Few ideas have attracted as much attention throughout the ages as love, in any variety of forms. Greek and Latin, as well as other languages I know even less about, have multiple words for different kinds or aspects of love. From the Greeks we have erotic eros, the more platonic philia (as in philosophy, the love of wisdom) and agape, which people who do not speak Greek might know as an ancient Christian term for fraternal love. Latin gives us amorous amor and charitable caritas.
In common English, however, the single word “love” ranges from the passion lovers experience to sacrificing one’s life for that of another, which we have acknowledged as an almost universal ideal of selflessness. Perhaps we should not exclude the antithesis of this noble ideal, the almost universally deplored concept of narcissistic self-love, loving oneself above everyone else. Now we have a full spectrum ranging from the love of one to the love of all. Unfortunately, this creates an impossible situation, since a reasonable discussion requires that we must be speaking about the same thing, or at least must move toward some agreement.
Based on our discussion thus far, it is clear toward which end of the spectrum we must turn. But how far must we turn? If we are in fact a unity, not really individuals but conscious instances of one life impulse, then what does it mean to love one, or a few, more than others? We might fight against the pull here, but it seems that a selective kind of love just does not fit into this reality.
At first, this might make some abstract kind of sense. You love everyone with some diffuse, perhaps religious, love. Except you acknowledge this is not the same attachment you have for your spouse, child or parent. Can there be different degrees of love? This would fit well with the dynamic we have already identified of self-aggregation through identification, in which we make those close to us literally part of us. If we allow for stronger and weaker levels of love, then we could say either that we become what we love most, or that we love what we become, or are.
Either way, if we love most that which we identify as part of our self, then we are by definition talking about loving our individual self more than others. And we would have no choice but to reject this concept, since it is based on the false distinction between self and other. So might love be one and the same regardless of who is involved?
But would not loving everyone the same mean loving some people less? And would it not be impossible to love someone whose existence we are not even aware of as much as we love our family? The answer to both questions is yes if love is something we direct, something we choose. Undifferentiated love would have to be something else. And since the emotional component we commonly associate with love varies from person to person and cannot exist in relation to a person we know nothing about, we can conclude that it must be additional, extraneous, not a component of love itself. So romantic or emotional love cannot be the basis for the non-selective love we are investigating.
We are left, not surprisingly, with some kind of charitable or sharing love. But since charity has a distinct connotation of doing something for another, let’s go with sharing for the moment. This echoes the radical equality or justice we derived from the fundamental reality of unity. We are all entitled to an equal share, and the active implementation of this insight is sharing. But circumstances do at times make someone’s or some group’s needs more urgent than others. An obvious example would be people affected by a disaster. So sharing practically requires not blind equality but a sharing in the experience of another. In the end the best word I can think of to express the kind of love we are outlining is compassion.
Equating compassion with love is not terribly original, although we might be going a step further than some in saying the two are exactly the same, that there is no love aside from compassion.
It is worth considering what the nature of love would be in the absence of individual selves to love one another. We can’t ignore the possibility that it is just another creation of the mind. But unlike self, which is first and foremost a mental construct even in the misguided sense of an individual, love clearly is not a product of reason. We experience love as an emotional experience that often enough appears on the irrational side of the fence when reason eventually has its say. Now I’m not saying that every case of racing hormones is love. As we have seen, our minds are perfectly capable of creating or distorting anything. But I think we can distill out of the persistent experience of love across time and cultures that its nature is that of an immediate attraction.
Who or what, however, is attracting who or what? In the absence of individual selves, love can only be the immediate attraction of life to life. It is the wordless realization that we are connected, the direct experience of unity. Perhaps the old adage that “opposites attract” has some substance to it, since recognizing a very different “other” as our self might register a stronger emotional impact than experiencing an attraction to someone/something closer to our individual self-image.
Needless to say, an individual would experience love as the inexplicable attraction to another individual, since the explanation obviously does not fit with distorted self-reality. With family ties, the connection to the extended self is expected, so the experience is not exactly the same. In either case, however, the familiar dynamic of identification would come into play, the “unique” love relationship even reinforcing the tendency to rationalize all manner of excess as somehow necessary to protect or nurture our self, our family, our community.
The way forward, as we have seen, is not an arbitrary morality that some divine being has imposed on us, nor an abstract solidarity, but the simple truth that once we recognize all of life as our self, unnecessarily depriving any part of that self hinders the progress we could make otherwise. Nurturing life as a whole becomes nothing more than self-preservation.
