Monday, March 23, 2020

The Art of Loving in Uncertain Times

In January, I emerged from the campus library with a stack of books, titles I had written in the back of the notebook I’d been keeping in the winter months, because they had been referenced in other works of interest at the time.  One of these was Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. I found its opening half rich and interesting and then I was interrupted by other necessities, a major writing project, and the beginning of the spring semester.  Three months passed, and then came COVID-19 school closures and the governor’s stay-at-home orders. I cleaned, among other things, my nightstand, and found, hidden behind and beneath a collection of numerous other books and notebooks and magazines, this slim volume. Suddenly it seemed timely.

When Fromm published The Art of Loving, in 1956, he was fifty-six years old and a prominent psychoanalyst living in Mexico City after fleeing Nazi Germany, first for the United States. He had already published, to wide acclaim: Escape From Freedom, Man For Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, and The Sane Society. I have yet to read these. All seem equally apropos to the moment at hand.

Certain questions emerge now: how do we care for one another? Certain truths about purpose tend to make themselves known when others fall away. Among those separated by lockdown, relationships may be alternately strained by distance and more deeply and poignantly appreciated. For members of the same household living together, a new closeness may emerge, along with a surfacing of irritation and frustration. The heart hopes for renewal and the heart sickens with separation.

Fromm makes it clear that the casual reader looking for a simple tutorial in loving well will be disappointed, and he makes his thesis clear at the outset: “Love is not a sentiment that can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him.” He goes on to explain that love is unattainable without true humility, courage, faith, and discipline.

The book opens with an epilogue from Paracelsus:
“He who knows nothing, loves nothing . . . the more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love  . .  . anyone who imagines that all fruits ripen at the same time as the strawberries knows nothing about grapes.”

A central question opens the book: “Is love an art?” A central premise is that it is, and the purpose is to explore how understand and practice towards mastery, and to cultivate an awareness of the pitfalls and barriers to the development of healthy practice. Modern society, as Fromm sees it, is ripe with these barriers.

Chief among these are principles of capitalism which pervade modern Western society, and which are antithetical to love in all of its forms: brotherly (love between equals), maternal (love for the helpless), divine (love for God), and erotic (desire for deep union with another soul). The last of these, unsurprisingly, is the most fraught with illusion and pitfalls. Fromm highlights the problem with the popular “market model” of love that pervades Western culture, which dictates that “two persons fall in love when they believe they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values.”  The practicality of such a model is problematic because it is egocentric and because it tends to exclude possibilities for transcendence. When it comes to popular psychology of relationship, Fromm finds fault in the "teamwork" model of partnership, which is based in corporate models favored by capitalist societies, and which reduces the individual to a mere means to an end while failing to recognize the divinity of each "partner" as an end in themselves, while also tending to forestall any chances of transcendence within this limited framework. The idea of “falling” is also problematic because it is oppositional to the posture of mature love, which is standing in active and focused attention, with full concentration on loving. Falling is wild, passive, and unpredictable; standing is done with calm intensity, with the fully active engagement of an individual’s highest potential, and with constancy.

Considering the art of such a stance, Fromm orders his study of loving into two parts: theory and practice.  Mastery of both, fused in to one, epitomizes the mastery of any art. These combine with a third essential factor, namely that “the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern.”

William Blake, Elohim Creating Adam
His theory of love begins with a theory of man. A defining characteristic of man, in Fromm’s view, is his original “awareness of aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the faces of nature and of society.” It is recognition of this state that Fromm recognizes as the original pain of humanity. The sudden shame felt by Adam and Eve, as Fromm sees it, was precisely the result of this awareness. It is appropriate that the story of humanity in the Christian tradition begins here. The recognition of one’s separateness is the original source of shame, and also of guilt and anxiety; reunion may come only through the transcendence of deep and mature love (be this brotherly, maternal, or erotic — any of which, in its pure form will bring deep and lasting union with all other beings and with God).

