03/7/13

“By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again.”

These are my favorite lines from a short clip out of the movie Paris Je T’aime (Paris, I love You). The film consists of a series of different scenes filmed by a number of directors in different arrondissements (districts) of the city. There are several good ones and some that are a little strange. (A vampiric Elijah Wood?) I have used one particular clip from the film, “Bastille,” many times to illustrate the complexity of ritual. It’s also a beautiful sequence in its own right, and I always feel a bit guiltily using it to exemplify something else. Watch it below:

Aside from the insights the clip gives about the fragile nature of love, which deserve further exploration, we can extract at least two important points about ritual in our lives. The first is seen in the rituals of the wife. I mentioned yesterday that rituals are sometimes developed with an eye toward efficiency (ease of remembrance, etc.) Yet there are many times when ritual is not efficient; it is seemingly extravagant or wasteful. Particularly in these cases it looks illogical to the outside observer. The protagonist was annoyed by the fact that his wife kept items she didn’t need, planned to do things she did not do, and repeated activities that irked him. These were the things that had attracted him to her originally, but they had become a bother. We could give several explanations for this, one being that only because his feelings had changed, the actions of his wife bothered him. In other words, it was not her actions that were annoying but his changed attitude toward them. While true on one level, this is only part of the story. The rituals themselves underwent a change as well. For the man, the meaning of the symbols was transformed, and he did not participate in them the same way. His change in relationship with his wife’s rituals, and by extension his wife, involved a change in both his thinking and his acting, but it is not easy to say if one or the other came first. It is very difficult to understand, in fact, how exactly his attitude changed. Indeed, he had fallen in love with another woman, but was that the cause or the effect of his relationship with his wife? He experienced, in a sense, a sort of conversion, and its location cannot be precisely marked. We tend to mark it with the subject (“He fell out of love,” “He got selfish,” etc.), but that overemphasizes one—albeit important—variable at the expense of others.

The second point about ritual begins with the key quote I noted in the title. In hugging his wife, taking pleasure in and with her, enjoying an action that he had previously disliked, he narrates, “By acting like a man in love, I became a man in love again.” Much to our chagrin, love, in terms of its felt emotional presence, is not always or often the prerequisite for its cognitive appearance. To put it another way, one is not usually “struck” by love. This only takes place by obscuring the context of its appearance, failing to see the social and psychological markers that coincide with an emotional response of surprised attraction. Whenever movies depict an impending arranged marriage, the male figure inevitably says to the female something to the effect of, “You will learn to love me in time.” That strikes us as artificial and more than a little creepy, but it is in fact quite probable. It is certainly as probable as the lastingness of marriages that are born out of “falling in love.”

The point is that by “acting” in the particular way that I think one does when expressing a type of relationship, the feelings that accompany that relationship can subsequently appear. It is perhaps for the sake of simplification that we often make decisions based upon what we like, or what we surmise we like based on previous experience. Yet we also know that we can dislike something and then grow to like it. For a trivial example, when I was in my early twenties I thought coffee was the most disgusting drink ever created. I thought to myself, “If you have to make yourself like it, why drink it in the first place?” Then, somehow, in the span of a year I went from drinking no coffee to being a daily coffee drinker. I participated in the actions of coffee drinkers, all the while thinking myself not “really” a coffee drinker, and somewhere along the way became one. While we would like to prioritize the mind as taking the primary role in these processes, it is usually not the case. I did not wake up and decide to like coffee one day; the man in the clip did not set out to un-love his wife, much less love her again, yet by participating in the actions of a man who loved his wife, he came to embody that role again.