As such, love clearly cannot be selective, cannot choose one part of life over another, but it can produce different responses based on situations in which particular individuals or groups need more or less than others. The dynamic, we need to remember, is not some mathematical ideal of justice but the evolution of life. Incidentally, if love is so closely linked to self-preservation in the sense of life as a whole, it is also easy to see how in the distorted sense of individual selfhood, love is often confused with sex, procreation, a fundamental component of physical self-preservation through self-perpetuation. The common understanding of love within a family also is a microcosmic shadow of the nurturing aspect of true love. As with the concept of self, we don’t invent a reality divorced from what actually is. What we do is misunderstand reality and then act in ways that make some sense in this distorted view of things but can create disastrous consequences in the real world.
What does the concept of love we have outlined mean practically? As already inferred, it does not mean loving anyone less. But it does mean loving everyone, by not confusing the warm fuzzy feel of emotional closeness with love. Part of this involves understanding that doing more for your family or community — except when a legitimate special need exists and meeting this need does not disproportionately deprive others — is not love. On the contrary, such actions are unbalanced and hinder life as a whole. Of course, no one could realistically expect people to suddenly start acting entirely from an objective assessment of the world situation. But a realization that this is what we need to move toward could start momentum building in that direction.
We’ll want to look at practical considerations in more depth, but right here I’d like to point to a parallel in what might seem a far-removed realm — physics. Physically speaking, gravity is as constant a presence as we know. It extends to and affects everything that exists, even light. Without trying to make pseudo-scientific pop mysticism the flavor of the day, let me make two quick observations.
Gravity is a mutual attraction among all that physically exists. Its action depends on mere existence alone, and it does not vary within the observable and theoretical limits of science.
Love is the attraction conscious life has for all of life. Its action depends on the mere awareness of being alive, and it does not vary depending on circumstances.
We could note this as a possibly interesting oddity and move on. But maybe there is more to it. If life is indeed a unitary impulse becoming conscious and taking form through matter, then gravity and love are just different dimensions of the same whole, with gravity as the physical expression of unity and love the conscious expression.
The elegant simplicity of that image, I think, is as far as I want to take this here.
After flexing our abstract muscle, it might be good to look more at some of the practical implications. On our way, however, let us revisit the troubling question I set aside a little way back: whether it would not be in the interest of life as a whole to remove people who for one reason or another can’t or won’t cooperate, who insist on harming others or place great burdens on available resources. The concept of justice we derived seems to head in this direction. But we can’t put the cart before the horse. Justice derives from a reflection on unity, but love is the experience of unity, life recognizing itself at the level of direct connection. So love precedes justice, which raises a question more fundamental than the one we are considering: acting out of love, can we destroy life?
There are many, including me, who would like to answer that question with a resounding “No!” But this would be to resort to ideology, to define love as a known quantity, to subjugate love to understanding. And while love binds together instances of consciousness in the unity of life, it is not an act of will. One does not decide to love and cannot say what love will do; one can only love. And we need not debate who has or has not modeled love, because I think most of us have some experience of true connection with life as a whole, an experience we might describe as cosmic or transcendent, and I’m willing to bet that the urge to destroy was not part of it.
Someone might counter this line of approach by pointing to examples of people in an extreme situation — war, perhaps, or a religious frenzy — in which they feel a cosmic or divine power at work commanding necessary or holy destruction. Simply put, this is not love, and no one but those people or others in a similarly agitated state would mistake it as such. (Naturally, the absence of an anthropomorphic, rule-dictating divinity would mean the absence of any recourse to divine justification.) But does this not lead us dangerously close to relativism? It is more than close, because the “R” word, the mortal enemy of any true ideologue, is simply part of life. It should come as no surprise at this point, but there are no absolute concepts in a world whose very continuance cannot be assured.
We’re coming in through the back door here, but right and wrong pretty much lose their meaning without a divine or otherwise absolute principle to hang their hats on. The point of discernment becomes, rather, whether something fosters or hinders life’s evolutionary journey. And this depends on the circumstances. This does not mean that some particular thing cannot be the best option in many, most or even all situations, but that its actual or potential effect must be assessed independently in each situation.
Let’s proceed cautiously here, lest we find ourselves seemingly caught again between chaos and despair. Saying that nothing is always wrong or always right is not the same as saying that anything goes. What it does mean is that the responsibility for acting to foster or hinder life is ours and is constant. This does not preclude the idea of a general rule; it merely reminds us that any general rule might not apply in certain circumstances. An excellent example of this comes from the Vatican, the all-time world champion of ideology and sworn enemy of relativism. In formulating a position against capital punishment, Pope John Paul II offered the remarkably relativistic explanation that while he had to acknowledge society has the right to take a life should no other way to protect itself exist, he could not conceive of such a situation actually existing in the world today.
