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Friday, March 17, 2023

Dog-paddling in the waters of the river of love....

 If attempting to identify, and to explicate and comprehend evil is a cognitive, emotional, political and ethical minefield, then so too, perhaps even more enigmatic is the notion of love. Popular songs have been stuffed with the ‘language’ of love, including romance, brokenness, forgiveness, bitterness, revenge, promises, abandonments, fulfilments and dreams….and the list goes on.

For every adolescent, it seems there is a different ‘fantasy’ of a prospective ‘only one’ or the ‘most loving’ or the ‘most beautiful’ or the ‘most wanted’ other. Surrounded by classmates who have ‘found’ that other ‘loved one’, regardless of whether she or he considers the situation in terms of infatuation, adulation, hero-worship, or ‘real love’, the general description of the relationship from those observing is that it has ‘taken over’ the thoughts and the feelings and especially the time and attention of the participants. Seemingly subsumed in/by this drama, each ‘young lover’ is forever changed, given that this experience is like no other, from the past, or most likely from the future.

There are implications for the teen’s budget to pay for dates, for school credits and graduation, for the beginning of the process of separating from parents, for social relationships that portend reactions like support from friends, and/or jealousy from those shunted aside by one of the partners, social slurs that in innuendos of racial or sexual ‘shade’. However things happen, for the young person who has crossed the threshold into a romantic relationship, his and her world has changed. The length, depth, authenticity and adventure of the experience, while different for each person, will be a legacy that stays with him/her for a lifetime.

Endings of these adolescent relationships, too, and their timing and nature will have an impact on how each person ‘trusts’ another, and even potentially the rest of the world. And, inevitably, one’s emotional development is impacted, regardless of both the nature of the relationship and its mortality.

No relationship is or can be cut off from the cultural ethos of its origin. Small town kids will be visible and known to many; city kids will find some anonymity, in so far as their physical activities are concerned; all will face the onslaught of social media’s penetration and exploitation. And interesting observation from Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist in an interview with Bill Barr, who has studied the impact of social media on American youth says that ‘bullying for boys is physical, whereas for girls it is relational and never leaves on social media.’ Perhaps that insight helps to provoke a cultural and a political and even a parental re-think about the negative impact of social media.


The insight from Haidt, noted above, is among the many subtleties and nuances that separates the ‘awareness’ of young men from that of their female peers. And, indeed, the whole field of adolescent relationships (of the romantic kind) is legitimately considered a mine-field into which both young men and young women rush blindly, innocently, spontaneously, and obviously passionately. The ‘image’ of the other can be said to cast a kind of spell over the partner, and the range and depth of the imagination, rarely if ever specifically detailed, will impact the degree of mutual understanding of ‘who’ each person is to the other. Indeed, the whole notion of ‘image’ and ‘projection’ (in this case, of the highest and most magnetic fantasies) are likely outside of the consciousness of most adolescents, especially at the moment of the greatest attraction/vulnerability. Paradoxically, when we are the most vulnerable to the potential of a relationship is precisely the moment when we believe we are the most ‘fulfilled’ the most worthy, the most desirable and heroic.

And while shiploads of ink have been pored into the archives of all countries in all periods of history detailing the drama of romance, love still remains among the most elusive, most compelling and most complex of human experiences.

There are for each ‘romantic’ partner specific attributes, sometimes emerging from the patterns and images we glean from mother and father, and whether they might be a figure image of his ‘ideal’ or a car or uniform for her’s, ‘love falls for ‘something else,’ invisible. We say, ‘There’s something about her’; ‘The whole world changes in his presence.’ As Flaubert supposedly said: ‘(She was the focal point of light at which the totality of things converged.’ We are in the terrain of transcendence, where usual realities hold less conviction that invisibilities. If ever we wanted obvious proof of the daimon and its calling, we need but fall once in love. The rational sources of heredity and environment are not enough to give rise to the torrents of romantic agony. It’s all you, and never do you feel more flooded  with importance and more destined; nor can what you do turn out to be more demonic. This intoxication with self-importance suggests that romantic love ‘has in fact promoted the growth of individuality.’ According to Susan and Clyde Hendrick, it can be well argued that the Western sense of person parallels the place given to romantic love in the culture, as shown first by courtly romance and the troubadours, and then in the Renaissance. Ideals of individualism and individual destiny reached an apogee in the nineteenth century, as did the delirious exaggerations of romantic love, so that, ads the Hendricks say, romantic love may ‘be construed as a force or device to help create or enhance self and individuality.’ These psychodynamics must locate the call of love within the personal ‘self.’ My (Hillman’s) psychodynamics imagines this call more phenomenologically, using the language that love itself uses-myth, poetry, story, and song—and that places the call beyond the ‘self,’ as if it comes from a divine or demonic being. (Hillman, The Soul’s Code, p. 144)

One of the more significant social and cultural influences in the West, the church, has played and continues to play a role in the definition and conceptualizing of the notion of love, a concept, which, doubtless, enhances the ‘personal’ individual early integration of the concept. As part of the overt and subliminal effort to combat, mediate, forgive the fundamental human attribution of evil and sin, the church professes, and prescribes love. (From Christian theology),…the soul is conceived to stand primarily in love, because, as Augustine said, ‘No one is who does not love’; ‘love and do what thou willst’; for the first commandment is love, since love is the essence of God, in whose image the human soul is made; through love the soul is redeemed, for love comprehends all other ideas—truth, justice, and faith too, all virtues and sins, and this love gives to soul its immortal fire and the arrow of its mission to increase love’s dominion through ever widening unions. Even as it recurs in a variation in Freud’s idea of libido, this idea could not have taken hold so effectively unless it echoes an archetypal structure which images and experiences a cosmos ruled by Gods of love—Eros, Jesus, Aphrodite. (Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, p. 124)

Within the church, the Greek word ‘agape’ abounds. From christianity.com, we read: ‘Agape love’ differs from other types of love in the Bible. It is the highest, most pure form of love as a choice, not out of attraction or obligation. Agape love is a sacrificial love that unites and heals. It is the love of God that we see through the cross of Jesus Christ. This love saves and restores humanity in the face of sin and death.

