Political Pathology And The Inability To Accept Love

In a post on ‘the underestimation of the capacity to love‘ I wrote of its converse, ‘the inability to accept love’:

That inability, that lowered view of oneself, the judgment that one is unworthy of the love, caring and commitment that is sent our way by our lovers, parents, children, and friends, leads many to reject the intimacy and caring of long-term relationships, the kind that require sacrifice and commitment. It causes the pushing away of partners, the cringing from their touch, the turning away. Those who do so suffer from impostor syndrome: If only the truth about me were to be known, no one would love me, least of all the ones professing their undying love for me.

This inability has a political dimension to it, which is alluded to in my original post: those suffering from it–that is, most of us–render themselves susceptible to political pathology. We cannot imagine ourselves the subjects of a state underwritten by benevolence; we do not imagine ourselves worthy of such an arrangement, part of a community founded on the desire to work toward a common, shared good; instead, we cast ourselves adrift, sometimes seeking the fool’s gold of ‘liberal’ political goods like ‘self-determination,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘independence,’ and ‘autonomy.’ Because we think we are unworthy of care and affection directed at us by others, we valorize instead the solitary, turning a self-imposed necessity into a virtue.

And because we imagine ourselves unworthy of ‘political love’ we are afraid to ask for what is our due; we accept all too readily the abuse of those who govern us. We imagine we deserve no better; we are sinners, always begging for forgiveness; we dare not ask–or fight–for our rights. We accept the handouts sent our way, the grudging political pittances that we imagine are our actual dues. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are sometimes surprised by the ready acquiescence of those they seek to rule; their rule is underwritten and facilitated by this kind of ready acceptance of their peremptory commands.  Rule us; for we are unworthy of anything else. We will not even ask for the satisfaction of our most basic human wants: a roof over our heads, clothing, shelter, and care of us when we are sick and infirm. The political subject who imagines himself unworthy of the love of his fellow citizens is all too ready to be possessed of a vengeful, retributive, spirit; he is all too ready to believe tales of the wickedness that surrounds him. I am fallen among the fallen; do with what you will; like me, they are unworthy of love, of giving or receiving it. The political self-abnegation here is complete.

Note: The political and psychological phenomena described above are exceedingly familiar. Humanist criticism of religion and the state begins from such standpoint; it urges us to view ourselves in a more kindly light, to accept ourselves more readily as a preliminary to letting our fellow political and social subjects into our homes and hearts.

Richard Ford On ‘Secular Redemption’

In his review of Richard Ford’Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book (Ecco, 2014) Michael Dirda quotes Ford as saying:

For me what we are charged to do as human beings is to make our lives and the lives of others liveable, as important, as charged as we possibly can. And so what I’d call secular redemption aims to make us, through the agency of affection, intimacy, closeness, complicity, feel like our time spent on earth is not wasted.

The end of a year–another one that rapidly accelerated, nay, hurtled, to its closing–is as good time as any to think about how the creation of value is supposed to make our brief span of existence ‘meaningful’ and thus not ‘wasted.’ (I suspect the sin of ‘wasting time’ was invented after timepieces were, but that reflection is for another, er, time.) The first part of what Ford supposes human beings are ‘charged’ with is familiar: ‘make our lives and the lives of others as liveable[sic], as important, as charged as we possibly can.’ (These values  raise familiar puzzles about their grounding and meaning.) The second part is more interesting.

Here, Ford invokes first, the agencies of ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ and closes with ‘complicity.’ The first three are explicitly related to the ethics of love that are sometimes derived from the world’s great religious traditions. They suggest that our time on this planet is best spent loving and being loved; from those acts will follow all else. (If we are loved, we will be safe; if we feel safe, we will be not fearful or anxious; we will trust more and be more trustworthy; thus we will be less prone to hatred and distraction, ours, and that of others. And so on.) ‘Complicity’ has a slightly different flavor: we must collaborate. With others like us. On our life’s ‘projects’ and on theirs. Now, ‘complicit’ is usually used to indicate membership in a criminal conspiracy of some sort. What does its use here indicate?

I would venture that very often our life’s projects are ‘illegal’ in some sense or the other. They are not sanctioned; not approved; not permissible–custom, order, procedure, convention, norm, historical precedence must be violated. But we press on; we feel we can do no other. To do so we require collaborators; and the best place to find them is among those for whom we feel and experience and express the ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ (and presumably trust) that Ford speaks of.

So the notion of secular redemption does two things here: it invokes a unavoidably groundless ethic of love (asking us perhaps to look at our most instinctual reactions of caring and wanting care), and then, in a more existential sense, as it commits us to projects uniquely and particularly of our own making, it also bids us ensure that we remember we cannot accomplish them alone. The only human essence here is one of love; all else remains to be determined. We make ourselves but with others.

Note: I have no idea what Richard Ford thinks ‘secular redemption’ means.