The answer lies, as it must, in reality. The world of thought, of absolute reasoning and assurances, is a human invention, as are its intractable problems, those situations in which the fine details of abstraction fail to correlate with anything in the natural world. These problems tend to occur when abstractions are pushed to the limit, and the rule of law is a prime example. If one tries to legislate ethics or morality to cover almost every extreme possibility, one rules out any number of actions that are not harmful or dangerous in an ordinary context. On the other hand, people acting out of false self-interest will try to exploit the extremes. The best lawmakers can hope for is to strike a balance that a large enough majority will accept, thus making a law enforceable and bringing a desired degree of stability.
The law is thus a pragmatic attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole. The alternative, we all know, is chaos. Or love.
So while we cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that the best way for life to move forward in a particular situation would be to take a life, everyone who actually experiences love as the binding force of life might agree that they never have been able to justify — and maybe never have been able to seriously consider — such destruction. Still, it might be argued that they might never have been pushed to the extreme — a situation, perhaps, in which killing someone would stop that person from killing innocent people.
Many, I think, would agree that killing Hitler and saving millions of lives would have been justified. Of course they are reasoning with hindsight, and the dilemma is clear. Killing could be justified only as the only way to stop actual or imminent atrocities, with close to absolute certainty, not potential atrocities. And it would have to work, meaning it would have to solve the immediate crisis and do so without triggering a chain of events or effects that created another crisis. It would have to be presumed wrong unless proven right, which clearly would be more than exceptional, as can be seen from the wealth of human experience and reflection through the ages that has championed nonviolence. The enormous potential for irreversible error, whether through ignorance or arrogance, has undoubtedly figured in those reflections.
As for the example of capital punishment, Pope John Paul’s approach works well enough. It asks whether a person already in state custody could possibly pose such a clear and present danger to others that execution is the only way to protect society. In doing so, it is also clear that the determination hinges on prevention and not punishment.
More generally, rehabilitation and understanding would have to replace punishment as the natural response to wrongdoing, which we see is misguided, mistaken self-interest.
We are able, then, to say that while there are no absolutes, certain questions could have relatively certain answers, answers that seem to hold for all but extreme situations. And even in those situations, love and not reason alone would have to inform the answer. We can go no further, because reality tends to have rounded corners rather than the perfect angles of geometry. We are the products of life evolving in our physical world, and it is evolutionary reality that has the ultimate say, not our mental approximation of it.
Nonetheless, thought and reason can get us pretty far. We would neither have developed them to the extent we have nor survived in our current configuration were these tools not of tremendous value. Our entire investigation is based on the power our minds wield through thought, not just our misuse of that power through a simple error that gets us moving in a wrong direction long before we know what we are doing. We are demonstrating the role thought can play in overcoming that fundamental error, despite which we have created at least as many wonders as we have horrors. Our minds can be most valuable assets as well as liabilities.
We should attempt to clarify the distinction between will and mind, but for now let us just say that even were we able to give reality full reign, to love and act justly, we would still have to make the best use of our mental apparatus that we could. So, having concluded that love prompts active nurturing of life as a whole, we must consider how this translates into action. The possibilities for discussion are, of course, endless, so we would be wise to deal with a situation common enough that the insights we draw would apply easily in a general sense. The rather important instance we cited a while back — the difference in how we might treat those closest to us compared to others, especially others we neither know nor encounter — seems to fit the bill.
It might be clear enough as an idea to say that favoring those we consider part of our aggregate self at the expense of others does not fit the definition of love we have developed. But what do we do about it?
Let’s come at this a little indirectly. I am no great fan of capitalism, but somewhere along the line I had to acknowledge that the idea of capital has some validity. Suppose you lived in an imaginary world with 10 million inhabitants, and you had $10 million you wanted to use for the benefit of all. Among possible courses of action, you could give each person $1 to spend as he or she saw fit, or you could set up a university with a scholarship fund, or a hospital. Which would be more likely to provide the greatest benefit to the most people?
Even were those people terribly organized, to the point that groups pooled their dollars together to support local initiatives, the university or hospital might still win out. As I indicated, I am not out to support capitalism. A well-intentioned government could, through a reasonable tax system, collect the $10 million and use it to set up a university or hospital. Whatever the context, the point is that merely distributing resources equally will not necessarily nurture life as a whole.
Back to our question, then, of how to love. We cannot simply favor our family and friends, but attempting to spread our personal resources to cover the billions of people on our planet will not get us far at all. We need to use our intelligence. Just as true love begins with awareness, so does loving action. We need to know our situation, by which I mean the situations people face around the world. We need to know what resources are at our disposal and what others are within reach. We need to analyze the possible use of these resources vis-à-vis the needs we have identified. We need to set up an efficient distribution system. And on it goes.