What this tells us about ritual activities is that it is inaccurate to suggest that if one is “acting” out the ritual, if one does not possess the right emotional state or the correct knowledge about it, that it is somehow artificial or insincere. On the contrary, it is actually when ritual becomes static, when its meaning is determined and fixed for the individual without possibility of change, that it becomes meaningless. When the symbol becomes equivalent to the thing signified, the mystery of their dynamic is exposed and they lose all potency. The signified ceases to exist. It is precisely this reason that ritual is so important to religion. It helps create and maintain the divine. But it is the possibility of the ritual not signifying correctly that gives it its power, and ironically, the attempt to prevent some possibilities is the closure of possibility altogether.

Your thoughts on the clip? Which came first: the ritual or the feeling (or thinking)?

01/26/13

The End of Love. No, Really.

Warning. This post is longer than my previous posts. For your reading pleasure, however, I will include an intermission in which you can get popcorn, use the facilities, or continue the next day.

As an end, for now, to my posts on love, I came across a short piece I wrote in my last six months as a Christian over four years ago. I had been wrestling with the definition of love, as it had been discussed in my church. Paul’s First Corinthians gives many attributes of love, but never puts forth a succinct definition. I reflected, though, that 1 John provides perhaps the quintessential definition of love in the Christian faith. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (3.16). It seemed to me that the passage suggests a sort of imitation. The critical question is of what kind that imitation is. Essentially, my critique at the time was that we superimpose the literal death of Jesus over our metaphorical deaths and suppose it to be the same thing. In other words, we use the death of Christ to bring life to ourselves. The Christian does not seem to notice how problematic this makes the second half of the verse above. How do we lay down our lives for others if not in the sense that Jesus did? How can we justify believing we have done so if not through the testimony of our deaths? If we love, we do so differently.

I concluded that the discrepancy highlighted in the verse was due to a distinctly different understanding of love—one formed in the wake of Jesus’s death and necessary to Christian institutionalization—as an identity-forming, life-sustaining relationship between the believer and Christ, rather than laying down life. First John later states that God is love, and since God loved us, we ought to love each other. I argued that one cannot love in the way suggested by this verse in First John with our current definition of love. I suggested that another paradigm for understanding love, such as that of Thich Nhat Hanh, might be more appropriate. In Living Buddha, Living Christ, he suggests that one cannot love one’s enemy, because in love, any distinction between self and other is collapsed, making it impossible for the enemy to be enemy, or even to be ‘other.’ I suggested that our desire to limit and qualify love, as does the man who asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?,” is contrary to the open and excessive model of love defined by John’s Jesus. At the very least, it seemed to me that we should recognize that our definition of love was really not that of John’s Jesus because taken in a literal sense, it would entail our deaths ‘for’ one another, or in a more metaphorical sense, an open-ended outflowing of self. John’s two examples, love as death and love as God, are intimately connected. Thus, I reasoned, love, death, and a search for divinity are there in the death of Jesus, but our imitation is something entirely different.

Looking back now, I was clinging to what seemed to me to be the most important element of Christianity, the death of Christ, while expanding the definition of Christianity beyond the Western Protestant boundaries I had grown up in. Love, I was trying to say, is bigger than Christianity, and part of the love that First John actually implies (though I certainly don’t think this is what the author intended) means exceeding and destroying the Christian boundaries within which the verse is brought to our attention. At the time, I was still very invested in those boundaries.

INTERMISSION

My investment, some four years removed, has lessened but has not been completely liquidated. Nor will it likely ever be. My field of study, over and above my three-decade-plus social inculcation, ensures that my reflection on Christianity and the Western tradition will be a lifelong habit. In any case, the verse in First John seems even more revealing than it did to me years ago. I would now locate the nature of the problem in the first sentence of the verse above. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” The first and definitive act of interpretation is inherent in conveying the nature of the act itself. The author conveys the historical and existential fact of death, but does so in a non-empirical way. Jesus’s death is given an equivalence. It was a loss for our gain. The excessiveness of the act of death is given the status of an economic exchange in order to explain it, to circumscribe its meaning. I do not suggest the author was being intentionally deceitful here; nonetheless, his explanation attempts to render uncontrollable death controllable once again.

