People speak of “true love”, but they always seem to want it with someone who is good looking, healthy, wealthy, and otherwise dreamy and grand.
How is that “love”? Isn’t that “gimme gimme, hold me hold me, save me save me?”
A 55-year-old movie star finds himself once again divorced and single. Before too long he’s hooked up with a 30-year-old model. There were plenty of nice, intelligent women his own age he could’ve chosen, but he didn’t even particularly consider any of them.
Who’s shallow here? The movie star? Men? Society? The economy?
Or is it just the kind of love that can and does happen under certain circumstances such as these? They say it is “love” and they’re so glad to have found it.
A man and woman have been married for ten years. They have a daughter in elementary school and a son in middle school. They are both good-looking, fit, active. But neither earns much money and things have always been a little tight. The woman has an affair with a well-off man she meets at church and they run away together to another state, where they live in a nice house, drive nice cars, go on cool trips.
Who’s bad here? The ex-wife? Women? The well-off man? Society? The economy?
Or is it just one of those things? She says it isn’t about money at all, and the kids love their new step-dad and her new life.
I tell you that I love you, but do I love you or your pretty face and buxom, upward-bending shape?
Who’s the liar here? Me? Biology? Society? The economy?
Or maybe it’s all true. Maybe my love entered via your outrageous cuteness, which melts my mind/body, exposing my soul naked up close to yours, where it finds a kindred light and rejoices in the prospect of a shared journey. Maybe.
What is happiness? When is it a worthy goal and when is it a sneaky, thieving lie?
In a corrupt state, it is difficult to both live morally and have a nice home and safety. We need to fight for less and less corruption, so that we can more and more easily be both happy and decent. [See Representative Democracy is a Spiritual Good]
But people are always people. Even if in a relatively healthy situation (ie: in a time and place where one can have a pleasant life without helping to make things worse for everyone), humans will call romantic love “love”, while still being mostly selfish about it.
Epicurus (ancient Greek philosopher, 341–270BC) held that pleasure was the good. But not mindless pleasure. The height of pleasure he defined as freedom from pain and desire.
That’s a fairly ascetic notion of pleasure, reminding one of the Buddha freeing himself from desire and thus cutting the cord that had tied him to illusion and suffering.
Epicurus — not entirely unlike the Buddha—was more of a moderate than an ascetic, and he claimed that as long as you can maintain a state of freedom from desire and pleasure, it is a good idea to vary your pleasures, even going so far as to have sex — just so long as you didn’t demand some specific sexual partner.
Epicurus divided pleasure into three main categories:
Natural Necessary Pleasures: Like eating something when you are hungry, drinking water when you are thirsty. These you have to do, so go ahead and them.
Natural Unnecessary Pleasures: Like eating something yummy, taking a walk, having sex with someone. It is fine to indulge in these in moderation. Go ahead and enjoy them — as long as you don’t indulge in them so much that they cause disease, injury, or other painful conditions; and as long as you don’t allow the pursuit of them to disturb your basic mental state of freedom from desire. These pleasures can be used to mix things up and add a little zest to life.
Unnatural Unnecessary Pleasures (also called “Vain Glories”): Likedemanding some specific piece of cake. Or having a statue built to yourself. Or having to have sex with some specific person. These are ego-driven pleasures that enmesh the pleasure-seeking in illusions about how their life is meaningful because of XYZ external circumstance.
It seems pretty rough to compare romantic love with building statues to your own honor. It is interesting from our modern perspective to see Epicurus totally cool with satisfying sexual urges, but coming down so hard on what we think of as a magical, beautiful bond that transcends mere carnality, sublimating sexual desire until it is subsumed within and regulated by a holy, a lasting, an essentially selfless love.
