Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Education of Love and Puzzles

Throughout human history, culture has been grounded upon religious systems. The more civilizations clung to religion as its cultural manna, the more these respective civilizations would be, well, civilized. On the other hand, as these civilizations began to part ways with their religious heritage they inevitably began their journey toward extinction. Without a foundation, no structure can ever last!

No great civilization has been left unscathed by what we would call secularization today and the West is no exception. With our foundation uprooted, we have been forced to replace it with something less “foundational.” Media or what others may call “pop culture” has become the new foundation by which we interpret reality and instill values. It is a feeble foundation but it is a foundation nonetheless.

This “new” worldview offers us a message that is contrary to the “old regime.” The religious ideologies of yesterday appeared to squelch our freedom and particularly our freedom to love. This new ideology broke the shackles of “religious oppression” by offering a new freedom called radical autonomy. No longer was man called to deny his passions but rather was “empowered” to have unrestricted access to them. In the end, love was reduced to a human experience or an outlet for erotic compulsions. In other words, the transmission of love went from inward out to outward in; getting rather than giving.

Unsurprisingly, the new ideology’s greatest advocate has been Hollywood. Autonomy is the new virtue whereby all things are subservient. Murder can look “cool” as long as it is in the name of autonomy. If a character was forced to kill someone then we look at is as sad but in the name of autonomy it is acceptable. Love is the same way. As long as there are no responsibilities placed upon the relationship then it is a love story. If responsibility is called for it must be a self-induced responsibility since radical autonomy is the foundation for “true love.”

The influential power of the Hollywood love story has led to the demise of real love. The movies say “love just happens to you” but this simply is not so. Love “happens to you” in the same way weight loss does. Weight loss is not primarily an experience but rather an action. Similarly, love is not primarily an experience but rather an action. In other words, love must be educated.

The call for love to be educated can be seen through the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. Each person enters a relationship with a number of puzzle pieces. Just like a real puzzle, each piece contains both “tabs” and “recesses.” These reflect our unique needs (recesses) and our unique gifts (tabs). Childish love reflects that of actual children with puzzles in that they often believe that any piece will join together with another as long as you pound hard enough. Others may even go as far as to trim their favorite piece so as to properly lock into a random piece. Mature love or educated love on the other hand recognizes that not any “tab” will lock with any “recess” and that compromising the integrity of a piece will only lead to an unstable and unrecognizable picture.

Like the child’s puzzle composed of loosely locked pieces, childish love will not survive long. Such love hangs on by a thread with only the slightest agitation needed for its demise. This love is the “gospel” of our culture. It is a love that says, “I’ll determine what you need. How dare you tell me to love you this way! You are never grateful for all I ever do for you!” This love is based on radical autonomy which ignores the unique needs of the other which ultimately denies the value of the person before you.

Slightly more mature but nonetheless incredibly irrational is the approach to trim one’s own pieces to lock into random pieces. While slightly more stable, it is nonetheless very fragile. This love is not as immediately unstable but is ultimately a time bomb waiting to explode. It is a life of complaint love which is not so much love as it is assimilation (i.e. doormat syndrome). In the end, one person is full of resentment due to a life full of compromises and self-neglect. In the same way the pieces lose their original value, so to does the compliant person. When the make-shift puzzle is finally finished the reality overwhelms them with the fact that the picture looks nothing like what was promised before the puzzle was opened. One must be cautious not to place the sole blame on the complaint person in the relationship as it take two for the compliant behavior: One who is the compliant and the other who is the enabler.

Finally, mature love recognizes that not any tab will lock with any recess. This is a difficult truth to put into practice. It requires a deep self-awareness so that one can distinguish between what is actually a gift/solution (tab) to another and what is really a need (recess) cloaked in the form of a gift/solution. Countless are the times where I have tried to fulfill a need by offering what I think is a “solution” only to find myself pounding a solution that does not fit the contours of the need. I have been accused of “not listening” when I could recall the exact conversation AND give one heck of a solution. It is only now that I realize the statement behind the statement. I was not listening to the particular need, which did NOT need a logical solution but rather a hug and a sympathetic ear.

Love must be educated. When we are acutely aware of the contours of the other’s puzzle pieces we are offered the opportunity to love in truth, the truth of the person before us. We are then empowered to fulfill needs according to the deepest needs of the other. Piece by piece we slowly contribute to the picture by maintaining our own integrity as well us upholding the genuine integrity of the other. Only in this particular pursuit of love (i.e. Christian love) will we come away with a picture that defies logic in that the total will always surpass the sum of its individual parts in truth and beauty. May God be Praised!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Ebb and Flow of Love

Life is dramatic. Rarely do we find ourselves resting peacefully on tranquil waters, gazing into the glassy reflection of the beauty before us. Seldom does life afford us the opportunity “to be” without interruption. Life is something that ebbs and flows. As the birthdays accumulate, we gradually come to see that the changing of life’s seasons is not to be seen as a threat to our peace but rather an opportunity for growth and self-abandonment.  The turbulent waters never bestow restlessness or sin in our lives but rather reveal the darkest recesses of our heart that has gone unnoticed or ignored for far too long. I’m reminded of a great quote by C.S. Lewis: “On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is … If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly.  But the suddenness does not create the rats:  it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man:  it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.”

