No choice but to love

There is much more to discuss about the self, but we left something hanging at the end of the second Justice post – whether or not the concept of justice as outlined tended toward a utilitarian justification of anything “for the common good,” or the perceived advantage of the many. I said then that we first had to look into what love means, and I think it is better to do this sooner rather than later.

We tend to use the word love to describe a variety of relational stances: we love our parents or children, our partner, our friends, certain activities, a book or movie, etc. On the more abstract level, of course, people speak of God’s love for them or their love for God, or a kind of universal love. Such wide usage makes discussion problematic, so we have to agree first on what we are talking about. Certainly we are not investigating erotic or sexual love, neither love of God per se. Then let’s dismiss casual usages of love as applied to objects. And while some people might indeed love animals, for example pets, or even flowers as much or more than they love anyone or anything else, let’s focus on love as a human interaction.

The various “forms” of love can be seen as different kinds of love, or degrees or intensities of love. Either interpretation makes some sense – or at least does not stand out as such a glaring inconsistency that we have to think about it – if we are unique individuals relating to each other in an infinite variety of ways. But once we remove the false distinction between self and other, what can it mean to love one, or a few, more than others?

Clearly, a selective kind of love does not fit in with the understanding that we are conscious instances of one life impulse, not really individuals. Theoretically, it would mean loving part of our self more than the rest; but effectively it would mean creating and indulging an extended individual self and neglecting others. The only alternative seems to be that love must be one and the same regardless of who is involved.

Two major objections immediately present themselves. On a personal level, you might assume that loving almost everyone more must mean loving family and friends less. And even if you tried to love everyone the same, how could you love someone you don’t even know as much as someone you know well? I see no way to reasonably overcome these problems if love is something we choose to do, or something we direct this way or that. So the love we are trying to describe must be something else. And obviously it cannot rely on emotion.

What is left is something along the lines of charity, a caring love not motivated by pity or other emotions but by the desire to nurture life in its many forms. The best word I can think of to express this love is compassion, in the truest sense of the word. We will know how to nurture life, how to act in helpful ways, not just by acknowledging our unity, but by entering into an experience of unity, by opening to the experience of the other instances of life around us. And this does not require any kind of mystical union, though of course it does not argue against it. The communication tools we possess in everyday reality are quite capable of confronting us with reality as experienced by people almost anywhere in the world.

What we have, then, is love as life caring for life, which takes care of the “why” in a remarkably simple way. If we are in fact expressions of one self, of one life, then love is nothing more than self-interest or self -perpetuation. And justice is merely the practical application of compassion. It recognizes that mistreating or depriving any part of life hinders evolution as a whole. But compassion is the active principle. It is the lived experience of unity, which provides the necessary motivation not only to behave justly, which could remain passive, but to nurture life as a whole. We do not choose to love and we do not choose whom (or what) to love. Love is simply the response we make when we, as life, recognize our self in the rest of life.

So loving all of life might or might not mean a non-stop emotional high, but it does exclude favoring your family or community to the detriment of others. The active component of compassion also means that you cannot choose to remain ignorant of whatever is not within your immediate environment. Knowing that you are not aware of what is going on in other places, you are compelled to make a reasonable effort to become aware. And becoming aware, you are compelled to take reasonable action that would address any outstanding needs or problems. Because you recognize these are your needs and problems.

Now I think we are ready to return to the question of utilitarianism. But next time, with a fresh start.

4 thoughts on “No choice but to love

  1. Bob

    Do we need to examine the Greek concept of agape (self-sacrifice for another)? I suspect that despite our overall unity, we fear a possible loss of what we hold dear if we give of ourselves. What amazes me are people like Scrooge or Oscar Romero who can’t help but leave their comfortable lives and give of themselves for others, even strangers. How did they experience unity to where they had to act out of compassion?

    1. Bob

      Can finite beings, which have to protect themselves in order to remain as finite beings, achieve through their finitude and mutual dependence a willingness to give themselves to one another, to conceive and to act for the good of the whole? Keiji Nishitani describes a feeling that all of us, not just human beings, but all living things, are living from the same life, like leaves on a single tree. Each soul is life itself, taking some particular form, whether human, animal, or plant. He calls this a “sympathetic affinity” among the living, indicating a unity deeper than our everyday superficial relations.

      1. vince Post author

        Sounds exactly like what I am saying. Life is one; we are instances of life taking material form. Humans in particular (though not necessarily exclusively) are instances of life progressing through material form to the point of becoming conscious. This is a two-edged sword. We can mistakenly identify individual consciousness as individual life, use it to make the finite self as big and real as we can and cause untold destruction; or we can see the transitive nature of our finitude as a beginning stage in the evolution of consciousness as a collective property of life and thus transcend finitude, which is my understanding of Teilhard’s Omega point. It is another kind of birth, a conscious Big Bang perhaps.

    2. vince Post author

      Unity is immanent. We can/will experience it anytime we don’t block it out. Caught with our guard down, we might have a breakthrough. I think the most common way is “seeing through the eyes of another,” a wonderfully twisted phrase. That seeing is a hair’s breadth away from realizing that we can only see through other eyes if we are behind them, if we are the other. I think it happens all the time, we make little connections, something jars us, but I get an image of poking a hole from inside something like a self-sealing tire. The way out lasts only until the wall closes back up. And the stronger the sense of self, the quicker it repairs the holes. Conversely, the more attention you pay to those jarring moments – Scrooge and the ghost of the future or Romero and his priests being killed – the slower it closes back up.


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