But Epicurus did say that the wise person may or may not get married, depending on the circumstances. So maybe the difference between Epicurus and us is not so great. Madcap love affairs disturb one’s equilibrium; but stable, affectionate, but also sexual long-term relationships can help one stay grounded. We may dream of love and commitment with a sexual spark; but we don’t expect a sexual spark to carry a whole relationship, or a whole life.
I once read a charming little essay arguing that “true love” functions in this way:
Out of your love and respect for and delight in the other person, you make a decision to try to get to know and love and connect with that person better and better every day, to every day get better and better at caring for that person and sharing life with that person. In this way, your kindness towards that person makes for a better and better relationship — assuming the other likewise turns more and more towards and opens up more and more to you. Mutual empathy and shared joy pull you deeper and deeper into one another.
[Actually, I wrote that essay.
See the piece about the Buddhist marriage counselor in either A Readable Reader (kind of recommended) or First Essays (if you really love essays) at From-Bartleby.com’s !Buy our Books! tab.]
There may be something to that thought. But what about how directing one’s kindness onto those people that give you love and affection is a dirty rotten trick? A way to pretend to be loving, while actually being greedy and self-indulgent, hunkering down in your little love-bunker, cuddling up with your tiny world while the rest of us slide down the tubes.
That’s also something to consider.
But then again, we can’t overlook the amount of trouble caused by people imagining they are rising above petty bonds of normal human love. People supposing it wise to forsake their loved ones and go blow themselves and other people up, for example. A man abandoning his family to “follow his heart” and chase some hot babe, for a less extreme but more common example (and one that perhaps gets at what Epicurus was tsk tsking).
Pretending that we are more wise, pure and/or exceptional than we are can cause as much trouble as pretending that our indulgence in traditional selfishnesses (like caring only about one’s own friends and family; or “following our hearts” at the expense of other people’s well-being) is totally cool.
Humans are not inherently good or evil. Generally, they are better when the systems they live in are safe for and appreciative of better behavior. And they can often improve themselves by taking time to pray, meditate, listen; by practicing loving kindness and selfless observation and participation; and by reflecting and working alone and with others on wisdom and goodness. But they can never be so glorious as to be fully “Good” or fully “Bad”.
Is romantic love shallow?
It is what it is.
Romantic love can be compatible with both happiness and decency:
When two people click and fulfill each other’s longings and delight each other’s minds and hearts.
And when they treat each other well and grow together as they grow their love.
And when they manage this private joy while still participating in the wider one.
You want friends you can talk to and with whom you can have deep, satisfying, supportive, meaningful conversations. That’s healthy.
You want a lover you can talk to in the say way — but physically. That’s also a healthy desire.
Is it shallow that you seek friends whose minds and hearts appeal to you?
Is it shallow that you seek a lover whose mind, heart, and body appeals to you?
But to return to the case of our 55-year-old movie star. We all know why he’s going for a woman 10+ years younger. Men like younger women. People are driven to mate, to reproduce, and women are most fertile in their twenties and then that begins to decline and by 45 mating is pretty much not an option. Men’s fertility also declines as they age, but they are still very able to father children at 55. There’s probably some ego in his actions: it’s affirming for a 55-year-old man to think he can win and keep the affections of a young woman. But there’s also a lot of normal lust involved, which of course always underlies the mating act, and thus cannot help but play a sizable roll in the selection of a sexual partner.
One needn’t be a slave to one’s biology, of course. And most 55 men don’t get the option to indulge in their longing for a 30 year old babe, anyway. Movie stars tend to be richer, healthier, better looking, and more famous than most people; so they have many more romantic options than most people. Bombarded with so many enticing options, our 55-year-old star has allowed this beautiful young woman to take him by the hand, allowing him — since he himself is still so vigorous and bouncy — to bask awhile longer in the magic glow of a youthful, a fertile, a world-populating love. There’s some ego involved, no doubt; but it seems to be largely an exuberant embrace of life in the moment — for which artist-types are famous.
Is he wrong to indulge here? Should he tell her not to waste her youth on his, perhaps still undeniable, but nonetheless surely by now fading physical glory?
