This week I have been writing about love in anticipation of Valentine’s Day. I have written about three facets of love as these apply to interpersonal relationships and civic relationships, namely intimacy, passion, and commitment. The particular model of love that I ascribe to differs from the Greeks, Romans, St. Paul of Tarsus, or Santa. Each of these hold that there are different or distinct kinds of love. I do not think there are different types of love all, but rather one love with forms that differ in their relative values of intimacy, passion, and commitment. My understanding of love comes from experience, but gained structure in reading the research of Robert Sternberg. (As the 60th most cited researcher in the world, by this point his name should be fairly well known.)
Fraternal love, maternal love, Eros, agape — they are all one love and are all improved with thoughtfulness and intent. I suspect that the connections I have been making between interpersonal love (largely in romantic relationships) and civic love (as evidenced in love of county) have been confusing at times. The source of that confusion is likely the limited development of my own thinking on the topic at this point. When I say that we are dopey about love because our research and discourse on it are limited, I include myself in the dopiness.
As I wrap up this topic for the week, I am going to muddy the waters even a bit more. Today I turn to love of ourselves.
Using Sternberg’s model as my guide, I wonder how we evidence intimacy, passion, and commitment with and to ourselves. When it comes to intimacy, perhaps it will be easiest to consider its opposite — distance from ourselves. I wonder what happened to many of us relatively early in life that served to blockade or compartmentalize some aspects of ourselves from others. It seems when I see newborns and toddlers that they are connected not only to their caregivers, but to themselves. They might not yet verbalize their upsets and joys, but these experiences are evident nonetheless in their wails and shrieks. How is it that we learn to be stoic and avoidant, toughing it out even within ourselves? In my years of doing couple’s counseling, I was struck by how frequently spouses recognized that they were not so much withholding information from each other, as they were withholding it from themselves as individuals. They could not share with each other what they would not think or feel themselves.
We seem to have found scores of culturally supported mechanisms to avoid ourselves. From screens and toys to sex and shopping, we can focus parts of our brains on to things and away from people. These behaviors move us from daydreaming to some sort of internal mental ping-pong involving parts of the devoid of empathy and affect. It is little wonder that we are interested in contact more than connection, in fame more than love.
So, too, is our self-love limited in passion for our own lives and well-being. Our attenuated range of affect for our losses and joys mutes our zest for life itself. Again, it seems like we displace our passion for life into things of truly little consequence. Rage over spilled milk or wild cheering for some franchised sports victory is so disproportionate to the situation at hand that we must wonder why. Social outlets for passion seem to have become increasingly based in competition: I am pleased I got the guy, won the promotion, negotiated the raise, managed the negotiations…
A friend of mine who recently died was eulogized at his memorial gathering by a dozen or more friends. Almost all knew him to have had a very challenging life and a truly problematic childhood. Still, every person spoke of his passion for living large. World traveler, motorcyclist, jokester, mimic – he showed what it looked like to break the rules of coloring within the lines. He was not an outlaw as much as he was an enthusiast, despite the myriad reasons he would have had to play it safe.
Our self-love requires some decisions as well. When my late husband died a bit over a year ago, I initially decided each day how to proceed without him. Then, I subtly and persistently decided bit by bit how to proceed with myself. I have few regrets about our three decades together, and none about loving him too much. Now, however, I find I have the opportunity to love myself differently. Taking stock of what is and who I am has allowed me to decide how I want to be for the next several years, when it will be time to re-decide again. That commitment, to be the man I want to be, is at once daunting and invigorating, selfish and alive.
I am reminded of an old limerick that I have always enjoyed.
I love myself. I think I’m grand.
In the movie house, I hold my hand.
I put my arms around my waist.
And when I get fresh,
I slap my face.