15 December 2009

Family of Values: Love

This is the second topic in my ongoing "Family of Values" series.

If you Google the word 'love', you retrieve "about 1,590,000,000" items. The concept or idea of love plays an absolutely central part in our culture and its self-definition. We use the word 'love' to express our affinity for many things, from our cars to our music, from our shoes to our neighborhood, from cherries to aloe tissue paper, from our country to our crown molding, from NY to Hello Kitty, from golf to opera, from our pets to our friends, from our parents to our spouses, from our children to ourselves. We speak about amour propre, amour fou, courtly love, romantic love. We talk about falling in love and loving Jesus. And I could go on and on.

Standard philosophical discussions of love tend to turn to the ancient Greek notions of eros, agape, and philia. If you want to refresh your memory, you can read about them here. These discussions try to make distinctions between sexual, amorous, romantic, platonic, and familial loves. They tend to treat love as an attitude, a feeling or emotion, a valuing. This is a shallow psychological conceptualization, it seems to me, a devaluing of something much more profound.

I think if you asked Tiger Woods if he loves his wife and children, he would probably say yes. After all, in marrying Elin, he publicly professed his undying love for her. After the revelations of the last couple weeks, I think it's also fair to say Tiger doesn't really know what love is. But then, given our polyamorous proclamations, neither do we.

Without getting into the religious aspects of it, I have written here on more than one occasion about my take on the Christian virtue of love as found in the Bible. The actions of the story's hero, Jesus from Nazareth, are a metaphor for love. He and his gang of ruffians trashed the biggest temple/market day of the year in Jerusalem, Passover. Apparently, he was upset about the hypocrisy of the organized religion of the day, and this was the way he led his men in protest. We don't quite know what damage they inflicted on the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals, etc., but we know it had to have been significant for the temple police called the Roman guards. They cornered Jesus and his gang in their nearby hideout, a park outside the city, and Jesus manned up and took the rap for all of them—a death sentence, it turns out. Ultimately, he gave up his life so his men could escape and live to tell the tale.

This is a profound definition of real love: giving up one's self for the best interests of one's friends. Stated succinctly: "There is no greater love than that a man should give up his own life for the sake of his friends." That point is stated outright in the Gospel of John 15:13. Theological scholars, i.e., the Jesus Seminar, do not necessarily believe this was an actual saying of Jesus primarily because it comes in a passage in which Jesus calls for loyalty to himself. Still, it encapsulates the theme of Jesus's life and death. For more on this topic, I refer you to my previous post here. And as a definition of true love, it stands the test of time.

The Christian conception of love takes it yet a step further. Giving up what one most prizes, say one's only child, for the sake of others is a love that is worthy of a divinity.

This is a high standard. Fine. It may be an unmeetable standard. Okay. But love is such a central concern of our culture, an absolutely core value, that any but an ideal standard is demeaning not just to love but to who we are as a culture.

What I am talking about here is more than a feeling or an attitude or a valuing. It is pure action, a way of living one's life, a way of acting.

Undoubtedly, at some point, Tiger 'fell in love' with Elin. Falling in love is a feeling, a gushy, gooey, falling all over myself, endorphin spurting kind of emotion. There's nothing to stop someone from falling in love with a different person every day as far as I can tell—or at every tour event. But that is not true love. True love may take its start from there (in the case of spouses and life-partners and such), but it is more than that; it grows, matures, deepens, transforms.

If, e.g., Tiger truly loved his wife and his family, he might choose to give up his selfish interests in bedding every cocktail waitress he meets on the road for their sake. Or not. It may be that Tiger is in love with, or even hooked on, falling in love. Who's to say? If falling in love is nothing more than an endorphin rush, it can certainly be addictive (just like running, e.g.).

So, what does this exalted concept of love have to do with what we mean when we use the word love in statements like 'I love my Jimmy Choo's' or 'I love pancakes' or I love my country' or 'I love my job' or 'I love The Big Lebowski' or 'I am falling in love with her' or 'Love makes me happy'? Are these different things or are they somehow connected by this vaunted concept of giving up oneself?

We can certainly postulate that, on our definition, to love something or someone is necessarily to give up something of one's self (a feeling, an attitude, a valuation [monetary or otherwise], etc.) and that there are degrees of such love. I believe that that is an iron-clad law, kind of like the law of gravity. But is that really meaningful?

We throw the word 'love' around casually, to the point it almost has no more meaning. I wonder if Tiger told any of his 'lovers' that he loved them? Is it possible he did love any or all of them? Maybe Tiger has that much love to give—he certainly has that much money. However, one thing is clear, not all of his lovers were willing to share his 'love', especially Elin who felt—and rightfully by all accounts—that she had an exclusive right to it all.

On the other hand, maybe Tiger was the one who needed more love, more adulation, more worship, than any one of his lovers could give. Maybe he felt that by giving his affections (something quite short of love) so profligately he was gaining something in return—the love and adoration of all these women. To believe and act as though everyone should have your bests interests at heart, as though everyone around you should sacrifice themselves to satisfy your needs and desires is something short of true love. Though it is a sort of self-love, and it can be quite costly, for, ironically, in order to satisfy itself the self in love with itself must ultimately sacrifice itself—something it cannot allow itself to do. That is why, frankly, I fear for Tiger. Unless he faces this paradox down, he could become suicidal. But I digress.

This 'I want to be adored' attitude seems to be a wrongful attitude, at least on our vaunted account of true love. It ignores the true cost of truly loving. In love, one does not give up one's self in the expectation of getting something in return from the objects of one's affections. One does it for and in the best interests of the loved one. One sacrifices one's interests. One hopes one's love is reciprocated, but this can never be guaranteed. To love is to risk everything.

Still, none of us is perfect at love. None of us can be. We cannot give ourselves completely. We are selfish. We are individuals with our own wants and needs. We have boundaries. We are, in short, human—not divine. And we must take ourselves as we find ourselves.

Perhaps it would pay, in this season of love, to remember this one thing: Love is Action. Actions have costs. When we love something or someone, we necessarily sacrifice something of ourselves, whether we mean to or not and whether we know it or not—it isn't always obvious. And we each only have so much to give. Yet, ironically, the more love we truly give, the more likely we are to receive love in return; not the sort of love that feeds our selfish self-love, but love which replenishes and restores us, that has our best interest at heart and that is willing to sacrifice for our betterment (not, say, our ego).

Chris Farley - Interview Paul Mc Cartney (SNL) - MyVideo

So, love widely and love wisely. That is my wish for y'all for the Holidays!

Jim H.


Frances Madeson said...

I know thee, Love! in deserts thou wert bred,
And at the dugs of savage Tigers fed;
Alien of birth, usurper of the plains!

Jim H. said...

pharmacopola. pharmăceutrĭa, ae, f., = φαρμακεύτρια, a sorceress (Ver.)

How Dryden got that magnificent tiger from this, I'll never know:

nunc scio quid sit Amor: duris in cotibus illum
aut Tmaros aut Rhodope aut extremi Garamantes
nec generis nostri puerum nec sanguinis edunt.

But it's beautiful. Nice pull, FM. And thanks, again, for the 3QD nomination.

Jim H.