December 14, 2011

Love and Indifference

“We cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world, so let us, cautious in diction and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.”
                                                                                                       – Martin Buber

Those who have read my other essays may either be puzzled by my choice of such a topic, or will wince in expectation of my ruthless dissection of it.  I will try not to disappoint.  Love, in my view, is no more than a state of the human brain – and probably a state that occurs in the brains of many other animals as well.  What could be in any way demeaning or discouraging about that?  Each of us is a unique physical process – a process endowed with the extraordinary capacity of consciousness.  We stand in relation to one another, and to the rest of the world.  What is love but a state of relation?  Why should we be afraid to examine and consider it as we would any other part of the world?  Is the dawn less beautiful because we understand what gives the light its color?

The term “love” has many different meanings, especially if one widens the scope of inquiry to languages other than English, but what I want to explore here is the common thread that binds all of the various meanings together.  What is fundamental to love, in other words.  There are obvious differences between loving a lover, a friend, a thing, an activity, or an idea. Yet, in all these cases, love does share a single salient characteristic:

Love is always the dissolution of the distinction between oneself and the object of one’s love.

Physical love involves the obvious collapse of the usual social barriers of space and clothing.  Non-physical love of another person consists of the collapse of the distinction between their interests and one’s own.  It is to be happy or sad for another, rather than merely for oneself.  To love an object is to extend one’s own identity with that object.  In this sense, the painting is an extension of the painter.  To love an activity is either to experience some physical pleasure from it, or, again, to extend and enhance one’s identity through it.  A piece of music is something a musician publicly projects into the world.  The music, the musician, and the performance are inseparable.  To love an idea, too, is to define oneself in terms of that idea.  To love justice is to perceive oneself as just.  All love, then, is an expansion of the self.

It is not true, however, that every entity or process with which a person becomes inseparable is the object of love.  As I type, I do not think about the location of the individual keys.  I think about the words; my hands move over the keyboard, typing the letters.  Typing is a part of my being in some very real sense, but I do not love to type.  I do not hate typing either.  I am indifferent to it.  It is an extension of my capacity, but not of my identity.  I never take pleasure in my identity as a typist. Sadly, one can have similarly loveless deep familiarity with fellow human beings, from loveless marriages to the superficial geniality that is often the pattern of modern life.  We can even be indifferent to our own beliefs.  Most of us espouse at least a few ideas we have simply inherited from others – ideas we have never reflected on, ideas we wear rather than embody in some whole, robust sense.

It is possible, too, to be attracted to something without wanting to attach it to oneself.  Many physically attractive people have very unattractive personalities, and are thus both attractive in one sense and repellant in another.  One may be deeply fascinated with the idea of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but that doesn’t mean one would ever actually want to.  It is possible to be attracted to someone or something without having the slightest intention of including that person or thing into one’s life.  Love requires both attraction and a commitment to embrace the object of love into one’s life in a substantial way.  It requires a willingness to give time, and a willingness to let oneself be changed and defined, at least to some degree, by that which one commits to love.

If love is the expansion of self into realms beyond one’s own consciousness and physical existence, then the countervailing tendency is not hate but indifference.  Hate is a revulsion or fear of something, often something previously close, which has violated an individual’s security or sense of equilibrium.  To hate something is, at least, to stand in some relationship to it.  Indifference, on the other hand, is the denial of any relationship.  Indifference is a contraction of one’s universe where love is its most ebullient attempt at expansion.  Love embraces – indifference excludes.  Love risks – indifference hedges and protects what it has.  Love for mere objects, in a petty, possessive sense, can be seen as a weak form of love, or perhaps as a substitution for love.  To love inert things is, after all, less risky than loving living breathing beings with motives and vicissitudes of their own.

Virtually all of human behavior can be examined in terms of these two countervailing forces – love and indifference.  Life is an ongoing boundary dispute between these natural adversaries.  From a strictly evolutionary point of view, it isn’t always obvious which strategy is best.  Love is not entirely benign.  Like hate, it is a blinding emotion.  It is nearly impossible to see the object of one’s love with any sort of clarity, just as it is nearly impossible to see oneself with any sort of clarity.  The musician and the music, the artist and the art, and the writer and the text – all are too tightly joined to ever know, except in fleeting glimpses, their relationship with external observers.  It must be admitted, too, that political or religious fanatics are possessed by a kind of love – by the total submersion of their identities in some idea.  The fanatic does not know his own position in the larger world – but, unlike the artist, he doesn’t want to.  Indifference, on the other hand, has its strengths.  A position of detachment offers at least the possibility of objectivity.  It lights the way to real knowledge.  Indifference explains the world in facts and causes – love explains the world in narrative and poetry.

To stray too far into the bland neutrality of detachment is to abandon the very force which gives life purpose.  To stray too far into a life of unchecked passions is to lose the equally important, equally human capacity that gives the world order and coherence.  In my heart, I wish you luck in finding a balance – but in my best objective estimation I don’t give any of us particularly good odds of staying on the tightrope at all times.

Extensively revised 7.3.14

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