I find writing about love confusing. The word is used so in many different contexts, to describe so many different states of mind. Bringing clarity to this multiplicity of meanings and uses has always seemed a daunting challenge.
Further complicating the task is the word’s power. Because it is so deeply evocative, its use, depending on context, can provoke strong and, at times, very uncomfortable feelings as, for example, when it is used to it describes sexual attraction to someone inappropriately young – or an individual, group, or nation’s rapturous embrace of a crazed but highly charismatic leader.
In this Reflection, I take the plunge, seeking to bring clarity to a question that has quietly nagged at me for many years: How should we understand the concept of love and, more particularly, how should we put it into practice as we strive to live more radically decent lives?
The confusion of meanings that surround the word is brilliantly illustrated in We, a remarkable book by the Jungian theorist, Robert Johnson. In it, the author identifies romantic love, not as an enduring reality, but as an intellectual construct that burst onto the scene in the early Middle Ages. He then describes how, because of its enormous cultural impact, it has come to encompass aspects of living that are really quite distinct from the romantic love’s essence.
Johnson’s narrative vehicle, the story of Tristan and Isoulte, begins with Tristan and the Queen – Isoulte the Fair – falling in love and moving to the forest to be together. The Queen, as she inevitably must, returns to her duties and, so, their romantic interlude ends. Thereafter, Tristan marries and has children with Isoulte of the White Gloves. But Tristan, unable to let go of his overwhelming “love” for the Queen, leaves Isoulte of the White Gloves and, in the end, dies tragically.
The point of the story for Johnson? Tristan screwed up.
He hopelessly confused romantic love with what Johnson refers to a chivalric love. In his understanding, Tristan idealistic or chivalric love – a deeply felt and enduring human emotion – lay at the heart of his feelings for the Queen. But Tristan failed to understand this, or limits of that love, conflating it with the sexual/life partnership love that found expression in his relationship with Isoulte of the White Gloves.
To this day, we repeat Tristan’s error, unreflectively seeking a romantic partner who fills our every “love” need. The result? These relationships are burdened with unreasonable expectations and demands that – inevitably unmet – unleash, far too often, a sense of bitter disappointment that can corrode and destroy these relationships.
In seeking to operationalize Radical Decency in our lives, what feelings and choices, among the many that receive the “love” label, are central? The starting place for me is the distinction between love the “noun” and love the “verb.”
When used as a noun, love describes one of any number of feelings, depending on the context within which the word is applied: Love of God, love of country, romantic love, self-love, agape love, and so on. Like all feelings, these states are not choices. They are, instead, physiological and psychological facts on the ground.
For this reason, love the noun is not a values-driven state of mind. To the contrary, we can – and frequently do – fall in love with a person who we know to be cruel or selfish. And, in our love and loyalty, we too easily excuse even the most heinous of acts perpetuated by our church, ethnic group or country; persisting, without ethical pause.
Love, the verb, is very different. It is quintessentially a choice. Loving my wife, or Jesus, or the men I go to war with – love, the verb – I chose to do the innumerable acts that communicate that state of mind to the object of my love. It is here, in this action-oriented realm of love, that Radical Decency can play a powerful role; supporting us in making wise life- and spirit-affirming choices.
If love begins as an emotion (the noun), faith is the bridge that carries it into the realm of action (the verb).
Esther Perel, the psychotherapist and author, describes trust as a leap of faith. “We believe in it, all the while knowing it may not be true.” And, equally, with love: We whole-heartedly commit ourselves to “this” person or “that” cause, all the while knowing that this forever feeling may not endure.
This leap of faith, this act of claiming, is vital to love’s central role in our lives. As I describe in the Reflection 38, Three Dimensions of Love, our longing to claim (and to be claimed) is:
“Inextricably bound up with our need to cope with the realities that frame our existence as self-conscious beings, aware of our fate. Simply put, we are here through no choice of our own; we, and everyone we love, will leave, again through no choice on our part; and there is no roadmap for what to do, while we are here. Given these unalterable facts, we long for a feeling of belonging that – in its sheer passion, power, and completeness – can offer psychic surcease from these grim existential realities.”
But here is the problem.
We live in a world in which other, more humane values takes a back seat to our pervasive pre-occupation with getting ahead, with competing and winning. As a result, the moral compass we need to guide us in this claiming process – this leap of faith – is confused and undernourished. Lacking a steadily practiced, more decent values perspective to guide our choices, we too easily extend love, the verb, to most any person, idea, or movement that activates “that feeling” – love, the noun.
Radical Decency can crucially change this equation, offering a values-based roadmap for operationalizing love, the verb. Using it as our guide, we tend to another person – day-by-day, moment-by-moment – with respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and accountability (justice). And, crucially, we invite, with our expectations, similar treatment in return.
As these choices accumulate, we, and the people with whom we are in connection, are supported in feeling safe, seen, and warmly held; lowering defenses and increasing the likelihood of authentic and intimate contact, the interpersonal transaction at the heart of Radical Decency – and of love, the verb.
In terms of constructively harnessing our powerful impulse to love, the payoff in this process is this: As we steadily tend to our Radical Decency practice, we become more discerning about what is – and what is not – a loving relationship; that is, a relationship based on mutual and authentic contact. And as this sensibility grows, we become far more capable of resisting the instinct to go with “that feeling” when the object of our hormonal affection is unable to treat us in this way – or puts existing love relationships at risk.
So I walk into a room and am captivated by a new person – her look, her smile, her energy. But I am sustained by a sense of romantic love that goes far beyond “that feeling.” Committed love, the verb, as my wife and I have cultivated over the years, the cotton candy of a new romantic connection pales in comparison to the eight-course banquet we have created. I am able make choices with this new person that are measured and appropriately boundaried.
This same values-based process is vitally needed when love plays out in the context of our ethnicity, religion, and nationality. In these areas, unfortunately, the cultural norm is unrelenting pressure to make love and fealty absolute. When the chips are down, we are expected to rally to the flag – no matter what; a pattern confirmed by countless cruelties, inflicted both on nonconformists within the group and nonbelievers without.
If we hope to create a more decent world, we need to challenge this pattern. What is needed instead, as we move from love the noun to love the verb is a framework that allows us – as we do in healthy romantic relationships – to model and insist upon on interactions based on decency’s 7 values. As in a committed romantic relationship, loyalty to our country or group would be a given. But our loyalty would not be unconditional and would not be forever, no matter what.
When good values are inextricably woven into the fabric of the relationship, romantic partners grow and heal in ways that are unimaginable at the outset. This same process can occur for us, and our brethren, in the context of our ethnic, religious and national communities as well.
A new level of relational awareness and wisdom is my dream for the future; a new understanding of love, the verb that, with intent and time, would take hold in our communal engagements. We would be loving and fiercely loyal members of our religious, ethnic and national communities, of course, but we would also insist on values based interactions between people within our group and, equally, with those beyond its borders.
My fierce and abiding belief? If this relational vision ever emerges as the culture’s new, taken-for-granted norm a more humane and decent world – instead of being a far off dream – would become an unfolding and ever deepening reality.