Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Saturday, March 11, 2006

I Feel For You--Or Do I?

Goodness, I seem to be provoking a lot of responses these days. (Apart from my selection of a Hopkins poem for my Friday contribution--that appears either entirely unobjectionable and/or totally boring. Probably the latter--I still like it, though.)

Still, with all due appreciation--and I do appreciate it--the last post wasn't a cry for attention--no, really! That is, oddly enough, I didn't mean it be about me, per se, but about a problem with love--a problem that I think a lot of people have, and which, admittedly, I used myself as an example of (since I think I'm about as bad as a person can be on that level and not qualify as a clinical sociopath.) That is: empathy.

Is empathy possible? Freud would say that it's a delusion--a pleasant one, but a delusion ne'er-the-less. I think Montaigne would agree--though he'd be spritely and sweet about it, and we wouldn't be nearly so creeped out after reading his version of the same sentiment. We are, aren't we, fundamentally isolated in our own heads, right? I mean, like the stoned hippie asks while staring at the lava lamp, "Like, what if the color blue that I see is, like, a totally different color than the color blue you see? Whoa..." But it's true. Blue is what you see, not what I see. I can't ever really know what you see--and how much less can I know what you feel? So when we think of love as being tied up with empathy--hurting when someone else hurts--being happy when someone else is happy--isn't it counter-intuitive? Is it really possible?

Of course it is, you say. And, truth be told, I agree. The sweeping fiat of "there's no such thing as love" is just plain silly--we may not agree on what the word means--does anyone?--but humanity's been grooving on each other for too long for us to deny the existence of something that merits the name "love." I mean, when logic goes up against empiricism, we go with empiricism--isn't that what the whole Age of Enlightenment was about?


So love exists. Maybe not the absolute, aestheticized love of Sapphic odes and Puccini arias, but it exists. There may be no such thing as soul-mates, true, but "close enough" is good enough. Agreed.

But surely, for love to be "close enough," there has to be something in us that's open to giving it. Love--real love--is an exchange, isn't it? I mean, isn't that why we laugh at Don Quixote and Cervantes's mocking of courtly love--the one-sided adoration of the non-existant belle dame sans merci? We laugh because love requires a minimum of two people; otherwise, it's just, um, self-pleasuring, let's say. And between those two people, there has to be something given and received, yes? And each one has to do both? Yes? No?

Hmm. Maybe no. Maybe I'm just attempting to prescribe the unprescribable. Maybe love it completely and utterly individual phenomenon. And what works for two particular people (or, three, what the hell!) isn't what will work for, or be a model for, anybody else.

But can we really swing so far into that absolute? I think not. De gustibus non disputandum, and all that, but come on--there's a reason we can all tell stories about "our worst blind date ever" and know that those listening will laugh in sympathy--there are rules--maybe not absolute, but strong enough to act as guideposts--sure, we may color outside the lines, but that doesn't mean that the lines aren't there.

So let's say that there is a convention to love. Surely (I'm using that word a lot--though I want credit for not making a single Airplane reference--until now) part of that convention is "you gotta give to get"--and, in addition "you gotta want to give"--I don't agree with much of what Paul said--almost none of it, really--but he has a point when he writes about love, and how one can do wonderful things, but if one does them without love, it profits one nothing. (Though a man who saves lives and eases pain without love may profit others immensely, so maybe he doesn't have a point. Stupid multi-dimensional nature of experience...) But to love really is to love givingly--right? Isn't it? I think so. I think love means patience without a big show of being patient. It means sacrifice without grumbling--it means giving without whining--it means being there for the boring stuff and not checking your watch every five minutes. I means a lot. And it's worth it, God knows. It's really, really worth it.

But it's only worth it if we're worth it. And I still find myself wanting. Then again--maybe my problem is that it means so much to me--that I value it so highly and miss it so much--that I think that in order to be worth something so amazing and wonderful, I have to be equally amazing and wonderful. And given how I feel about love--well, I don't think anyone could be that wonderful, not all the time. Hmm. That's probably a healthy conclusion. Certainly my shrink would agree. And hey, it means I'm free to be a snivelling, childishly selfish prick and still feel like I'm owed love, right now, dammit. Goody.


Anonymous Katie said...

Indeed. Goody! The day where I will raise my eyebrows and shake my head at your "look how happy I am now!" posts is surely coming soon. With all sincerity, I can't wait. You'll know I mock you with great affection.

As much as it's possible for me at 2AM, I see your points. Nice work.

11:49 PM  
Blogger Jehanus Bleak said...

I have two comments.

First, it seems to me that love, like virtue, does not demand continuous extreme sacrifices, only the willingness to offer those when they are necessary. When trying to understand the mating habits of hadrosaurid dinosaurs, some researchers suggested that the only possible approach would involve breaking the female's tail near its base. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, saying that such a gratuitously painful experience is maladaptive. In other words, the hadrosaurs would have died out rapidly instead of proliferating wildly as they did for tens of millions of years. Looking at humans in a similar light, and keeping in mind that of course our mating practices begin and end above the shoulders, it becomes obvious that if "love" includes or requires only gut-wrenching sacrifice, then it is maladaptive and will not occur. On the other hand, statistical evidence supports the notion that people are indeed happier when in love, as anecdotal evidence, e.g. my grandparents' 50 years of wedded bliss, supports. Finally, psychologists have found that, as long as people are willing to treat one another lovingly (however they define the term), in many cases the feeling seems to creep back into the relationship as well. In short, sometimes it just makes sense to treat the shadows on the cave wall as real, whatever their ultimate epistemology.

Second, your argument can't be divorced completely from the one making it, and you are overlooking some key evidence right in front of your eyes. Would that I had my own fan club! And what's more, these are genuinely toothsome wenches with at least a couple of working brain cells to rub together, not the Barbie-esque surf bunnies here in Tir-na-Nog. Reel one in, and you could be making your point, or more likely, opposing it, from a MUCH more pleasant social situation. Surely it's not too much of a stretch to take the presence of affection as a sign that it might be deserved, whatever this "deserving" may be?

1:27 AM  

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