As a young woman on a motorbike trip through Zambia, Africa, I stopped at a government guest house for the night. I was bored with my book, a hasty selection made wearily as I left Lusaka. There in the gloom of the sudden African night I turned to the spartan little bookshelf with something less than hope.
A copy of Eric Fromm’s famous treatise, The Art of Loving (1956), slumped there. What a gift!! His thesis, summarized here, proposes that love is dependent not on the first flush of attraction but rather on four principles which add up to choices about behaviour. Essentially, Fromm believed that all love is a choice. Giving, he argued, demands actions based on artful guidelines.
The first guideline is demonstrated care for the well being of the other. Principle number two is responding to the expressed and unexpressed needs of the other and particularly, in adult relationships, the emotional needs. Next is respect for the unique and individual aspects of the other who deserves to be supported. All of these behaviours are dependent on the last of Fromm’s components of love: knowledge–of both self and the beloved. In a loving relationship, one can care for and be responsive and respectful to the other, to the extent that one knows the other as well as oneself. Fromm commented on love relationships saying that: "There is hardly any human enterprise which is entered into with such hopes and expectations and which ends so badly." That was 1956; he’d have even fewer grounds for optimism today.
How can we build the house of love on solid ground?
Love is based on goodness. We view the moral strength of the other and value it along with our own inherent goodwill. But how can we refine our own moral strength and live according to the universal principles of wholesome well being?
Carter Hayward (1984), says love, like truth and beauty, is concrete. In other words it is not sentiment, or sweetness of feeling so much as it is an action word; a verb. In short, it is a matter of making reciprocal and beneficial relations with both one’s friends as well as one’s enemies. Love is creating justice and righteousness here on earth.
For that to happen we have to make a commitment. We aren’t puppets or love machines that can turn it on/off with a switch. We make the choice, which is not necessarily rational or simple, to invest our goodness, without pretence or guile into converting our mutual humanity into wholeness. Newly in love, we may feel ourselves as goddesses or gods aloof from the broken world into which we are born. But we are neither aliens nor gods. We are partners in the dance of life even though we may experience our own broken hearts and despair of the power of love to heal and complete us.
The four yoga practices encoded in the sutras of Patanjali, who was the first to write down what had been orally transmitted until then, echo modern writers on the topic of love. He enjoins the student of yoga to share the joy of those who are doing well and to offer kindness to those who feel badly. This is benevolent and compassionate love. He warns us not to become involved in the bad behaviour of others, by returning it with our own badness. This is equanimity in the face of those things that should be let be. Eric Fromm, Carter Hayward and Patanjali all share the notion that love is a choice, which demands skillful action, and commitment to wholeness.
"And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again."
(Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party)
Kelly Murphy is owner of Bend Over Backwards Yoga Studio in Nanaimo.