The transitions and stresses of life are indispensable for the pursuit of happiness.  It requires little effort to perceive the joys of life as a contribution to personal beatitude, but it is much more difficult to perceive the opportunities of joy in the turbulent waters of life.  Excluding grave evils, the “ebbs” of life awaken us to our humanity. It is in these moments that we rediscover our self, for better or worse, against that of the world. It is precisely in the dissonance of life’s evils that we see ourselves NOT as a passive agent to life’s circumstances but rather as an active force that contributes to the world by asserting one’s own ‘I’ onto the world. This is precisely what it means to be human and this is something we must be reminded of often.  To be human does not mean simply to receive what the world hands us. To be human is to actively assert one’s own self onto the world to make a unique and unrepeatable contribution to the world.

These ebbs of life are painful because they threaten our self-possession.  These dark moments are dark precisely because they attempt to steal what is so dear to us: ourselves.  Such circumstances present a crossroads by which we can either allow ourselves to be swallowed up by the pain or venture down the road of self-rediscovery.  Like the rats in the cellar, the pains of life reveal that which has held us captive for far too long.  It is up to us to choose whether we reclaim the cellar for ourselves or to assimilate our lives around the life of the rats.

Like life, love has its own ebb and flow but this is often something under appreciated at best and down right loathed at worst.  A healthy love relationship (i.e. dating/courtship or marriage) requires two fundamental callings: a call to be united to the other and a call to remain distinctive persons within this unity.  The late John Paul II termed this a relationship that embraces unity-in-distinction.  Unity without distinction is assimilation (i.e. doormat syndrome) while distinction without unity is mutual appropriation (i.e. using someone merely as a means for one’s own gratification).  The work of love resides directly in the pursuit of these two dimensions and it is where we discover the catalyst for the ebb and flow of love.

When I speak of the “ebb and flow” of love I refer to a particular dynamic of relationships that manifest a continuous drawing closer (flow) to one another with a subsequent drawing back (ebb) from one another.  While the reasons for why one would draw near to another in love is self-evident, the reasons why one would “draw back” from the other for the sake of love is not as self-evident.  One cannot deny the fact that such a distancing can be a legitimate threat to love and so should be treated as just that. On the other hand, one ought to recognize a well and needed good in such a distancing if it is done for the right reasons.

Like the ebbs of life, the ebbs of love afford us the opportunity to rediscover our self independently of our beloved.  This opportunity is NOT for its own sake but rather for the sake of love.  Reduced to a quest for autonomy, such opportunities quickly turn from a means of greater intimacy to a threat of love.  The drawing back from one another provides a rich terrain for self-rediscovery. This reawakening (or deepening) of the ‘I’ independent of the ‘thou’ enriches the opportunity for genuine unity which is nothing more than an expression of mutual self-gift.  The more one is self-aware (i.e. self-rediscovery) the more one is able to give oneself to the other. Hence, the ebb and flow of love.

Pursuing a life of self-rediscovery within a relationship can be achieved in both healthy and harmful ways.  One must always seriously discern whether or not such an activity is for the good of the relationship. For instance, a married man may suddenly desire to take a spontaneous three-week trip with “the guys” to Hawaii but is such a trip good for the marriage?  While the value of independence is good for the sake of love, this value must always serve love.  In other words, while the value of independence must never be compromised, how one prefers to express this must always find compromise since it serves a very particular love who is your beloved.  A three-week vacation may not be prudent but maybe a well-planned ahead weekend camping trip nearby might by.

As alluded above, same-sex friendships are one of the most valuable ways to maintain and enrich one’s own self. Countless are the times I have witnessed “new love” abandon all friendships through the impulse to spend every waken moment together.  Such negligence only leads to problems down the road.  Assimilation impinges upon the relationship which ultimately turns one person into a carbon-copy of the other.  It is only a matter of time before the radically compliant partner explodes through months/years of resentment.  May we all strive to cultivate and maintain healthy and holy same-sex friendships both for their own sake and for the sake of your current or future beloved! In the end, may we all journey well down the path of self-rediscovery for the sake of love; for the sake of self-gift.  May God be Praised!