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.

 

The Post-Apocalyptic Zone of Moral Instruction

During a Facebook discussion in response to my post yesterday on The Road, my friend Maureen Eckert wrote:

I am never sure what to make of “post-apocalyptic porn.” On the one hand they seem to be thought experiments about the “State of Nature.” On the other, they seem to tend to express exaggerated exasperation with “civilization,” as if reinforcing the feeling that “nothing can be done.”

Maureen is right that a standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed.’ This is the fiction of the ‘real’ or ‘true’ ‘human nature’ alluded to in yesterday’s post; it is will be revealed once the civilizing layers of our civilization are removed and we revert back to the original ‘state of nature’. The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true. (This lesson may be imparted with varying degrees of sanctimony depending on the artist.)

There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

Maureen’s second point illustrates the ways in which post-apocalyptic depictions may be read as making the claim that civilization’s  promises were always illusory; the changes and improvements it supposedly brought about were transient, contingent and ultimately fragile; the apocalypse destroys our civilization’s claims to have improved us; we remain just as uncivilized as we ever were. Because its hold on us is shown to be so tenuous, we feel serious doubt awaken within us about whether it’s a civilization worth saving in the first place. If its moral lessons weren’t permanent, if the order it created was only a temporary imposition. then what good is it anyway? How much commitment can it demand if its legacy is only a thin veneer of restrained behavior, a temporary cessation of an otherwise incessant hostility?

The post-apocalyptic genre is both forgiving and condemnatory in its views of humans and the world they make for themselves.