Not only does the culture of the West not easily or readily distinguish between various faces, definitions or applications of love, the conflation of many of its forms and faces not only sullies their uniqueness and their authenticity, but clouds and diminishes their relevance and application in human lives. And whether one is a person of faith or not, one naturally and inevitably aspires to, fantasizes about, reaches for, commits to, and fully embraces what one conceives/perceives/considers to be an experience that exceeds one’s vision and fantasy and imagination….including a potential relationship with God. The transcendent, indeed, is central to the human aspiration and ambition and stretching to be part of something ‘outside of’ one’s self and ‘bigger than’ one’s self, and ‘awesome’ and transformative.

The literal, concrete, empirical aspects of a relationship and the ‘ethereal, idealistic, transcendent’ aspects of any relationship cannot be divided from each other, as the whole contains both (and more?). However, the culture, including much of the praxis of faith tilts toward the concrete, the immediate, the sensate and the cognitive. Whereas, the ephemeral, ethereal, transcendent, poetic, imaginative and the archetypal are all seemingly relegated to the weirdo’s, the artists, the isolates, the strange and even the social outcast. There are some real and risky implications of this ‘tilting’.

One is that the physical, the literal, the legal and the biological have reign, leaving the ethereal, the ephemeral, the transcendent and the imaginative and archetypal outside of both the vernacular and the anima mundi, the zeitgeist. The British psychiatrist and thought leader, Dr. Liam McGilchrist, in a 2009 work entitled, The Master and His Emissary, attempts to bridge the left and right hemispheres of the human brain. (from lifeitself.org) a review of the book reads:

(The book) provides a compelling exploration of the curious division of the brain into two hemispheres. It also relates this hemispheric divide which has fascinated and frustrated neuroscience for centuries, to a profound perspective on the nature of being and the evolution of western culture,…the hemispheres create two worlds, and that of the right is holistic, embodied, living and intuitive, while the left is more focused, linear and analytical. …He …demonstrates in painstaking detail over a few hundred pages that there is valuable substance to the idea of hemispheric duality. The book then diagnoses a widely suspected cultural illness in the West as resulting from its gradual alienation from the right hemisphere’s world.

Distancing himself from the pop culture’s way of perceiving ‘right’ and ‘left’ brain, as ‘what they do’ and not about ‘how they approach it. He writes: (Y)ou could say, to sum up, a vastly complex matter in a phrase, that the brain’s left hemisphere is designed to help us ap-prehend-and thus manipulate- the world; the right hemisphere to com-prehend it-see it all for what it is. (Wikipedia.com)


From his website, we read: Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance—second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole. (And) I believe that we are engaged in committing suicide; intellectual suicide, moral suicide, and physical suicide. If there is anything as important as stopping us poisoning our seas and destroying our forests, it I stopping us poisoning our minds and destroying our souls. Our dominant value-sometimes I fear our only value-has, very clearly, become that of power. This aligns us with a brain system, that of the left hemisphere, the raison d’etre of which is to control and manipulate the world. But not to understand it: that, for evolutionary reasons that I explain, has come to be more the raison d’etre or our-more intelligent, in every sense-right hemisphere. Unfortunately the left hemisphere knowing less, thinks it knows more. It is a good servant, but a ruinous-a peremptory-master. And the predictable outcome of assuming the role of master is the devastation of all that is important to us—or should be important, if we really know what we are about. 

Along with Joseph Campbell, it would seem to be a reasonable guess that James Hillman would readily concur with the neuroscientist’s observation of the neglect of the right brain. Would Hillman’s ‘poetic basis of mind’ not legitimately be construed as another path aimed at the recovery of the purpose and legitimacy of the imagination and the right brain? And would the effective bridging of different kinds of mental activity not be both reciprocal and necessary for effective and full realization of human potential?

The exercise of power, especially in intimate relationship with another, is and always will be critical to the effective understanding and working out of whatever tensions and conflicts that emerge. Concentrating on the method of resolving the tension, as so many therapeutic initiatives have been focused on, does not integrate the basic conceptual frameworks, including the voices of the gods and goddesses, the legends, the fantasies and the metaphors that are engaged, often without our conscious awareness. We have place the ‘how’ ahead of the ‘what’ in terms of our shared perceptions of reality, including the realities of our most important relationships.

Hillman, McGilchrist and Campbell are all engaged in an intellectual and affective pursuit of tentative answers to who we are, how we approach our world view, and how we might being to ‘see’ ourselves and our place in the world differently. Their work too is an act of love in all the important meanings of that complex and relevant concept. Concentration, commitment, sharing, vulnerability and risk-taking are all modelled by their persons. And, their shoulders, on which we walk, enable us to ‘see’ differently but also more deeply into our own reality as well as our relationship to our shared reality.

 Gratitude, it seems, is only one of the more appropriate responses…especially for the inspiration to continue to search, to learn and to share. 

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