Death is the ultimate paradox: the limit of life, a finality to be avoided as long as possible, yet an inevitable and existential reality. There have been innumerable responses to the mandate of death, yet all exhibit a notion of control over it, or at least an attempt to lessen its sting. Thus, when someone embraces death, even welcomes it before absolutely necessary, it thwarts the very ground of our existence and demands a re-equalization. The language of sacrifice becomes prevalent. Jesus sacrificed himself, gave up life in order to benefit ours. In the Christian tradition, Jesus’s death removes the sting, the finality, of our own deaths. In one fell swoop, we thus have explained the unexplainable and rendered all of life under our control, because even in the beyond of death, where we have no being to explain, we have established continuance of life. This is what we call faith. And while it may very well be a form of faith-as-imitation, it is not love.

It is not love because such a paradigm conserves, it preserves; in short, it does the opposite of death. Even when death comes, as it does to us all, we tell ourselves, that it has only altered our physical form, but not our lives. We use the example of Christ to do exactly the opposite, despite the words of First John. As a result, both love and death become the language of commonplace exchange. Christians conquer death and love everybody all the time.

Consider the act of death from the perspective of Jesus, from the perspective of many a charismatic leader. It does not flow from the logic of economic exchange. It is motivated by such an excess of quality that death comes as a byproduct and a surprise, and yet is irrelevant. If we are to believe that love is God, and that its epitome is the death of Jesus, then Christianity has little ground on which to stand. Why? Because the institution exists to preserve itself, to preserve those whom it protects. The model of Jesus is an excess of love, a giving of oneself that ends inevitably in death. We see evidence of this throughout history, and we immortalize it in literature and film. Yet in our everyday lives we conclude that those tragic figures were subject to some sort of temporal equation, when their deaths were actually evidence that they exceeded temporal mathematics all together.

The martyrs of early Christianity understood the excess of love perhaps better than most. But I think that even the martyrs, though they have taken the weight of the verses of First John more seriously, fail to grasp the divinity of the equation. Under the social influence of Christianity, they accept that the love to which the author refers is located, not in the excess of life resulting in death itself, but in relationship with Christ. As a result, they reach for divinity after death instead of seeing its equivalence in death itself, in the act of loving. If the death of Jesus is a byproduct of love, is a godly status, there is nothing in the act to suggest to us that it is historically unique. Instead, we can see it in the beauty of many a leader, an artist, a philosopher. Single-minded dedication, unwavering desire will result in death because it loves too much. It exceeds all social norms and must be controlled for society to function properly. Yet our appropriation of such excess as the standards of normativity, the prime example of which is American Christianity, deviously corrupts excess, perhaps lessening the anxiety of death, perhaps preventing some of the violence that results from divinity, but certainly placing limits around our understanding of love.

I would “love” to hear your thoughts. In fact, if you post a comment, I’ll put you in a drawing for an only slightly used copy of Living Buddha, Living Christ. Shameless, just shameless.

01/23/13

The Selfishness of the Giving Tree

True love is unselfish, right? It gives generously and asks for nothing in return. When I sense that myself or someone else is playing the martyr, I think jokingly of The Giving Tree, a poem written by Shel Silverstein. There is a legitimate point to explore here, though. For those unfamiliar with the story, a boy and a tree have a playful and symbiotic relationship that grows more and more one-sided as the boy ages into a man. The tree literally gives parts of herself to make the boy happy, first her apples, then her branches, then her trunk, until there is nothing left but a stump. When the boy returns as an old man needing nothing but to sit on the stump and rest his weary bones, the man and the tree returning to symbiosis.

Though a children’s poem, it expresses an issue of existential and social concern. There are many different ways the story can be read, and just in rereading it, I was both saddened and angered. We are intrigued by the poem because we want to be the tree, and we often style ourselves as the tree, but we think that more often, we are actually the little boy.