It’s an old question: how to overcome the prison of alienation in favor of at-one-ment. Various cultures before today’s Western (and increasingly global) one have had various ways of connecting to nature and to one another. Primitive societies had various seasonal rituals by which communal orgiastic states were achieved. These were often violent and destructive in nature, but undoubtedly provided a form of transcendence. In order to attain more lasting and life-giving forms of transcendence, Biblical man was challenged to set aside these practices for the purpose of graduating towards a budding understanding of a model of mature love (hence all of the Old Testament admonishment of sex-and-religion practices, which people were constantly drawn back into for reasons that are as understandable as the pull of addiction). Man’s craving for transcendence beyond his own separateness is so deep and relentless that it will either find resolution or fuel individual or communal pathologies. There is no in-between.

In the Christian tradition, the coming of Christ represents this call to graduate toward a more mature relationship with God, an experience of divine love that is neither an all-protecting mother or a punishing father. In reminding his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the salt and the light,” Jesus calls people to recognize this deep union with creation, not with passive poses of submission or supplication, but as active participants in creation.

We would do well to remember this today, particularly when uncertain circumstances of global unrest tend to cause such desperate anxiety that people often cling to false senses of certainty which miss the point, prevent growth, and silence human agency. These are wild optimism (everything will be fine, just wait) and dire pessimism (everything is ending, just wait). Both are passive. The alternative is loving faith, and as many wise thinkers have pointed out, the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. In uncertain times, we are called to love. We are reminded that our vulnerability is not our own, but one that is shared by all other humans.  The addictions, compulsions, depressions, and widespread anxieties that plague so many of us modern society are symptoms of our failure to know and understand how to be -- which is as students of this art. In a world where so many activities are routinized, prefabricated, under constant surveillance, “how should a man . . . not forget that he is a man, a unique individual, one who is given only this one chance of living?”

As I am finishing these notes, I step outside for an afternoon walk and on it I listen to Krista Tippet’s On Being Interview with Rebecca Solnit, author of many volumes, including one published in the wake of the 2016 election, called Hope in the Dark. In it, Solnit speaks of the need for better metaphors and truer stories. The ones we tend to be most familiar with, when it comes to crisis moments like this one, have to do with falling apart, and the fragility of human beings. But what is also true is the “joy of disaster” which comes from the escape from separateness, from the natural coming-together in the midst of crisis moments, a tendency that points towards quite another story: one of human nature’s remarkable capacities to embody the call to be the salt and the light of the world, to participate in the ever-renewing spirit of creation which is not only his ancestry and his birthright, but the healing hand for his original pain, and it is made of the same substance as his own, raised in celebration, submission, awe, and wonder — all opposites to certainty, and each fundamental to faith — and art, and love.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Sharing silence near the ends of our worlds

 In the first week of COVID-19 isolation at home, I found myself as many did: checking news updates and then getting outside or reading poetry or staring through the window as an antidote to the noise, wondering if I had enough of various essentials, being a bit unnerved by the lines outside the grocery store, and by the empty shelves, and by the reports from Italy of elderly sick being left to die. I have also been deeply moved by moments of compassion, empathy, thoughtfulness, and by wonderful humor. This week I also had the pleasure reading Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, and of being moved by the vision of a people who have chosen a collective deafness to the commands of the soldiers occupying their town, and by this line, from one of the many beautiful verses in this masterpiece, in the voice of one of the “Deaf” townspeople: “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.”

“It’s the air,” one speaker observes, “Something in it wants us too much.” The townspeople lock arms and form a circle to keep the soldiers away from the dead body of a murdered boy.

And in this moment, I am moved and inspired at the idea of listening in this spirit, while resisting the urge to respond obediently when expected. And also, as many I know are, wondering about the difference between what is and what officially is; and feeling deeply at certain wavelengths that are often undetected, noticing what tends to escape standard qualification as legitimate observation.

