Saturday, August 22, 2015

Falling in Love while Staying True to Self

Auguste Rodin's "The Kiss". Photo: Hans Sandberg
The Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni wrote that falling in love is “the first stage of a collective movement consisting of two people.”

A single person can do whatever he or she wants, but that freedom is limited to what it is physically and biologically possible. (A human being cannot fly on its own, unless we consider falling towards the Earth a form of flying).

When God created Eve out of Adam’s rib, he created the first society. (Let us for a moment ignore the fact that both men and women normally are born to women who have been impregnated by men. The whole idea of God creating Eve out of Adam’s rib is certainly weird, almost like the Greek myth, where Athena springs fully armed from the head of Zeus.)  

When two people enter into a relationship, they are simultaneously entering into a power relation; a power structure. Many options are possible here: The most likely is that one person –  the strongest, smartest, shrewdest – becomes the dominant actor. It is of course theoretically possible that the two reach an equilibrium where they can work towards a shared goal, whether it is protection against a threat or solving a critical task that can only be achieved by collaboration between equals. When everybody is poor, it is easier to be equal, but once society and production technology allows for creation of a surplus, society is likely to split in some who dominate and others who are dominated. This split can be done along many lines, gender, race, culture, family, tribe etc.

Nobody is truly independent. No couple, family, tribe, society lives alone. When Aristotle wrote that human beings are political, he meant that they are social beings by nature. We are born into a specific social, biological and cultural setting. We are born into a historic setting.

When a man meets a woman he will be doing this in a social and historic context built on established facts, traditions, social structures, prejudices etc. Knowing what we know about human history, chances are that the relationship is complex, reflecting a long history of power, inequality and injustice. (One man and one woman is of course not the only possible combination, but the dominant type due to the Darwinian process of evolution.) 

How should we deal with the pain and inequality inherited from the past?

Jesus supposedly died on the cross for our sins. That is one way to deal with history. We are all sinners, an insight that reflects the fact that there is something fundamental in humanity that makes us want to do the right thing (as defined by the time and society we live in). Unlike the big apes, we belong to a collaborative species where empathy is an essential trait. We suffer if we don’t do what we deep down feel is the right thing.

Sacrifice is one way to deal with this and to build societies that stay together. Religion is one way to address the problem of “free riders,” and one that humans have practiced for a very long time. Humans tried to relieve themselves of guilt by sacrificing either other people or animals. The Christian innovation was to have one historic person sacrificed for all our sins, making further human sacrifice unnecessary. Once could say that this was a step in the right direction.

Every man who meets a woman will face a similar dilemma. He will enter a historic moment where he will have to navigate his own life and responsibility, and the heritage left by history. Even though love is a great equalizer that has the potential to put two individuals on an equal footing by making them strive for a shared goal, this does not eliminate the past. As beautiful and intoxicating as love is (love’s madness) there is no escaping reality other than for a short moment. At some point, the lovers will have to face reality and come to grips with the nature of their relationship, the history of their beings and relations. They carry history with them, and it is unlikely that they are equal or equally passionate or that their goals are perfectly aligned.

This can be a painful discovery. Love’s slate is not clean, but love cannot survive unless the couple acts as if it is. They must learn to take each other for what they are and be ready to forgive and accept. If Eve tells Adam that it is not fair that he came first, then she has already given up on love. If Adam tells Eve that he owns her, as she came from his body, then he does not love her.

Love is new. A person falls in love with another person. In Greek mythology, mankind originally had two heads, four arms and four legs, but was cut in half and since then the two have chased each other. That is kind of silly, but also sweet. The lover wants the other person to be part of him (her). Love seeks unification.

In love we feel complete. When we fall in love, we forget about ourselves, about our needs, and we are willing to sacrifice our identity, but love cannot be sustained unless we remain true to ourselves; unless we hold onto our identity. There has to be an I that enters into a relationship. If that I evaporates, there can be no relationship. It takes two to tango. If we forsake ourselves, love maybe complete, but we are gone. This works for some insects, but not for human beings.

The scars of inequality will always be there, but unless you have committed a crime, you are not guilty. We don’t inherit the sins of our fathers and forefathers. It is I that enter a relationship with another human being. I will treat you as an equal and you must treat me as an equal. It doesn’t matter if you or I am rich or poor, black, brown, yellow or white, gay or straight, man or woman or something in-between. We must both be proud of who we are. I must be proud to be a man and you should be proud to be a woman. (The same goes for other combinations and variations.)

Love is unselfish, but it is an act that requires two strong people who maintain their strength and independence. Love may succeed or it may die, but you and the person you loved will live on even if your particular love affair fails or dies. In fairytales and romantic novels, lovers face death together, or as in the case of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” – alone. But that has more to do with the needs of storytelling than life.  

A person who is unable to love himself/herself cannot love another person. The torturer knows that to break a person, you must first make them feel bad about themselves; stop loving themselves. Initiation rites often involves acts that makes the person sacrifice its pride; its humanity. Once you stop loving yourself, you will obey orders. Emotional blackmail works the same way. If a person believes that its worth is tied to somebody else or a tribe or gang, then that person can be manipulated.

Whoever you are – man, woman, gay or straight, mainstream or side-stream – you need to protect your dignity. If your lover hurts your feelings, or puts you down in word or action, you need to defend yourself for the sake of your capacity to love. If you allow the loved one to say or do things that makes you uncomfortable, then you are allowing your ability to love to evaporate. You may feel that it is a necessary compromise, and that it is only a temporary thing, but you should not let go of yourself or doubt your own feelings. If it hurts, it hurts. As much as a lover wants to please the one her or she loves, fear of the other is the beginning of the end. If a relationship that starts out as being equal tilts so that it can only be sustained by one person bending over backwards, than it is not love anymore, but a power relationship where one person dominates another. The person being dominated often responds by begging for love (sometimes in words, but mostly in deeds), but such a relationship is already unhealthy and domed. The dominant partner often threatens the dominated by threatening to withhold love. Once the relationship becomes based on fear of losing the love, fear of saying no, then love is gone.

When a man loves a woman, a woman loves a man or a person loves another person, they all need to know who they are, where one begins and the other ends. If you lose your sense of self, you lose your ability to reason and make decisions. Then love is lost.

Trust yourself. Be open and honest. Then love is possible.