A few months ago I read, with great enjoyment, an old but still very relevant book, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck. The book is subtitled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, and it is definitely worth reading.
The author, is a psychologist by training and brings out several interesting ideas with examples about common types of neurosis and disorder in the human psyche. Yesterday I started reading the section on love, a main theme in his book as can be deduced from the subtitle. He defines love, as the ” the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth“. The author admits that his chosen definition might not be the only one, or even the correct one, but he is content with emphasising the choice and action elements of love. He refers several time to the “work of loving”.
The author also acknowledges that love is too big and too wide to limit to a single definition, so he tries to establish common grounds through a process of elimination. Because while philosophers and psychologist differed significantly on defining what love is, there is general agreement on what love is NOT. The books itself gives several examples on cases of dependency and self-sacrifice that are clearly not love. But the author also insists that love is NOT an emotion, it is action. He repeats several times that “love is as love does“. He also feels that the term “falling in love” denotes an emotion based on erotic attraction. It is nature’s way of tricking us into reproducing and preserving the human race. Once the honeymoon phase ends, he says, we slowly fall out of love and this is where the work of loving starts. What he calls real love, or true love, is rooted in the will, so choice and intellect play a huge role in it, unlike the falling in love, which is all emotions and seems mostly to be out of our choice or control.
Interestingly, he does not deny the potential and power of the emotion. He explains, that falling in love with another person destroys the boundaries of an individual’s ego. The lover becomes hugely invested in another person, and this destruction of the ego, feels exhilarating. When we fall in love we are reborn into the wonder of feeling unity with our beloveds. He compares this unity to the one we felt as newborns with our mothers and the whole universe. But the novelty of this feeling wears off, and we soon find out that our needs do not match those of our lover, and the ego boundaries rise again. For babies this is the moment of starting awareness and experience, and for a couple it is where falling in love ends and the work on loving starts. The journey of loving, as he sees it, is made of the effort of listening, giving attention and bracketing, the conscious act of putting oneself into the shoes of another, suspending judgement, and seeing the world through their eyes.
This rational view of love mirrored one I have believed in for the longest time. It is also rooted in the teachings of Christianity where the sanctity of marriage, and monogamy, need to be protected and preserved. It is also a simple practical tenet of life: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Or simply just love the one you are with and ignore all impulses of love that come your way, because they are an illusion anyway. True love is hard work and commitment to a common goal, to raising a family, to mutual spiritual growth. I agreed with this wholeheartedly until a few years ago, and I still agree now but with many reservations.
I have seen many working marriages, even good ones, that are based on types of partnership and reciprocity, on the work of loving, in the words of Dr. Peck. These marriages always have some rewards and fulfilment for one partner, or both, and they can be very solid, with each partner being courteous and attentive to the other. But while I once believed that attaining a good marriage through the work of loving is the only happiness possible, I now recognise that this type of love has its limitations.
There are times when two souls, despite all good intentions, can head towards two different paths of evolution. There are times, when one partner evolves, and another stays on the same path. No amount of loving work can fix this. The answer sometimes is to accept it, and continue to love, if not the husband (or partner), then the children (or the life/business/career/home) we created together. The mutual love for the children carries many marriages through. Countless women have settled for it in my culture. They married, they loved and adapted to their lot, their destiny, and that was their life. But sometimes there are other choices. The author himself admits, perhaps grudgingly given his Christian background, that he believes an “open marriage is the only kind of mature marriage that is healthy and not seriously destructive to the spiritual health and growth of the individual partners”. So deep down it seems that his belief in the work on loving, in exclusive monogamy, is rather flawed.
The work of loving, and the will to love are powerful antidotes to human promiscuity and experimentation. It will certainly allow many couples to experience gentle loving, and sometimes very happy, relationships. It is a good rule, but it does not explain everything there is to love, even if it accounts for most shades of it. From my observation, I feel it is rather the road we are most likely to travel towards a rational and secular type of love. It accounts for the true love of friends, companions and for most lasting partnerships. The rarest type of love, however, is the one that stirs the soul. And the journey to this type of love is truly the one very rarely travelled. I will try to delve into this in my next posts.