In Defense of True Love
“For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Over the course of my life I seem to have picked up a certain idea about love, and based on the many references coming my way reasserting it I have to assume I’m not alone with it. The idea is that we must somehow find it in ourselves to love everybody, to have an open and radiant heart towards each and every human being we encounter. Ram Dass’ guru, Maharajji repeatedly admonished him: “Love everyone!” When R.D. Laing was in Sri Lanka, the guru that he encountered had a similar answer to his question on how he should live: “Make your heart into the Sun and shine alike on everyone.”
I have a fundamental problem with this admonishment, which I have grown to ascribe to inappropriate translation (more on this later). At first glance the message appears to be that if you don’t like someone, love them anyway, if you can’t, than try harder, and if you can’t love them, the fault lies with you and not them. It allocates love under the jurisdiction of will, like a muscle whose activity you can muster when and where you choose. It simultaneously creates impossible expectations and a moralistic undertone, while reducing love to a controllable human activity.
My experience does not correspond with this idea. True, I can appreciate almost anybody, find their admirable characteristics, recognize the validity of their personalities and effort. I may even find them attractive in one way or another. But whether or not I love them appears to be an entirely different issue, over which I seem to have little control. Love presents itself to me as a spontaneous phenomenon. It occurs naturally and organically, albeit unpredictably. At times I can’t help but love somebody, while other times every effort to do so seems futile. Far from being subjected to my will, love seems to have its own will, and the appropriate attitude is not one of efforting, but one of surrendering. There is a reason why we call it “falling” in love...
“Love lets the other be, but with affection and concern.” R.D. Laing
Loving someone is risky business. Having my heart open to them is to be exposed to potential violence, humiliation, or abuse. But, as my teacher Andrew Feldmar says, the definition of love is “I could hurt you, but I won’t.” To approach someone with an open heart is to give them the opportunity to inflict pain, but also to love and refuse to cause hurt. Through love we can thus elevate one another.
Love has its place in therapy too. In fact I might assert that love is indeed the essence of therapy. Rather than intervening and interfering with the other, a loving attitude beholds the other in their entirety, ‘warts and all,’ without judgment or comparison, as a qualitatively unique entity in the entirety of the cosmos. Love sees truly, and to see is sometimes difficult, which is why learning to love is difficult.
In all of this there isn’t a need for a love that can be willed and consciously directed. We may risk disappointing some people who expect us to love them, or embarrass ourselves by loving those who are inappropriate to love, but them's just the breaks. Although love cannot be willed, it can be recognized, appreciated, and cultivated. My job is not to force myself to love everyone, but to notice when I do love somebody, or when I could, and than cultivate this potential. This way love is seen not as an article of the will, but as a form of grace: it cannot be taken, but it can be given.
With this in mind, the gurus of old quoted above may have been speaking of a more nuanced truth. A perhaps more adequate translation of their statements may have sounded less willful and more humbling. Instead of “love everyone” and “make your heart into the sun”, they may have admonished us to recognize that we have it in us to love, to realize that the heart is essentially like the sun, and that all relationships can contain the seed of true love. We aren’t masters of this love, but rather stewards of it, and our responsibility is not to force our hearts open, but to find the love that’s already there and get the hell out of its way.