The poem gets off easy, though, painting love and selfishness in black and white. We should note that there is a vast gray area between selfish and selfless. The first definition of selfish in my dictionary is, “lacking consideration for others.” “Consideration” is deceptively subjective. It means, “careful not to cause inconvenience or to hurt others.” Although politeness is valuable, if you take any sort of a meaningful stance on anything, you will cause inconvenience, and just by living around others, you will be inconvenienced most days. If you’re like me, your first instinct may be to think how selfish those people are, although you have no way of judging if your concerns are any less important than theirs.

But put that on hold and let’s look at the second definition of selfish, which is “concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” How can this be judged? In the poem, the boy is certainly selfish according to the definition, and the tree selfless, but life never plays out in such a tidy narrative. Even if it did though, you will note that the tree doesn’t want nothing. The tree wants to be happy, and thinks it will be happy if the boy is happy. A psychologist might call the tree codependent, but that won’t really help us. The tree wants something, although it doesn’t know an efficient way to gain it. Is the tree less selfish than the boy? Do we respect the tree more?

I Googled “jesus giving tree” just to see how many people make that connection, and as I suspected, there are quite a few examples. I have no idea what Shel Silverstein intended with the poem, and it really doesn’t matter, but one can certainly map the evangelical Jesus onto the giving tree. He just wants to play and hang out and be buds, but you’re selfish. That’s okay, he’ll be there when you get back and give you a final place of rest. The problem with the poem, or the model of love supposedly given in the Christian portrait of Jesus, comes when we think we can apply it to our own lives. All our actions are concerned with self, and we establish a false ideal when we judge the actions of others and ourselves on the basis of a selfish/selfless dichotomy that can never be determined on the ground.

In debates with others I’ve suggested that all our actions are selfish, but that’s not quite right either. However, we don’t and can’t love without an element of self-calculation. A Christian response is to attack that head on and denounce it with some sort of penance or ascetic practice, or else attempt to ignore it and rationalize it away. These actions distort our understanding of self and cloud our understanding of others in a sort of Nietzschean ressentiment, a resentment that condemns self and other. If, however, we can approach our relationships with an honest assessment of what we want out of them, without stigmatizing our self-interest, we may be able to love more openly. It is better that we take control of what that is and the best way to achieve it rather than ceding our interests and desires to ready-made institutional categories.

This post is as much about notions of the self as it is love, but the presence or absence of self is a traditional defining factor of love that I’m arguing is misplaced. In a well-known passage, the apostle Paul notes that love is not self-seeking, but neither is it self-denying. It is self-identifying. In a gloss on the philosopher Martin Heidegger, one scholar explains that my love of another—and another’s love for me—is found in the shared possibility of a story that is ever exposed and always changing. The shared journey of love requires preference for the other in order to reveal the self to oneself.

So I am not saying we should give full reign to selfishness. The late David Foster Wallace has an excellent speech, This is Water, that expresses the perils of this beautifully. The first seven minutes or so of the second half are the best, but I’d highly recommend the whole thing. He’s giving a speech to Kenyon College about how if we go through life on our “default setting,” we will usually view other people as annoyances that are “in our way.” His point is that if we go to the effort to make a choice about how we will view the world, it can take on an entirely different meaning, the meaning that we give it. I think this can be applied to the way we think about love as well. Ordering our world requires a self-interest that then gives us the freedom to love.

01/22/13

Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage…

The type of love I think about most often is in relation to marriage. I have been married for over sixteen years, since I was eighteen years old (no, I won’t recommend it to my son), so it is one area where I have a little more longevity than most my age. It is the also an area of love where you get the little help from pop culture. All the movies end at precisely the point where two free-spirited individuals overcome all obstacles (especially that climax point where she finds out about that horrible thing she thinks he did and he has to come find her in the rain on his motorcycle on the beach as she’s getting on a plane to fly to the other side of the world and never coming back) and tie the knot. So the popular message is that love relationships culminate in marriage and…good luck after that, because it’s too boring to be movie material.

