than there would have been without The Plague. And the survivors in the cohort have been affected by that.

I mention this because it might help to think of the notion of The Soulmate in the following way. IF, for the sake of argument, one indeed has a Soulmate, then how likely is it that (i) you will be the Soulmate of the Soulmate (one thing life teaches us is that Soulmatedness is often not as reciprocal as we would imagine, and (ii) that mutual Soulmates will indeed find each other before they die? There are a lot of random, rather than tragic, reasons finding a mutual Soulmate relationship never happens. I've certainly seen many marriages that do not involve mutual Soulmates - they can be a disaster if either one of the couple assumes theirs is a mutual Soulmate marriage, but they can also be quite solid when both members of the couple operate without that premise in mind (this is not about non-monogamy, btw - that's a very different issue, and one that is thornier than its propopents typicaly admit).

As they say in recovery circles, expectations are premeditated resentments.

And resentments never come from God.

Hope is different. It is open, but does not expect. It's not ruddered by ego need. Hope and openness are worth cultivating, regardless of one's state in life.

Anonymous said...

I have read your reflections a number of times, partly because you express my own feelings of longing and my fears they won't be fulfilled, and partly because the song, it's music and poetry, are so captivating. I may have misunderstood the argument, but I feel that your own reflections uphold both approaches to love. While it is easy, even liberating, to recognize on an intellectual level that love is a deliberate act of the will, the emotional longing doesn't disappear. I wonder if the truth doesn't lie in the balance. We are most fulfilled when our intellectual decision to love is finally in sync with our emotional longing for love.

As an outsider looking in, I believe that you have made many deliberate decisions to love - family, friends, Church, ideas, art, nature, specific causes, those on the margins. You have even allowed unknown readers like me to enter into the issues of your life, which is a huge gesture of connection and love. So, if I don't undermine bell hooks too much, I hope you find what your heart longs for, and that one day soon you will find yourself on the inside of love!