Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Love

Love is the most complex of all human experiences. Nothing else in life is as fraught with joy and danger and as rife with trauma and bliss. I have felt love many times, and that, I suppose, suggests that I have never really known it. For it seems to me that love ought to be something like god - unique and eternal. Love that is confined to the physical and emotional and that succumbs to time is not love in any profound or meaningful sense. 'Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds,' Shakespeare said. Love in order to be true must have permanence, and that means it must be able to survive the ruthlessness of time and the shackles of space. Indeed, love should be a connection with, or an experience of, that which exists and lives and thrives outside time and space.

But it seems to me that love, as most people experience it, is rooted, not in the transcendent, but in the need to overcome loneliness. For most people, love is the desire to connect with another so as to enlarge one's sense of self, and to escape from the fear of isolation in the world. Now while it may be true that this does not preclude one transforming one's love to reach that other plane, I suspect that such a mean, selfish and fearful origin makes this unlikely. It may be that those who do not fear loneliness (and I have never met such a person) are the only ones capable of experiencing true love, but it may be equally true that such people have no need of it. If I am correct about the origins of love, then this latter point becomes a distinct possibility.

For we are isolated beings by our very nature as selves. This the Hindus understand, and the fact lies at the very heart of their religion. The self is an island in desperate search for connection to the main, or at least to some other island, so that one may flee, no matter how briefly in time and space, the confines of the isolation to which one is heir as a human being. And so we seek out love and romanticize it and even apotheosize it simply because we are afraid to live and to die alone. And in the process we make compromises and sacrifices that cannot be explained in any other way than by recourse to a profound and terrifying fear. The existentialists saw this and argued that even such a sentiment as love as a way of avoiding the humanizing and ennobling pain of existence was a form of cowardice. In view of all this, it may not be too much to say that love is cowardice - a tactic to distract ourselves from the fact that we are born and will die alone.

And yet there are those who argue that love is the nature and meaning of existence. Among these are some of the artists and thinkers whom I admire most. Whether it is love for another person or love for a transcendent divine, or love of an ideal or love of Truth, such people have concluded that life without love has no meaning at all. And so perhaps romantic love is a sort of shadow or proving ground for that love that does outlast time, and toward which the whole human race ought to be aspiring.

I do not know. I certainly feel and have felt the need and desire for love; I have known the terrors of loneliness and the scouring effects of isolation. I have seen these things destroy people and drive them to insanity and even death. And I have felt the deep existential tug of those forces myself. Perhaps love is the only thing that can save us from this fate - this downward drift into meaninglessness that is the birthright of our selfhood - and that is why love is so prized and lionized and striven for by everyone in every generation. Perhaps that is the true meaning of love: not that it departs from fear, but that it alone can enable us to rise above our fears and achieve the possibility of fruition as selves, and the realization of that destiny to which we are drawn as creatures of the spirit.