Love is fulfilling. Yet what it inspires in us is not an antecedent truth born of nature and culture but the creative excitement of who we may become. It is a splendor. A receptivity. An attending to. A bond. A promise.
We don’t measure love’s quality scientifically. We see it, and feel it and identify with it. Love may even be smart. It adds to mind the expected information from our feelings and thoughts. It also seeks a connection, an exploration and an expansion of the knowledge that would forward us into our own becoming.
Love is a showstopper, too, bringing a pause, a tempering, of the rivalrous impulse and unmodulated self-interest. In the pause, in the reflection, we turn the reflexive response to one that exceeds the immediate.
Love is surely an educated sentiment, too. One that has its rewards and its perils. We are instinctively self-protective and the last thing these instincts want us to be is vulnerable. Wary of being judged by others, our instincts drive us to try to hide flaws that we fear would make us undesirable. And they drive us to hide from ourselves what we judged to be our moments of failure and irresponsibility. This defensive positioning would seem to make sense but it requires the maintenance of rigid, narrow boundaries and button-down sentiments that pretty much exclude any real intimacy and friendship.
In order to forego this isolating vigil, we must be willing to reveal to ourselves, let alone to another, what we’ve chosen to forget and to remove the masks of character we employ. Said another way, we must come out from hiding behind our pride, our rationalizations, our anger, our resentment and our heroic self-images, however we define them.
Considerable effort will be required to locate what it is we have been hiding or even to recognize the masks we wear to compensate for what we dare not reveal. However, to avoid vulnerability and to anchor our being in pretense is to bear the living experience — our finitude — as a cowardly figure, if only in our minds.
Vulnerability is a gift to ourselves and to another that we muster and extend when we learn to represent ourselves authentically and when we remove boundaries that inhibit our spontaneity, limit our experience of intimacy and justify our desire to dominate or possess another.
It is the removal of protective boundaries that creates the space for love and friendship. It is an intimate space. But it is a wry space too: We accept the fact that we can’t govern ourselves perfectly or control the outcome of every move; moreover, vulnerability is by definition risky.
And what of the other realities of love? That it may be unrequited or unreciprocated. That it can be selfish. That its intensity, romanced in concept and practice by the capricious chemicals of erotic attraction, may diminish or disappear as the once-splendored elements go flat.
But think about it. Aren’t feelings a little too capricious to be the sole source of our motivation and choices? Surely, we don’t want to depend solely upon fickle feelings to stimulate our expressions of love, generosity, tenderness and compassion.
To leave love, sweetness, generosity and self-control to fickle feelings, to the highs and lows of unordered irrationality, to the capriciousness of involuntary chemistry, to when we feel like it, barely scratches the surface of human possibility.
This is not to say that love doesn’t have a realism of its own. It is a manifestation of a pull whose predominant authority or author is immediacy — the “easy” feelings, the “easy” thoughts and the “easy” actions. Love “makes sense” to the extent that it does, because it is a cultural standard we recognize, not because it meets scientists’ requirements for reason and rationality.
Still, in this transcendent range of responsiveness, we celebrate not only the object of our affection but the very fact of life itself. We don’t wait for love to just happen to us. We recognize love’s generous expression as an act of intelligence and grace. It is an accomplishment, a choice of inspiration, conduct and experience that allows of many expressions. We call upon it to create and renew against the forces of conflict and cynicism. We experience the gratitude and peace of mind that accompanies such earthly mastery.
What we really care about is meaning, relevance and contribution. What we really care about is rising to the occasion and possessing fortitude and forbearance. What we really care about is being responsible for our attitudes, choices and decisions and being reconciled to the verities of life, love and death. And what we also really care about is creating a safe environment for relationship, a subjective space where the antagonism is held in check and generosity is graciously extended.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to create a life of our own design. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.