Thursday, June 30, 2011

Love in the Modern World

When we think of love, our first thought usually goes to what we may call “natural” love between a man and woman. This romantic notion is deeply embedded in the cultures and myths of all major civilizations, and it is therefore the first one that comes to mind. Yet, natural love is a rare phenomenon because it happens only when two people spontaneously melt into a single emotional entity. George Santayana described natural love as “a deep and dumb instinctive affinity, an inexplicable emotion seizing the heart, an influence organising the world, like a luminous crystal, about one magic point.” When there is love at first sight, the average existence is unexpectedly interrupted by a sudden emotional flash, like a coup de foudre (i.e. a thunderbolt) as the French say.

It is not surprising therefore that those couples who are struck by natural love often don’t know each other well. Sometimes they have hardly ever spoken a word to each other the moment Cupid acts. Indeed, knowledge of the loved one is not a prerequisite for natural love. It is a love that prefers natural, simple people; that is, people with little self-knowledge and experience. Natural love is therefore almost always the instinctive and unsophisticated love of young and immature couples, like Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet. Their minds and hearts are immaculate, like white sheets on which nothing much has yet been written. Never have their inexperienced hearts felt an overflowing desire for another being, never have they felt the sting of rejection, never have they felled tears of unrequited love: natural love is usually first love.

With the accumulation of experience though, with every passing year, natural love thus becomes a little less probable, as the mysteries of mankind slowly reveal themselves in the self and others. Natural love requires innocence; experience and the loss of innocence are what converts, corrupts, or destroys natural love, as in the Fall of Man and his descent from Eden. Natural love is a fleeting moment of intense and shared emotion in two young lives; in older and more experienced people, love will usually take a different form. As the love-struck continue to live and learn, if only by getting to know each other better, either their natural love is converted into a more “mature” love, or, like a flame it flickers for an instant and then goes out, leaving bitterness or indifference behind.

In our legends and in our imaginations, these two outcomes can be clearly perceived. Sometimes the story ends happily; natural love is then soon converted into enduring mature love. The final words often confirm it: “…and they lived happily ever after”, as was the case for Cinderella, Snow White and the Sleeping Beauty. But most of the time natural love ends tragically, as for the two famous couples mentioned above, but also for Lancelot and Guinevere, Orpheus and Eurydice, and many others. The same emotional suffering has been related in the most well-known novels as well; such as in Manon Lescaut, The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Count of Montecristo, and La Chartreuse de Parme.

In the examples above it is interesting to note that though natural love is strongly felt, it is never fulfilled or consummated. Every time, it seems some external forces conspire to destroy the small paradise that the young natural lovers have found on earth. There is always a suspicion that natural love cannot, in reality, come to fruition. Though natural love is the subject of countless tales, what is mostly felt is the desire, the hope or the anticipation of love rather than love itself.

Today, natural love seems more elusive than ever; indeed, a love crisis has hit the modern world. Never have there been as many “single” adults as today, along with many social events designed specifically for them. In the affairs of the heart, the freedom to choose may, ironically, confuse the act of choosing, by distracting the senses and preventing their focus on a single point of interest. Paradoxically, love in a world of abundance is more complicated than in a world of scarcity. If natural love was a mirage in earlier times, it is now hardly discerned on the horizon.

The modern world is individualistic in its outlook; it places high priority in the acquisition of knowledge and the development of the self. Such a culture has many advantages, as the progress of the West has shown, but such a culture is also pernicious to the possibilities of natural love. The notion of natural love is arguably being substituted for the highest form of love proposed by Plato in the Symposium; namely the love of knowledge, or, to use a more timely expression, the desire for self-realisation. For better and for worse, when they reach adulthood young men and women are already quite experienced in most aspects of life; they lack the innocence of their forebears that natural love needs.