The love we are talking about, far from platonic, is a force that continually urges us onward to do what we can, to work for the best present and future for all. It is not about sitting around in the lotus position feeling bliss, although sitting around in the lotus position feeling bliss could give some people the inspiration they need to get on with the work of evolving life. But before we spiral out into a utopian dream, let’s not forget where we are starting from. Remember war? Remember unbounded greed?
We are not currently a race of enlightened beings. Were our world what we could make it, or even reasonably close to what it could be, I think most of the “fortunate” minority enjoying a disproportionate share of the planet’s resources would be willing to settle for less than they have at present, would be comfortable providing their children with less than they struggle to provide them with now. Why? Because quality of life, rather than quantity of possessions, would come to the fore. Because the ever-more-perfect-and-convenient carrots that stray prophets of commercialism might dangle in front of us on strings of illusory need would be less appealing than the satisfaction of actually making things better and enjoying what is available through just, non-exploitative means. That might seem naïve, but I think “success” involves more stress than people think, and that a less stressful and more enjoyable life would be a bigger draw than people might expect, although it might take some time to catch on.
The chasm separating us from what could be seems to stretch so wide in front of us that we have trouble even believing the “far” side could exist, let alone seeing it. But we can imagine it. And that is all we need to identify with it, putting our formidable power to work in the service of life, rather than against life by creating delusional worlds of individual self. But does that get us any closer? Well, maybe not until we take a first step.
Just as we get trapped in self-delusion by making a basic error and then repeating it over and over again, so we can get out of habits of greed and selfishness little by little. The basic insight of the unity of life is something you either see or don’t see; there is no in-between. But habits can change over time. And as we make little adjustments and find that they produce a growing sense of greater connectedness with life as a whole, we are encouraged to do more. Doing more, we feel an even greater sense of connectedness, and the process gathers momentum.
What could make it even easier is that we all have a good enough idea of what the first steps might be. All religions teach legitimate contenders, usually under the general heading of charity. But they teach them abstractly, to satisfy divine directives or approximate divine reality. And when it comes down to it, too many people would rather trust to divine mercy than earthly wisdom. And why not? Because, in the end, God will clean up the mess anyway, like the frazzled, dutiful parent in whose image He (sic) was created. (Please keep in mind I am dealing with images of God, and do not see any significant difference between God as an unimagined reality and life as a unitary impulse.)
If we can leave such counterproductive ideas behind, perhaps we can start paying attention to what we need to do now. We respond to suffering or need not simply because we are aware of it, but because we feel it. We feel it because it affects us directly, because there is no fundamental difference between me or you or any other person. We share our situation and we respond to it. But almost no one is going to put her or his children or family at any risk whatsoever without the sure conviction that others will care for them if need be. This is not the current reality for most people, and here is the sticking point. You might put up with a good deal of inconvenience or even deprivation for a cause you believe in, but imposing these on your children or others who depend on you is another story.
This brings us back yet again to the idea of how to get the ball rolling, and the best way seems to be with small steps and gestures. Very small, I would say. Besides acts of “charity” I would add simple acts of kindness arising through awareness. I think anyone could come up with quite a list of possibilities. Listening with an open heart to someone you would rather ignore — it is just you speaking with a different voice. Doing something you don’t want to do that someone else does want to do, as enthusiastically as you can — it is a part of you that you were not aware of. Even taking a few seconds to hold a door for someone. Such simple actions spring from awareness of others and their needs and wants, which are the same as yours.
Pay attention, however, to what happens “within” as you do these or any of the millions of other possible similar acts. Feel how easy it is to share in the reality you open to, how easy it is to go beyond the wall of self you could just as easily have stayed behind. These are the adjustments and greater sense of connectedness mentioned above. So long as you are acting out of love, out of the experience of unity, however faint it might seem at first, you will be identifying with life as a whole rather than feeding a delusory image of your great and charitable self. These are the proverbial first steps in the journey of a thousand miles, from which will come the momentum that lengthens your stride and makes the miles pass easier the farther you travel.
So you do not start not by jeopardizing the lives or opportunities of those you naturally would protect the most — and who might react bitterly if you did. You might, however, trim some excess. Find a way that at most inconveniences them slightly. If you miscalculate, try again. We cannot forget that we are talking about a project that will only work, eventually, by involving everyone. Alienating people along the way will likely not prove the most effective way. And even less are we talking of a strategy.
We are talking about love, acting in loving ways. And letting our experience of love expand to encompass all we are aware of does not mean that we treat with any less kindness those we formerly focused our attention on. Helping them toward a true sense of connectedness with life might be the greatest thing we can do to nurture life as a whole. And you might even find that they have been waiting for you.
Now let’s look at the dynamics of will and mind, which will help explain the strength that even a limited conception of love, even romantic love, has and why this is not such a bad thing.