The secret of love revealed!

Well, maybe a little….

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 “Love is a dividend of gratitude for our lover’s insight into our own confused and troubled psyche” (Alain De Botton, “The Course of Love”, p21).

I’m reading a book at the moment that attempts, through a fictitious tale of love, to unpack what is really going on when we court and choose a life partner. Along the way the author, Alain De Botton (who has written many philosophical books), inserts lots of pithy comments like the above, taking us underneath the veneer of the behaviour of two lovers. It’s very interesting, a bit unsettling and quite revealing.

Basically he wants to debunk the myths that surround love. He wants to show it for what it is. I am only part way through it so I can’t comment with the full benefit of his wisdom, but so far it seems about right.

Let’s understand that De Botton is trying to bring insight. At the end of the day, romantic love is unavoidable, and who would want to avoid it anyway? It is a wonderful thing. But whilst we can, and should, abandon ourselves to its joys, it behooves us to understand it a little.

According to De Botton it is our lover’s insight into and acceptance of our real self that draws us to respond with the emotion we call love. The idea that someone else ‘gets’ us is pretty potent stuff. I don’t think De Botton means that’s all there is to it, but that our feelings of love are at their strongest at such times.

If he’s right, then love is, at its base, gratitude. On some basic level most of us struggle to believe that anyone could ever really love us, and this person appears to, so we’re grateful (and relieved!). But early in a courtship most of us do all we can to hide the real us from our lover, or at least the parts we are ashamed of. We’re on our very best behaviour, because we’re terrified they’ll find something about us that’s unlovable. Perhaps the fact that they don’t is what leads us to be so grateful.

To feel truly accepted though, we first have to believe that the real us is understood. I remember Meg Ryan, in “You’ve Got Mail” jokingly stating that her phantom email lover had “152 insights” into her soul! 

I know I certainly want to feel understood. I’m not sure how many people really understand what goes on in this brain of mine! Not to say that I am hugely different from everyone else – I seriously doubt that. But I have had my fair share of times when I’m pretty sure no-one had a clue what really going on inside me.

I have a friend that I respect, who once confided that he used to jokingly call me “The Sarge” behind my back. I asked him why, and was totally unprepared for his answer. He had known me, a long time ago, in the context of a leadership position. I was pretty young and green, and apparently I came across as a drill sergeant the way I issued orders or directives to the team. Yet that was not how I was feeling on the inside. If anything, I was the exact opposite – unsure, anxious at how to guide and motivate the team, pretty terrified of not succeeding, and that manifested itself in a somewhat rigid focus on outcomes rather than people. 

Okay, enough reminiscing. But I’m trying to illustrate the fact that most of us have an inner self that wants, perhaps craves, for someone else to peek into it and say, I still like you.

So Alain calls love a dividend. A dividend is a payout – something that someone has earned and is entitled to receive. You like me, you accept me warts and all (at least I think you do) and it manifests in very strong feelings of closeness, connection, and passionate love.

Obviously there is more to love than just gratitude. If that was the case, I would fall in love with anyone who showed me they understood me. For example, I, as a heterosexual male, am not going to fall in love with another man. There must be qualities about the other person that cause our gratefulness to become romantic love – their sex, perhaps their looks, their personality, things we like about them (or perhaps even worship about them!).

But if we put romance to one side, I have had a few bromances over time, and there is still some truth to the concept of love as a dividend of gratitude. There is a greater sense of connectedness between me and a guy who understands me, someone who seems to be a bit like me and who I can trust to reveal more of myself to.

Is that gratefulness though? Yes, I think so, grateful that he is a part of my life and I don’t want to lose his friendship. Perhaps, just as in a romantic relationship, I might try harder from time to time to overlook his faults out of gratefulness for his perseverance with mine.

But what happens when a lover (back to romance now) eventually shows they’re not so enthralled with every aspect of us? That surely happens in any long-term relationship. Well, I haven’t gotten to that section of the book yet, so I await what Alain has to say, but from personal experience I can say we have to look for something more enduring than romantic love. I have said this in previous blogs, and I will say it again, romantic love is wonderful, but a poor basis for enduring relationships.

Romantic love, in the end, is all about us, and less about the other person. Any meaningful relationship ultimately has to have the other person’s wellbeing at heart as well, and once gratefulness has run its course, we need to dig deeper. Ultimately we need to like ourselves enough to be able to stand strong even if our lover doesn’t. Maybe then, when we let each other off the hook, a different, more relaxed kind of love can grow – one with the intimacy of simple companionship and affection, and less expectations that they meet our deepest needs.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Lets revel in the feelings of love. They are truly wonderful, and a necessary part of any courtship. Let’s be head over heels, giddy, and breathless, and full of longing. I dare say you couldn’t stop those feelings if you tried. But if you want to move ahead, it makese sense to understand what’s going on so that you can build a relationship, sooner or later, on a stronger footing. And then, when romantic love pops its head in from time to time (there’s no reason it can’t hang around!), then you can be in the enviable position of having your cake and eating it too.