But what exactly is the relationship between love and marriage? I might say that the decline in marriage rates is directly correlated to the increasing valuation of a particular type of love in marriage. Simply, the other cultural factors that coordinated to keep an otherwise unhappy couple together have lost the grip they once had. Those who point to the decline in spirituality are at least partially correct; the Church has been and is a place that exerts social pressure on individuals to get and remain paired.

The primary reason my testosterone-addled teenage brain wanted to get married one month out of high school was that I wanted to have sex and was too scared to do it outside of marriage. My motto was from the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “It is better to get married than burn in lust.” Likely because it was the issue I was most concerned about, I thought that sex outside of marriage was a death sentence, likely leading to dancing, drugs, drinking, gambling, and death, in no particular order. It was like one of those commercials for a revolutionary new prescription drug that promises great results, the side effects of which include everything from nausea to slow expiration from internal bleeding. So I followed the rules as much as a teenager can be expected to do.

So was the Church, the institution, wrong in trying to get me to confine intimacy to monogamous relationship? I don’t think so, even if the tactics they use to enforce their policies are sometimes inappropriate or desperate. It is in the best interest of the institution, of the social body, for you to be married. From his study of primates (and really, we’re all kind of like monkeys when we’re in love, right?), Frans de Waal has suggested that the pair-bond serves a definite developmental and sustaining societal function, eliminating an element of competition for species propagation. In other words, if most people are paired off, then I don’t have to worry as much about others jeopardizing my success in procreation. My mate will not be stolen from me when I am away; I get along with others more and I can concentrate more of my energy elsewhere. It is not surprising that many different social organizations coordinate to promote the benefits of marriage.

A biological explanation fails to convince me of a connection with love, however. Here’s my point: there is no necessary relationship between love and marriage. I was told that the love of a marriage relationship on earth is an analogy to the relationship between Jesus and the Church. (As an aside, try to read the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament strictly as an allegory to the love God has for Christians—it is a good mental exercise.) But it is first and foremost a social convenience. I am not saying that this is grounds on which marriage should be done away with, because insofar as marriage is still a part of society (and will continue to be for some time), it performs a significant cultural role. Even those who disparage the value of marriage rely on it in their day-to-day socio-cultural negotiations. What I am saying is that the link between love and marriage is one in which we collude with social institutions, equating the two in order to avoid the anxiety of existence in that area of being.

Marriage is no guarantee of love, of the preference I referred to in my last post. Loveless marriages exist everywhere, as do loving pair-bond relationships outside of marriage. There are consequences to mandating marriage as the norm, which I have seen in the second-class treatment of adult single or divorced folks in Christianity. My argument, then, is not to let marriage do the dirty work of love for you. Love is a fragile thing, and belief that marriage is its only proper container is a denial of its nature. It is open, exposed, and vulnerable. Consequently, we can view the relationship between love and marriage as a beneficial one…as long as it is beneficial. We cannot overlook the fact that it has no sanction outside of what we give it. Why get married? There are certainly some societal benefits. But the safety and security that are thought to come with it have no standing of their own. They are projections of our own battles against uncertainty.

01/21/13

Choosing to Choose in Love

Now that I’ve gotten some of my disparate ideas out of the way, I want to write a series of posts on a particular theme. Although I have several in mind, I’ve decided to start with a theme that I feel less qualified to write on than others: love. In many respects, I’m as qualified as any other. I have a number of family members and friends that I love. I’ve been married for a number of years, so have had some experience in the ups and downs of love in marriage. I have a number of things that I would say I love in casual conversation (coffee, for one). I even have things I love to do (like drinking coffee at a coffee shop while writing). I have not, however, studied love to any great extent. Death and violence are more my game. I have enjoyed many a discussion of the topic over the last few years, however, and it is this basis and my own experience that I want to address love in a few posts.