But this movie star and his 30 year old girlfriend:
Is it love?
Could that be true love?
Or real love only for high school sweethearts and others who age together?
Friends, there is the Light that shines through all things and that alone Knows that and in what sense it is True to say we are all in this together. And there is our need to translate that Light better and better into human life.
And there is a planet full of nuclear buttons ready to wreck billions of lives, a world of rising seas and sinking democracies, a humanity unready for the plagues they’re stirring up, a people still shattered upon the illusion that there are different peoples.
How can we worry about anything but being kind to those around us?
How pleasant it is to live wholesomely: To breathe in a little fresh air, feel a little sunlight on our face, exchange smiles with a neighbor, hugs with a loved one, and — if we get so very lucky— snuggles with a partner.
God loves us.
We love God in ourselves and in others.
And so we watch the Light shine through everything, overtake everything, be everything.
Epicurus was right that erecting monuments to oneself is a folly, and that pushing aside the other kids so you can have the biggest piece of cake or the one with the most frosting is ridiculous. But is it so very terrible to find someone that makes your mind, heart, and body tingle? And to then delight in this discovery and settle down with your compati-mate into domestic bliss? Isn’t it a reasonably good way to deal with a famously unruly and often destructive passion?
Surely Epicurus realized this. Surely, he was warning us not against romantic love, but against making gods out of romantic passions.
When does romantic love become egotripping nonsense? When is it “give me that piece of cake!” or “build a statue in my honor!” ?
And when is romantic love a nice, healthy expression of one’s humanity — like having a little piece of cake while chatting with a friend who happens to also be your sexual partner and with whom you therefore throw your arm around and cinch up next to in a blue diner booth somewhere in Middle America?
Oh please can’t we do this without being bad?!?
How can we enjoy pleasure without becoming captive to it? How can we be satisfied by affection without making it into a god? How can we be pleased with our mate without egotripping over possessing exclusive rights to their privates?
In the end, we must all sort out our own salvations.
We don’t know everything.
But we know that we should work for ever more aware, honest, accurate, competent, compassionate, kind, sharing, and joyful feeling/thinking/acting.
And we know that we should rejoice in our lives, this world, other people.
And we know we should be grounded in an ever-growing whole-being insight [ideas, feelings, and the Light within — all interacting imperfectly but still meaningfully together] into that and in what way it is True to say,
“We are all in this together!”
That much we know, and that much can be stated plainly.
Author: Burt S.N. Beez
Editors: Bartleby Willard/Amble Whistletown
Copyright: AM Watson
Websites: PureLoveShop.com; From-Bartleby.com
Our books so far: Superhero Novella, A Readable Reader, First Essays, First Loves
This is a Something Deeperism essay.
Human beings are Light wrapped up in mind and matter. They are here for a short time to play at better and better translating Light into life.
They are born with inborn guidelines and guardrails to help them better and better relate their thinking/feeling/acting to the Light:
Feel/think/act aware, clear, honest, accurate, competent, compassionate, kind, gentle, joyfully sharing.
But the Light is infinite, and humans are finite. So human wisdom and goodness are always works in progress.
We can point fairly well to the basic guidelines (aware … joyfully sharing) for better relating our feeling/thinking/acting with the Light within and through our ever conscious moment. And we can — relying upon what we all know within wider and deeper than we know our explanations and doubts about it — state with confidence that, for example, the Light is kind, gentle and joyfully giving.
However, the the Light is wider and deeper than our feeling/thinking/acting, so we can’t capture It precisely, or literally.
We can point poetically towards the Light [with imperfect intellectual precision, certainty, or verifiability; but not therefore without adequate whole-being insight (ideas, feelings, and the Light all relating imperfectly but still meaningfully with each other)].
But we cannot get the Light to fit into one-size-fits-all formulations about the complex and varied details of our various lives.