I’m sure Alain has some other gems of truth waiting for me as I continue to read the book. If he does, I will gladly add a postscript – watch this space.

Desiderata 10

desiderata-10

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 10th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass”.

I wouldn’t blame people for being cynical about love. With a divorce rate of 50%, our society is used to the fickleness of love. Violence in the home, marital unfaithfulness, boredom with each other, falling out of love… The only people who perhaps aren’t so cynical about love might be younger people who haven’t been in love long enough to be seriously let down by it. Maybe love really is a ‘secondhand emotion’, as Tina Turner contemptuously described it.

But that cynicism may also be because people don’t understand love. It’s a complex human condition.

There are actually different kinds of love. Think about it. We say we love a person and we love ice-cream. We love our dad or mum, and we love our boyfriend or girlfriend. Our brother or sister might annoy us half to death, but when push comes to shove most of us still love them. Surely these are all different kinds of love. 

There has been no shortage of writers seeking to define love, and many have written about its different dimensions, so I’m not breaking new ground here in making that suggestion. But let’s talk for a moment about what is probably the main culprit of our cynicism – and that is ‘romantic love’.

Romantic love is fickle. When people ‘fall’ in love (interesting phrase by the way, sounds like you can ‘fall’ out of it just as easily), it’s usually an intense emotional experience. It’s wonderful. It’s joyous. It makes the sky look bluer, the grass look greener, the day feel brighter. The reason is, the best I can make out, is that we are overjoyed that the object of our affection loves us back (and of course if they don’t, then there’s the intensity of unrequited love). But believe it or not, romantic love is actually quite selfish. “You make me feel great, and I want to be around you forever”.

There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we recognise it for what it is. And, if we handle it with care, and don’t expect it to do the heavy lifting, it will most likely hang around and pop back up again at the most unexpected moments.

Because there’s the rub. Romantic love cannot last on its own. At first its passion will be intense, but will eventually subside to more normal and less emotionally taxing levels. It actually has to, as our bodies can’t physically cope with sustained emotional intensity. Any relationship that lasts will need more than romantic love. It’s a delicate flower that will lose its petals in a storm. It’s not cut out for the rough stuff.

Desiderata states that love is ‘as perennial as the grass’. If the author is referring here to romantic love by itself, you can tell by my description so far that I would have a hard time agreeing with him.

But perhaps he is referring to a ‘combination’ of loves, as it were. There is a more solid form of love, what some people have called “indifferent love”. Indifferent love is, I think, best described as “caring for someone”. That sounds pretty lame I know, but I don’t know how else to put it. You do something for  someone, not because you are motivated by racing emotion, but by a more “objective” decision based on compassion or mercy.

What causes a stranger to walk into a burning house in order to try and rescue someone they don’t even know? This is so common an occurrence that firefighters strenuously try to stop it, because people routinely die from misjudging the danger and plunging headlong in. When the media reports that a family is in dire straits, it’s not uncommon for people to dig deep and give of their own money to a family they have never met. On a more personal level, I hope you have experienced sudden acts of kindness from someone you barely know when you were between a rock and a hard place. And parents often go without to send their kids to school, or to pay for that operation or make a specific opportunity possible.

That kind of love does abound everywhere. And what about that love you might feel for your pesky sibling, or that grumpy grandad? Such people can be a real pain in the neck, but their sudden misfortune or worse still, death, often brings out surprisingly strong feelings of loss or concern. C.S. Lewis described this as affection, something you might feel for someone who has been a part of your world, like it or not, who you might argue with tooth and nail, but suddenly miss deeply if they moved on.

Love is a complex thing indeed, much, much more complex than the feeble attempt I am making to describe it here.

In the presence of indifferent love, affection, and other kinds of loving gestures, romantic love can survive. Like a weed that you think you dug out but springs up again, romantic love can take a holiday (sometimes a long one) and then pop up again when you least expect it. Although it is fickle, romantic love planted and watered in good soil can indeed endure, and perhaps over the long term it may even fit that description of being perennial. It may well disappear without a trace when the going gets tough, but just maybe it will keep coming back.

