Love, love love love love. We are awash in it—or in its absence—at every station of life, in all its forms and expressions. Its four letters creep into our discourse in almost every setting and time, ranging from the mundane (“I love Oreos!”), to the passionate (the murmurings and exclamations of sex), to the intimate (deep interpersonal communication and regard), to the eternal (loving God and Life all that exists therefrom).
Here on the precipice of Valentine’s Day, we are drenched in romantic love, that relatively modern cultural construct that finds such ubiquitous resonance in our media. (iTunes cuts off the listings for the search term “Love” at 500 songs, apparently feeling that can keep their customers quite busy enough while would-be songwriters the world over continue to add to the cache. Love is, indeed, a many-splendored thing…)
Being of essentially romantic temperament myself (a bequeathal from both my slightly star-crossed parents), I don’t bah humbug romantic love in the least, but if our frame of reference were only pop music, film and the best-seller lists, we’d think love begins and ends with endless variations of “I wanna hold your ha-aa-aa-aa-and, I wanna hold your hand.”
In truth, love is multi-faceted, multi-level, complicated, contradictory, messy, profound and confusing. And simple/primal, too. Or at least our relentless need for it is.
There is no escaping love’s force, its allure, its insistence that it be reckoned with in human life. Ignored, denied or unavailable, it turns to bitterness or faux indifference. And chased up wrong alleyways, it can be desperate, revealing a depth of unfilled need that is both appalling and tragic. The poet Kim Addonizio gets at this in her poem The Lovers, the first 12 of its 25 lines excerpted here:
What do they want from each other,
that man and woman clinging together and staggering
around the kitchen, the man’s tongue completely
inside her mouth, her breasts flattened against
his chest, what is it they can’t seem to
get to, why do they look to me like two
people roped together and thrown overboard,
sinking and thrashing in the stove’s light?
What makes them seem so desperate
when they’re only kissing, really only
a memory of kissing; why do I think of them
and feel my lungs burning, my heart filling with water?
The desperation and emptiness evoked in these few lines is almost unparalleled. Despite these “lovers” being entwined, pressed against each other, clinging together, they are worlds apart, each chasing demons in separate directions, something “they can’t seem to get to,” paragons of the existential emptiness that is our lot without love.
Is this couple simply lacking the person more compatible and perfectly matched, who would fulfill them if only they magically appeared in their life one fine day, whether at the bar, the seashore or the church social hour? Or is their need something deeper, more ancient and primal, a love that no person ever filled for them and never can in the future?
We are born helpless, wired to be blanketed in love from our first moments in the form of physical care and, as our awareness expands, the coos and gurgles and snuggles of our caregivers. If we are hugged and held and bathed in warm regard, we have a good chance as we mature to withstand the crises of identity and doubt that are sure to come, to reconcile the struggle for both independence and intimacy.
In the best of circumstances, life and love are merely hard and challenging rather than overwhelming, and we will be equipped to ride out the inevitable sadness amidst the joys we do achieve. Loved as a person by other people, we have a baseline, a context, a physical stand-in, for the radical, all-encompassing acceptance and peace we seek in the arms of eternity.
Ultimately, we long not only to be held and caressed and listened to and cared about, but to be seen, in our fullness, the heights and depths of our beauty, our best selves, as children of God.
The road there, however, is perilous and sometimes begins and terminates quickly in a dead end. Children unloved, untouched or abused can suffer “attachment disorder,” a condition that “may permanently change the child’s growing brain, hurting the ability to establish future relationships,” the Mayo Clinic website tells us.
Imagine “an inability to establish future relationships.”
What other future is there outside an “ability to establish future relationships?”
I suspect our jails are full of attachment disorders, seen most severely in those who have gone so far around the bend as to resemble humans only in the most baseline, creaturely sense. “Where is the love, you said was mine, all mine, till the end of time, was it just a lie, where is the love?” sang Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack in one of those 500 pop songs mentioned above. For too many human beings—unwanted, neglected and abused—there never was any love, and any indication otherwise was a lie. They and the society that warehouses them have to pay the price for its denial.
That said and fully acknowledged, we have also come a long way as creatures along a path toward more love, more freely dispersed. Despite the atrocities and everyday indignities we still visit upon one another with regularity, the human family is growing slowly and steadily more borderless, compassionate and considerate of fundamental human—not to mention animal—rights.
Modern media and travel and cultural mingling are increasingly universalizing values grounded in love and compassion, and we see it in every rights movement that has done nothing but expand over the centuries, whatever their fits and starts and setbacks in the face of ultimately fruitless opposition.
The power of love and the pursuit of happiness: inseparable twins.
I can view the pile of funding pleas from charities that get stacked on my counter every day all year long in one of two ways: as either an indictment of how much suffering we continue to inflict upon one another, or as a hymn and testament to the thousands of organizations supported by millions of people the world over who are dedicated to so loving their fellow humans, their animal friends, their rivers and oceans and forests and rootstocks, as to donate their time, money and attention to help improve the entire lot.
I know which view I’m adopting. Where is the love? Right here in front of me, in this stack of envelopes, and the hands that reached out in anonymity to stuff them.
My appreciation as always to the photographers:
Rotating banner photos (except for the books) and woman with owl photo courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, Central California coast, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Books photo by Larry Rose, Redlands, California, all rights reserved, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Hand-holding photo near top of page courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbet Photography,
some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/
Muddy daffodils photo (after a long and welcome winter rain) by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/93289242@N07/