It’s not surprising or unique to read and research love. I imagine I’m like most people in that I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be loved, and how to be a better lover (and not always in the erotic sense). My quest has been recently focused on Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. While imperfect (confines itself to the gender binary and other oppressive constructs of its time) for a 1950’s psychological text, I have found it both succinct and comprehensive, self-explanatory and subjectively thought provoking. It operates on several assumptions; most of which I can agree with.
That human existence is life being aware of itself, and while a gift, awareness comes with a myriad of problems put most simply; to attain individuality while remaining connected to others. A conundrum to which we are all subjected. There are several answers to this problem, all imperfect, partial answers to transcend the discomfort produced by separateness; according to Fromm.
1. Creativity and production
2. The use of drugs, alcohol and sexual experiences (orgiastic experiences)
3. The most popular solution in modern society: conformity which is based on the false premise of equality. Equality in it’s origins actually means oneness, all unique constructs of the same universe, whereas now we use it mean sameness.
The unity achieved in productive work is not interpersonal; the unity achieved in orgiastic fusion is transitory; the unity achieved by conformity is only pseudo-unity. Hence, there are only partial answers to the problem of existence. The full answer lies in the achievement of interpersonal union, of fusion with another person, in love.
Love, the complete answer to the problem of human existence.
The four components of the art of loving:
Care: Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love
Responsibility – not tasks to be checked off -but to be ready, able and willing to respond.
Respect: not to look up to- but the root of the word “respicere = to look at.” The ability to see a person as she is to be aware of her unique individuality. “If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be.”
Knowledge: motivated by concern; not just of him or herself, of the person of affection, but of all people, of the nature of human life and existence. While this cannot be answered its motivation comes from concern.
“While life in its merely biological aspects is a miracle and secret, man in his human aspects is an unfathomable secret to himself and his fellow man. One can tear things or people apart, simplify and dominate over them as a path to knowledge, much like the child who tears the wings off of the butterfly to know its secret. Or one can choose to love, to penetrate actively another person through fusion. ‘In the act of fusion I know you, I know myself, I know everybody and I know nothing.’”
An unexpected lesson on the Art of Loving:
I met Gerard on a gloomy August afternoon. It was actually the same day I met Elizabeth. They knew each other I think, had spent the last few months together. I was introduced by my cousin, Jordan, who happened to live in the co-op like house behind me in a college town. Jordan and his roommates had one day to move out: one day to transform the messy, personalized, intimate home into an empty, livable, house for the next renters to start their college story. I had gone over to help, and by help I mean drink with them while they threw most of their belongings (garbage or not) into trash bags (because, college). I saw him reach for Gerard and Elizabeth off the windowsill. The last two living plants there and he grouped them with the dead ones into the “throw away pile.” They didn’t have those names yet, but as I lept forward to foster them, they seemed to name themselves.
Yes, Gerard and Elizabeth are plants. I protested, and much to my cousin’s happiness offered to take them for my own. We laughed as we named Gerard, a name that awkwardly stumbled from my Midwestern lips. He was half-dead, saggy, and had jagged leaves that almost looked cut by those design crafting scissors. Elizabeth was pretty, regal. From her round sculpted full leaves to her white geometric patterned pot, she was everything I wanted in a plant and she would look beautiful in my little apartment. I kept Elizabeth on a nice doily, in the center of the sorry excuse for living room in that one bedroom apartment. I don’t even remember where I kept Gerard at that time.
I moved the following Fall into a slightly bigger apartment and accumulated more shelves. Elizabeth kept her spot, front and center, but with the added shelf-space I decided Gerard could be placed on the top shelf and give some life to the bare white walls.
Months passed, as people came through our apartment they got to hear about Elizabeth and Gerard as if they were household pets or mascots; and they also knew who I favored and why. I took care of Gerard, I watered him occasionally and got the dust off his leaves (I’m not a monster). One day I went to water him after watering Elizabeth and thinking, “oops I kind of forgot about Gerard, there.”
He was on a high, now cluttered shelf. As I looked to him, I was overcome. There, the jagged plant in the cracked pot was, in full bloom, beautiful pink flowers on every leaf. I remember saying his name out loud and bursting into tears. In case you couldn’t tell I’m little more emotive than the average human. I immediately called my husband and sent a picture, and he too was in awe. All I could do was flash back in my mind to the things I thought, felt and said about him. I felt guilty. I pulled him down from the shelf and began to get to know about him. I learned that he was a Christmas Cactus, months of dry cold elevation mimicked the conditions that produced those lovely flowers. My almost intentional neglect of an object simply based on comparison, of what I wanted him to be, kept me from loving him fully.
Gerard taught me one the greatest lessons about love in my life. That if someone has the right to be whoever they are, and still be cared for, still be responded to, still be seen/respected, and attempted to be known, they can blossom and grow. If I knew anything about him I could have loved him right away. Instead I almost missed the opportunity and nearly lost him,. I had to feel the guilt of withholding love because his simple being does not meet my own personal standards. Ever since, Gerard stays in my bedroom, on his own special doily, on a table just for him. I affirm him any chance I get, and he gives me the gift of knowing I can open my heart and foster growth in myself and others.
To bring this back to The Art of Loving: Fromm makes some basic points about love.
Love is a mature construct and not a symbiotic union; “as I need you because I love you, not I love you because I need you.”
Love is an art. It takes practice, it is intentional, it’s giving alone results in the “bringing to life”of some unique aspect of the other, to be received again by the giver. (“Not only in love does giving mean receiving: the teacher is taught by his students, the actor is stimulated by his audience, the therapist is cured by his patients.”) It is active not passive. “A standing in, not a falling for”
“It (love and its four aspects) is not different for the love for animals or even flowers.” Fromm says.
Just because someone’s flower is not as pretty as you want it to be, or their pot doesn’t compliment your decor, is no reason not to love them. In fact, every person you choose not to know, not to love, is part of yourself that you lose, because everyone has the potential to give and receive infinite love, and everyone deserves it.