Among these observations, a recognition that the moment at hand is a global event, that the people living through it are those for whom it will become a defining hour in various ways, and that I — as one of them — can’t help but notice how fitting it seems, how like something I had long suspected was just around the corner. I sense that I am not alone here. I fall into that strange category of generation that is a bit too young for the utter disaffectedness of Gen-X and a bit too old to catch any millennial confidence. (As a child, I was deeply moved by the appearance of Reagan’s sincerity. It would be another decade before I could begin to understand the problematic moral crisis that his policies presented, and when this happened, R.E.M.’s “The End of the World as We Know It” was playing at a constant loop.) My natural melancholic strains have long been tempered with a wild-eyed sense of living at a tremendous time, and this in turn is equally tempered by a natural mistrust in professions of progress. It was clear that some bottom had fallen out somewhere, and like any family secret this became the thing that no one would discuss.

There was a deep sense, which grew like a hearty weed resistant to slogans on optimism and positive thinking and the virtues of technological progress. It grew in the pit of the stomach, tainting our abilities to receive such messages with anything better than a forced smile and willingness to do our best to be (to use a catchphrase of the moment) a "team player," or if we couldn’t do that, to aim at being the next one to “break the mold” (in the name of progress, of course). By the time we were old enough to read Yeats, or to come to him by way of Joan Didion’s famous Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in which she quotes the poet’s “Second Coming” which we first read in certain formative years, many of us would be stunned by the way that such a moment that seemed so particular to us in its strangeness, and so defiant of words, had already been foretold: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer —. . .”

"Falconer's Bird" by Steve Herring on flickr 
We were born after the listening stopped, but our hearts were crowded anyway with vestigial memory of what it had been like in the days before there was so much relentless noise or deadening speed.

There is something here, I think: in the days of Corona isolation, in-between impromptu homeschool math lessons and physics experiments and reading poetry and making food and playing tennis and sharing conversation with fellow isolated;  in between moments of relief at being off of the schedule of the machine, and deep into a deeper kind of work, and I’d like to take some time to think about it more before I try to share. But, observing that the organic nature of the busy-ness of these days at home makes it unlikely that I’ll be doing this any time soon, makes me want to offer this observation up to neighbors in isolation in the same spirit that I would offer a half-empty travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, some cans of tomato paste, a bag of beans, a bar of soap, or a half-empty pint carton of half-and-half. This is what I have right now.

I used to want to give when I had enough to offer, but it turns out that when shortages become real, the impulse to give persists anyway, but more desperately and with fewer restraints, and it’s all I can do when I see you, stranger: hold out this half of my sandwich and say “Here” so we can listen as we chew our simple meal in silence, staring at the sky.

Monday, March 16, 2020

What do we do when no one's looking?

Every year, at various points,  I find myself asking this question of my classes and myself: "What does it mean to have integrity?" And an answer invariably comes,  proclaiming something like this: "It's when you do the right thing when no one's looking."

We live in the age of surveillance, the age of the machine, the time of the non-stop treadmill. Except that suddenly, this week, it's stopped.

Two weeks ago, it seemed like I and everyone I knew was desperate — for time, for a thing we could not name, for a moment to breathe and safely step off the machine without risking loss of life and limb in its relentless gears.

Image provided by Healthy Families BC
Then practices were cancelled. Then playoff games. Then church and tournaments, then public readings, and then school. Next came gatherings of 250 or more, and then it was fifty and then it was ten and then in some areas it was none. And here I am reminded of lines from David Wagoner’s poem “Lost”: “Here is the place where you are, and you must treat it like a powerful stranger.”

And here we are, so many of us, and so suddenly, in the face of a powerful stranger. When we were running to keep up with the machine of its relentless gears we were nowhere, panting. Then it stopped. Now we send messages and make calls: “Hello?”; “Are you there?”; “I think of you”; “I miss you”; and “Love.”

I wonder about love in the times of Corona. This is how I think of the way you were difficult when you were so in my face, and this is how I miss the beauty of your thorns. Here I trace your face, I hold your heart, I meet you even when we remain out of reach; this is how you look now, stranger: like another trapped in strangeness, and I look up when I see you coming and unless I see fear in your eyes at my approach I will likely not move exactly six feet away. It’s certainly less if you seem unafraid and we pass in opposite directions, meeting eyes and saying hello.