Desiderata speaks of  love “in the face of all aridity and disenchantment”. There is real pain out there in the world, and there are plenty of instances where love has disappeared and cruelty, genuine indifference, or  hatred has taken its place. This is not some cheesy slogan that love fixes all. It doesn’t. But it exists – it is all around us, and perhaps if we take the time to remind ourselves and look again, it might just save us from the cancer of ingrained, bitter cynicism.

Let’s be realistic by all means – but let’s not let that realism cause us to lose the joy of possibilities and surprises in a world that is often cruel and heartless.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

Stressing about our kids

It’s interesting what we go through as parents..

One night I was watching the news and this amazing story of a 7 year old golf protege came on the screen. Apparently this boy started swinging a golf club at the age of 2! His dad now helps him to train, and he practices 3 times a week on a golf range before school, and also gets training from a golf pro, who commented that the boy had more focus on his task than any child he had met under 10.

It would be all too easy right now to assume that the father is driving his boy towards achievement. That may be the case here, but I couldn’t tell from the few brief comments the father made, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. What interests me though is the gruelling training (for a 7 year old who also has to fit in school). That’s a lot of work for a 7 year old!

It reminds me  of the time when my son, then a teenager, got seriously involved with swimming. He had some talent and a genuine interest in competing, and for several months we got stuck into early morning swim sessions 3 times a week from 5am to 7am, and a couple of afternoons a week from 4 – 6pm. Eventually he decided that footy and cricket were more important to him, so he gave the swimming away. I think it might also have had something to do with him being tired half the time on the days that he trained so early.

But it was pretty full on. We ‘d get up at 4am, be out the door by 4:40 and at the pool by 5am. Matty was part of a swimming class that trained competitive swimmers, so of course all the other parents were there too. It often seemed pretty surreal, sitting there watching them swim back and forth, back and forth. And then there were the competitions as well, taking up all of a Saturday every few weeks or so.

We only had a glimpse of that world before we moved on, and if Matty had wanted to we would have continued for probably another couple of years or so. I don’t really know how he felt about that whole time, but I remember how hard it was for me!

I have mixed feelings about the whole experience. It was somewhat stressful, and whilst I wasn’t the one swimming it took it out of me as well. It probably wasn’t a long enough period of time for me to settle into a routine and get my expectations under control. I never pushed my son, but whenever I saw him swim competitively I would literally squirm in my seat, and I swear that I almost felt as if I was doing the swimming for him! I remember the coach noticing me and saying something like “It’s not going to make him swim any faster!” It must have been amusing to watch me writhe on the seat, I so wanted him to do well.

I have no idea whether Matty felt as stressed as I did. I think he was disappointed if he didn’t swim well. But I do know this – I definitely wasn’t some achievement oriented dad whose son had to win – I just wanted him to win for his own sake. It’s as if I felt he would take the disappointment too much to heart, and I would have done anything to help him feel confident and able to take on the world.

When I think back, I’ve probably been like that with all the kids. It’s very easy for me to imagine that they could be crushed by life. I’m not 100% sure where that comes from. My life has not been a failure, but it certainly hasn’t been strewn with success either. I’ve been very resilient, bouncing back from lost opportunities to forge ahead, and have done fairly well in a general sense. So if I’m resilient, why wouldn’t I think my kids are?

I wonder how the dad feels about his 7 year old golfing son. Is he proud? I’m sure he is. Does he want to protect him from too much stress, or does he just want to throw him in the deep end?

Not everyone is like me, but I’m guessing it’s common for parents to stress over their kids, their future and their well being. A Steve Martin film from many years back, called “Parenthood” comes to mind. At one stage of the movie he is watching his son playing baseball, and his son, who was not a good player and was having difficulty fitting in, is confronted with a do or die catch.Steve, in his typical overstated humour, envisages two possible future scenarios based around his son’s success or otherwise on the baseball field – one of ‘well adjustedness’ and success, and the other a life of crime and dead ends. Here’s the clip from Youtube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OtShRAvpAQ.

I laughed so hard at that part of the movie, but boy could I relate. I worry too much, and then catastrophise about the consequences. In another part of the movie Steve’s son does actually make an important catch, and Steve as the father can’t contain himself he is SO happy, relieved, and proud – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XW-Nxfx5Nw

It is true that my son in his teenage years was a real handful, and getting himself into quite a bit of strife over a period of years. Perhaps some time, with his permission, I might unpack that a little. But (surprise, surprise) he has gone on to be a fine young man, as have all my children.

I’m a little less of a catastrophiser nowadays, but it’s not entirely absent. At least I can tell myself from past experience that my fears have most of the time been groundless, and so reassure myself when anxiety’s insidious grip tightens around my mind.

All this from a news report on a gifted child! It’s funny what pours forth once we start to ponder.