As a sappy skeptic, I have written extensively about the human emotion we call “love,” including a novel about religious and tribal conflict, wherein the ultimate secret revealed by religion, history, humanists, and contemplatives of all cultures and stripes is that the power of love—and the golden rule—are the true beacons that call us to a higher, more enlightened way of achieving our greatest potential. In today’s post I’m going to share a personal disclosure, and then ask a question I’ve asked in a previous post: Does true love ever end? Finally, I’ll be compelled to ponder whether people have varying capacities to love, and how that capacity, or lack thereof, affects our linked existences.
To get there, however, let’s begin with a Hollywood-inspired question. Can we love someone dearly, but find that due to the forces of life, career, culture, religious prohibition, or some other environmental factors, that we are forbidden from being with that person and sharing daily life? Can the movies that I so reject for celebrating only the lusty or temporary romantic brand of love still reflect great truths when they portray the tragedy of love that is forbidden, lost to death, or otherwise prohibited from pursuit? Clearly I have long argued that life for most humans in the history of our species has largely been suffering, punctuated with spells pain-free, if perhaps even joyous, existence. For this reason, and in this regard, it seems that Hollywood’s portrayal of unfulfilled/unfulfillable love is far more useful and accurate than the glorification of romantic love—so yes, it reflects great truths about our existence.
Now, in case you are wondering, no, I am not in some existential crisis of lost or forbidden love. In fact, the depth of my experience of love has probably never been greater, so my situation is actually quite the opposite. That said, a recent personal disclosure has left some people scratching their heads, while others see the great love that is genuinely involved. It is through these reactions that I am gaining insights into the issues at hand: the human capacity to love, and the endurance of true love.
You see, my dearest wife, the central actor in my “life play” to date, the soul whose amazing heart was inspiration for aspects of the two central female characters in my novel—whom one Gnostic religion professor saw as a female Christ figure, and the woman whom I should reiterate that I love as deeply and truly as I’ve ever experienced love—recently joined me in issuing a letter to friends and family disclosing a desire to spend some time experiencing daily living outside the roles we’ve established through twenty years of family life. In other words, it’s time to search for and embrace a new chapter and a new phase in our evolution as individuals and soul mates, scary though that may be. You might call it a spiritual journey or a trial separation, which may seem like dramatically different things, though I’m not so sure they necessarily are.
It is worth clarifying that our life-long commitments of undying support and love—to the degree any human has sufficient ability to consent to such grandiose promises—remain completely in force. There has been no cheating, no deceit, no shouting, no fighting; essentially there has been love and desire for the other to experience his or her full potential as well as all that life has to offer. Weird, huh? It’s kind of like the old “if you love something set it free” idea, I suppose.
At any rate, and very understandably, when others look at our situation they do so through a heuristic—one of those problem solving strategies that help us quickly and efficiently categorize and resolve puzzles in life. In this case the specific heuristic employed by most people says that when two married people stop living together they must be angry, shout, throw things, someone must have cheated, someone must have lied, and very likely both must be angry and have stopped loving one another—perhaps except for some twisted, platitude-like frothing, or a need to reconcile present disdain with the thousands of previous testimonials of forever love.
But as we skeptics often point out, those brilliantly efficient problem solving strategies—these prejudices and heuristics—can lead us far astray in their efforts at efficiency. In the case of me and my wife, and in the case of many people whom I know who have selflessly celebrated for someone they love, and truly “set that person free”—as people do with their children when they leave the nest— being apart does not signal an end to love. In fact regardless of how you define true love (see my attempt here), there are countless situational examples where true love endures as people are forced—or in part selflessly choose, in the interest of those they love—to grant freedoms and experience the apartness that is essential to the growth and/or survival of individuals, or relationships.
In the end, does true love end? Personally, I’ve pondered the question for a while now, and admit there may be scenarios I’ve not considered. But that said, to me true love that is based on full knowledge of one’s character and composition, cannot ever end. Even when we perceive it to end for others, we do so because we either fail to see the continuation of the love—due to our misapplied heuristic, which says that being apart denotes lack of love; we do so because our fallible human mind needs to create a narrative to explain some action or behavior; or we entirely dismiss our “love” as merely an historic fantasy—a delusion from the beginning. But true, selfless, deep and caring concern and admiration for another seems to me that it is, and must be, timeless and enduring—transcending even death (see post “The Truth About Life After Death”).
Capacity to Love
This brings me to the question of capacity for love. Are we all equal in our capacity for selfless caring and love? It seems the clear answer is “no.” We can debate until the cows come home why that might be—if it is environmental, genetic, or in what combination; but simple observation makes clear that there are people who, if you’ll allow me the metaphor, are more “Christ-like” in their ability to love (as defined by I Corinthians—which seems a great definition). Yet at the same time there are also people who are sociopathically egocentric and void of the “empathy gene,” in a way that kills any ability or desire to place themselves in someone else’s shoes, or put the needs of another person ahead of their own.
With Christmas day behind us, and the metaphors, symbols, and cultural infusions of meaning into the 25th of December (or winter solstice) fresh in our minds, it is perhaps a good time to draw a few conclusions.
The first conclusion (provisionally of course): Most of us, in reality, have a mix of egocentrism and empathy, and therefore have at least a moderate ability to lovingly put others’ needs ahead of our own; we have some capacity for true love.
Second conclusion: That said, to me the value of idealism, and the value of the metaphors of Christmas, surround the goal of becoming all that we can be, and stretching our ability to love and care selflessly for others. Perhaps it is in loving purely and completely and wastefully, and throwing caution to the wind, that we become as fully human and as fully “divinely connected” to one another, and to the universe, as we humans can possibly dream of being. After all, a goal of loneliness and disconnection would make no sense, right? No, the opposite seems historically demonstrable as the loftiest, and I’d argue most worthwhile, of all human ambitions—connectedness.
Third conclusion: Still, the sad reality is that some will never “get” that my wife and I could still love one another extremely deeply, yet still encourage the other to travel away for a while—or even, god forbid, find additional love with another. For some of these people this is because they are among the many, many, who for biological reasons or something far more complex, are void of any capacity to even minimally see through the eyes of another, or place another before them; to them, beyond all other forms, such love is incomprehensible. Sure, for others there might be what appear to be somewhat less unenlightened reasons not to “get it”—like allegations that we have quit on each other or taken the institution of marriage and commitment too lightly; but these other views have less relevance to the topic at hand so I won’t digress into them further.
You see through my wife, and through a very select few other people that I’ve had the profound pleasure of sharing time with in this limited journey, I have seen glimpses of the most amazing and pure force that I believe humanity can ever experience. So the final conclusion I offer today is that selfless, true love is indeed real, enduring, and permanent, though in many ways it defies explanation or definition.
I have seen love so pure and strong that one cannot help but weep. I have seen empathy and compassion. I have seen caring and celebration for the joy of another, even when that person would like nothing more for his/her self than that very thing being celebrated. That, is love, and I mourn for those who passed this recent Christmas without yet knowing such love. I mourn for those who have known such love, but who can no longer touch it and experience it directly on a daily basis—because they have been forced to be separate from it in some way.
Mostly, however, I mourn for those to whom love is invisible, tasteless, without fragrance, without feel, and beyond experience. For whatever reason, they are numerous; in some cases they are dangerous. But in all cases, they are among the greatest tragedies of human existence, because it is through connections—no matter how remote—that our existence is defined, and our immortality tasted. True love endures.
(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)