The Underestimation Of Our Capacity To Love

In response to my post yesterday on biological and adoptive parents, my friend Maureen Eckert wrote:

Another way to think about this is that the tragedy is that people routinely underestimate their capacity to love. Maybe that is terrifying in all its implications.

My older doubts about adoption, which I expressed at the beginning of yesterday’s post, can well be viewed as precisely this underestimation of one’s capacity to love. Maureen is right that this variety of abnegation has “terrifying” dimensions to it.

An underestimation of the capacity to love is the converse, of course, of the inability to accept love. That inability, that lowered view of oneself, the judgment that one is unworthy of the love, caring and commitment that is sent our way by our lovers, parents, children, and friends, leads many to reject the intimacy and caring of long-term relationships, the kind that require sacrifice and commitment. It causes the pushing away of partners, the cringing from their touch, the turning away. Those who do so suffer from impostor syndrome: If only the truth about me were to be known, no one would love me, least of all the ones professing their undying love for me.

And sometimes those who turn away, who cringe, do so because they do not consider that they can reciprocate adequately. Judging oneself incapable of loving, or of not being able to love enough, unless some impossibly personal or circumstantial onerous conditions are met, ensures an inability to succeed in, or even desire, the relationships which  provide caring and intimacy and comfort, but which require commitment and reciprocation in turn. Those who suffer thus–and I use that term advisedly–stand at the outskirts of town, unable and unwilling to enter, afraid of failures of performance.

But, why is this terrifying?

I think it is so because a world populated by those who feel they cannot love, and who thus do not allow themselves to be loved, seems rather bleak. (Our world gives adequate evidence of the presence of these.) Love is not the only impulse propelling us to nobility of thought and action and sentiment, but it is certainly a powerful and significant force. To deny that to ourselves is to deny ourselves its powers and capacities; it is to shackle ourselves in thought and action.

But this shackling, this self-weakening, this self-neglect, would be considerably more benign if  those that did not love, or let themselves be loved, or think they cannot love, restricted their attentions and actions to themselves. But they do not, and indeed, they cannot. We are inextricably enmeshed in the lives and plans of others; our doings affect the trajectories of other lives; our plans may interfere with those of others. And all too often, those who do not love, or think they cannot love, hurt instead. Having rejected the outstretched arm and the bosom, they seek instead the cudgel and the club; having disdained the soft touch and word, they seek instead the harsh.

The underestimation of the capacity to love creates a vacuum, into which, all too easily, rushes the incapacity to empathize.  That seems a terrible burden for this world to bear.

 

Men, Women, and Public and Private Intimacy

In response to my post on male intimacy (which followed my appearance on the ABC’s Life Matters), a female friend of mine–a Brooklyner who has traveled in India–wrote to me:

What about intimacy with women? I don’t necessarily mean the romantic kind of intimacy. In India men share affection with each other openly but it’s taboo to do so with a woman, whether she be that man’s friend or spouse. How does it affect one’s ability to open up to a woman and to share affection? I feel that in the West, though men do not openly show affection to each other they do so with women. Because of that they might be better equipped to drop their guard with women and open up to them.

Good question. Public displays of affection between men and women are still rare in India, still likely to evoke stares, giggles, a raised eyebrow, sometimes verbal disapproval or catcalls or the local equivalent of ‘get a room.’ And as I noted in my post, it isn’t clear to me that being more open to physical displays of friendly affection with men makes Indian men more likely to open up in conversation–whether with men or women–about their insecurities or anxieties: stoicism still comes out ahead.

But then, it isn’t clear to me that the greater social acceptance and tolerance of public intimacy between men and women in ‘the West’ translates into any greater intimacy with women either, especially when it comes to a similar unburdening of the soul in conversation. Anecdotal–and some not-so-anecdotal–evidence suggests to me women in the West still find their male partners reticent and unwilling to open up; the ‘boys don’t cry or navel-gaze or revel in existential angst with their partners’ model still prevails. True, there is far more social conversation–in movies, novels, plays, blogs–about these matters, but how much of that translates back into an open, frank, conversation between men and women in a shared, private space is unclear. It still remains easier to talk about anxiety and insecurity in the abstract; it still remains easier for men to physically demonstrative with women than to allow access to the sanctum sanctorum of raw need and fearful hope.

These–admittedly imprecise and incomplete–observations suggest to me public and private intimacies–or physical and conversational intimacies, for that matter–are orthogonal to each other: the presence or absence of one does not seem to provide conclusive evidence about the presence or absence of the other. From the outside, looking in, it still seems women do a better job of generating intimacy than men, and their ability to do so does not seem correlated in any meaningful way with the presence of public displays of intimacy.  None of this is to discount the friendships that men are able to form with each other; it is just that the male expectation of what a friendship is to provide is already tempered by their understanding of the kinds of relationship they view as possible with other men.

Note: As a gay friend of mine pointed out to me, this discussion is sadly lacking a gay perspective. I remain acutely aware of that, and welcome enlightenment in that regard.