A brief definition of love is in order. I’ll admit that I usually think of love in a fairly abstract sense; nearly all definitions express it as a feeling, based on the emotions, manifesting in the body. In analysis, though, I feel somewhat detached from my emotions, and when I reflect on them, it is typically in the sense of analyzing another individual and not myself. I would define love as a complex of feelings by which we become aware of a strong preference for some individuals or things over others. These feelings seek out and are strengthened by affirmation from others. In the case of love of another being, this affirmation is some manner of reciprocation, love returned. In the case of a non-being, this affirmation is confirmation by other beings of the worth of the object. A couple things are worth noting here. First, although love is most commonly expressed in a paired relationship (I love you, you love me), it occurs within a matrix of possibilities, other potential beings to be loved. In other words, it does not exist in a vacuum. Second, this cognized feeling of preference might be explained as the emotional manifestation of a biological response, perhaps indicating the possibility of procreation and perpetuation or a substance that will bring me a healthier existence. A biological grounding can be both scientifically true and practically insufficient for my exploration, because its legitimacy does not extend beyond the boundaries of scientific exploration. It cannot plumb the depths of our emotions and self-reflection on the topic.

With this definition in mind, it may be easier to admit that although love in the abstract conjures up associations of pleasure, in experience it is as often pain, longing, or remorse. The most acute sense of love I have felt was when I was physically the farthest away from the objects of my love. Love expressed itself in absence, not presence, and the reintroduction of the objects of my love has never been quite as acute as their absence.

This functioning definition is relatively new for me. As in other areas, for most of my life my definition of love was given to me by religion. I have already noted that the premier version of love for me was an all-encompassing one, evidenced by the death of Christ. If, after all, I believed that that death was for all of humanity, both all that has come since and all that came before, it constitutes a level of love quite foreign and impossible to match. Yet as a Christian my mandate was to emulate that love.

I want to question the purpose and value of that religious definition, especially in the modern Western religious framework. More specifically, I would like to suggest that the actual purpose and value of emulating love in an all-expansive sense runs contrary to its rhetorical aims. There are many senses in which I think this definition of love is problematic. First, only in a theological sense can it be said to be true of Jesus. In a historical and practical sense it is clear he did not love all people equally and without condition. We can pass by that without saying more for now, knowing that for Christians, Jesus is the stated basis for the unconditional love we are given and are supposed to reciprocate to God and others.

What impact does this have? We know from experience that we do not love without reservation and exception.  All of us in our day-to-day lives, prefer some people to others and some things to others. We justify this in different ways. A Christian might say this is because Jesus’ love is an ideal to which we strive but always fail, or this is because of sin, etc. So if we consistently fail to live up to this standard of love, why is it maintained? Because it lessens the pain of existence, the pain and uncertainty that accompanies unfettered love.

To put it another way, it is because this type of love is neither accessible nor exercisable in any practical sense that it can be maintained as the ultimate form of love. In this manner, the individual can be told (in more liberal Christian circles) that she is loved by a divine being regardless of her actions. This serves as a salve for the acute feelings of the moment because it is untouchable by particular circumstance (which is also the same reason it can be unsatisfying unless socially reinforced). It is also comforting for us to think that other individuals in seemingly “unloved” circumstances actually are loved by God, despite all evidence to the contrary. This encourages us to “love” them in the same way, that is, by doing nothing to change their circumstances. Insofar as we are moved to step in and help another individual, our actions cease to be a universal love and become a specific and located action of care.

In short, the ways that we often think we love are not love in any evidential sense. Love becomes love by the act of preference, the very act that we are told relegates it to a lesser form. There is a whole unnecessary complex of guilt and shame that comes from this contradictory dogma. Rather than speak more about love on an abstract level, in the next few days I will instead approach the subject in its relationship with more specific topics such as marriage, self-interest and death. Meanwhile, if you’ve thought about a definition of love or aspects of universal love, I’d like to hear it.