This article was first published on The School Of Life website.
In the class on ‘How To Make Love Last’ that I run at The School Of Life, there is an exercise in which I ask participants to think about love, friendship and sex as three overlapping circles. The aim is to explore which of these elements participants consider to be essential to a viable long-term relationship. Yet almost always when I run this exercise, participants express some confusion about the definition of ‘love’. Friendship and sex are clear enough, but what exactly does that third circle delimit? Romantic feelings? Passionate attachment? Adoration? If the love we feel for a friend doesn’t count, then what exactly does? Usually this leads to me talking about the various words which the Greeks used for love - eros, agape, filia and so forth. Like the Inuit with their (alleged) twenty different words for ‘snow’, surely we require a more nuanced vocabulary to talk about something that is so central to our aspirations, fears and hopes. Once we recognise the promise of perfect, unending romantic/sexual bliss for the mirage it is, what are we left with? What does it really mean to love someone?
The German psychiatrist Erich Fromm offered one answer to this question in his classic book The Art of Loving. According to Fromm, we put the cart before the horse when we worry about the problems of how to find love or be loved, which are the questions that tend to preoccupy us when we are not in a relationship (and often enough when we are in one!). Instead of concerning ourselves with how to make ourselves more popular and appealing, we should focus on our ability to give love. For Fromm, love is very much a verb; the love he is interested in is not the state of infatuation, or even the deeper currents of emotion that we feel for our family and closest friends. It is love as action that concerns him, love as comprised in the work that embodies it: patience, kindness, attention, responsiveness and responsibility. How different and sobering an outlook this is compared to the sugary, nutrient-free version of love that is dished up to us ad nauseam in the popular media. Falling in love is easy, says Fromm. It is standing in love that is hard: continuing to occupy the ground of love even when under great pressure, even when we’re not feeling loving at all. Ultimately love is a commitment to a way of being. One cannot ever reach the goal entirely, but one can keep striving towards the ideal.
Freud spoke about the central importance of love and work in human life, yet for Fromm, love is a kind of work. This is not by any means to reduce love to drudgery - one could in fact argue that drudgery is the definition of work without love - but essential to Fromm’s conception is the idea that loving costs us effort. This notion of a fusion of love and work is captured in the words ‘tending’ and ‘attending’. Its opposite is not just violence and destructiveness, but also neglect: the absence of attention and care. The confusion of the emotion of love with the work of love is at the heart of many relationship failures, not only in marriages but between parents and children. It is not enough to say, after years of absence or indolent laissez faire, ‘but I always loved you!’ There is no great virtue in the emotion of love itself, but all possible virtue in the acts of caring and nurturing that feeling should inspire.
There is a danger here that one might confuse love with mere softness or indulgence. Nurturing and caring, tending and tenderness are vital elements of the art of loving that Fromm espouses, but the truth is that much of the difficulty of loving is knowing what to do. What is the most loving course of action? This is the dilemma that well-intentioned parents repeatedly confront: how to know whether ‘tough’ or ‘tender’ love is called for in a given circumstance. If to love someone is to act in their deepest interests, there is no simple formula that can be applied, because another person is always partly a mystery, even to themselves. They are complex, and the world is complex. Love, then, requires wisdom. The work of love is at this coalface, where one strives to understand a person deeply enough to know how to love them best. And it turns out this is also the place where we learn wisdom.
The situation is exactly the same with self-love. The self-esteem movement of the seventies and eighties attempted to deal with the problem of self-love by applying a simplistic formula. Self-love was reduced to a mantra of self-admiration: I am wonderful, I am special, I can achieve whatever I want. Children were encouraged to chant these and similar affirmations in the hope of warding off the demon of low self-esteem, assumed to be at the heart of all psychological malaise. The result, it is now recognised, was children with bloated, hydroponic egos, narcissistic and impervious to shame. It also set these children up for disappointment and disillusionment when reality bit and the world failed to heed the specialness they had been trained to take for granted. Contrary to the assumptions of the time, it is possible to have too much self-esteem. Self-love, like love of another, does not consist in an evaluation or a feeling. It is all in the work. The simple acts of eating well, exercising, giving oneself enough time for sleep and play constitute aspects of self-love. That one does these things expresses self-love, and the feelings of liking oneself follow, just as feelings of love for another person tend to follow the actions of caring for them.
This is another way we tend to put the cart before the horse: because we think love is a feeling, we often believe that the absence of the feeling indicates the disappearance of love. But if we are responsible for love, if loving feeling can be born out of action, then the absence of the emotion of love at certain times in a relationship might not mean that love, or the other person, has failed us. It might be more that the garden has dried up because we have have failed to water it. Again, we should beware of simplistic formulae. There are bad relationships that should be left, and the prolonged absence of affection can be one of the signs of such a relationship. It is also right to expect some loving back for one’s efforts in a relationship. Nevertheless there is an almost universal tendency in human nature to take the familiar for granted, to assume that having fallen in love, a relationship will look after itself. Yet habit is the death of love. Love is a conscious work in which we make the effort to see the people around us anew each day, to respond to who they are right now, in this instant. Attending and tending.
When we are not in a relationship, it is easy to think of finding a partner as a kind of salvation, imagining ourselves as empty vessels waiting to be filled with another’s love. Yet presumably the person we are looking for is hoping to be filled by us in the exactly the same way. Two empty vessels cannot fill one another. To love another person well, we must have something to give, and while it is tempting to imagine that one will pour out one’s love on the right person once we find them, extravagant romantic gestures and outpourings of adoration are the fancy desserts of love, not the daily staples that sustain and nourish a relationship. It is a fantasy to imagine that one can live selfishly, empty of love, and then give abundantly when the right person arrives. Love is a skill that must be cultivated daily.
Even in the absence of others, we can practice the art of loving. The person who spends hours each weekend working on a prized car is expressing a kind of love. Love is wherever we pay attention and apply ourselves with care. Conversely it is absent whenever we pass over something carelessly and without attention. When we neglect some important area of our lives, in a sense we fail to love. Mindfulness is an act of love because it is an attending to that which is around us and within us. We can practice the art of loving even in solitude because we are never without the opportunity to attend and tend to the world around us. This type of love is practiced by artists and poets who bring a kind of loving attention to the world when they practice their art. As Henry Miller writes:
To paint is to love again. It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees. His is a love, moreover, which is free of possessiveness. What the painter sees he is duty-bound to share. Usually he makes us see and feel what ordinarily we ignore or are immune to. His manner of approaching the world tells us, in effect, that nothing is vile or hideous, nothing is stale, flat and unpalatable unless it be our own power of vision.
Thinking of love of this way - as the acts of attention and care we bring to the world and others around us - it is clear why we will always fall short of the ideal of being perfectly loving. Our reservoirs of attention and energy are limited. Our wisdom is imperfect, our selfishness and laziness can only be ameliorated, never extinguished. Yet the aspiration to love better, the continual holding of the ideal, can only lead to better relationships and a richer, fuller life.