It seems, therefore, that the current cultural climate is more agreeable to mature love than to natural love. Mature love contains diluted traces of natural love; it is a transformation of natural love after it has been forged and strengthened by knowledge and experience. It includes feelings of a higher order than those found in natural love, such as complicity, admiration, and respect. Relying on better self-knowledge and more experience, mature love is deeper, stronger and more sophisticated than natural love, and consequently, more in tune with today’s complex and constantly changing world. In a moving environment, we are obliged to adapt our ways, including our way of loving.

Yet, instead of embracing mature love, many young people continue to cling to the romantic and almost illusory notion of natural love, without having any longer the social and sentimental condition required for it. Today, Western young women are usually liberated, independent, determined and experienced. However, they still often dream of the sudden arrival of a bygone character that, in fact, they can hardly fathom: the chivalrous knight in a shining armor, also known as “The One”, the prince charmant, or the principe azzurro. Conversely, emasculated young men who have forgotten how to woo, still somehow hope to do precisely that to impervious and often callous females. Such fundamental misunderstandings help to explain many modern love failings. 

Giving preference to mature love instead of natural love might help to remedy such difficulties. Mature love differs from natural love because it involves the discovery of a complementary soul, a kindred spirit, or a media naranja (i.e. an orange half) as the Spaniards say. In this case, love is no longer the spontaneous amorous merger into a single emotion, but a progressive feeling of harmony and fullness as a couple, physically and spiritually. In this regard, mature love can be called ideal in a way that natural love cannot, since it takes into account as much as possible the two lovers’ identities. But mature love is therefore also capricious; it will only burgeon in the presence of souls that are honest and truthful to themselves and to each other.

Love between experienced and knowledgeable lovers is never pure; it inevitably involves conflicting sensations. We must therefore become aware that mature love requires that the relationship soon reaches a relatively stable equilibrium point. There is a need for a unique and delicate balance in the couple between two positive, yet opposite, sensations; the sense of peacefulness that comes from security, calm and comfort on the one hand, and on the other, the fresh feeling of freedom to change and challenge. Too much of the first often leads to jealousy, possessiveness and control, and too much of the second usually brings carelessness, selfishness and chaos. Both are detrimental in the long term to mature love.

Mature love is not like that flash of natural love that shines brightly for a moment and then is gone; it is a slow radiating halo of affection in which experienced lovers bask. Mature love is like an unwavering glow of passion originating in the heart and spreading through the body and into the soul. It is the feeling of intimately knowing that there is no other person with whom we would rather be united now and in the future, and that the sights and sounds of our beloved are preferred even to our own. Mature love is the kind of love that wears well and that can be expected to last, perhaps even, “until death do us part.”

Today, more than ever, it is worth remembering that mature love is the kind of love that can bring happiness in the long term. Relationships in the XXIst century should be built, therefore, not on the frail structure of natural love, but on the strong foundation of mature love, capable of withstanding the challenging winds of modernity.

2 comments:

  1. Wow...I may say that the writer is experiencing this kind of love right now..to write like this requires not only knowledge but inspiration as well.(kidding)

    Anyway, "LOVE" for me is the greatest miracle on Earth. We must not forget also that there are different kinds of love such as: AGAPE love - is the love for God, EROS love - you mentioned above (for opposite sex), PATRIOTIC love - is the love for the country, and BROTHERLY love - love for friends, parents, etc.

    Eros love is what makes the world colorful. I believe that no matter how successful a man/woman can be (professionally), she/he will never be happy unless she/he found the right mate. Caring and sharing is what's life all about. God puts a void in every person's heart that only a soulmate can fill and satisfy it.

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  2. It's always a bit risky to write about L especially in Modern World as it touches personal strings of each and everyone consider their own experience as unique, special that can’t be reached by others so perhaps this article is doomed to be criticized.
    I liked the way you raised above and tried to analyze with cold heart but clear consciousness such hardly analyzing topics. I think you really managed to reach some very important moments of Love in the Modern World! Thank you, it was interesting to read!

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