A week ago Joe Biden – President Joe Biden – said this in his inaugural speech:
Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.
That phrase, common objects of their love, attracted my attention, for reasons I’ll explain in the second part of this post. But first a sideways step. Because Biden’s reference got me wondering what love means here. I wanted to try and iron this out before getting back to the new president, and Augustine, because love clearly means different things in different contexts. Sometimes wildly different things.
So, we were walking down a narrow, paved path in the Victorian-era park between home and the esplanade. Ahead of us a robin half-flew half-bounced across the path pursuing another robin. Both disappeared through iron railings on the left, into undergrowth which slopes down to a stream. Moments later the pursuer re-emerged, noted our approach, and with a couple more bounces and a flurry of little wings, settled atop the iron railings to our right, about shoulder-height to me, with a safe hinterland of trees and bushes behind it. We stopped to enjoy the sight of the little creature – puffed and fluffed with territorial pride – boldly eyeballing us back. I told the kids about the time I was eating brunch at a picnic table with friends, with a couple of robins pecking about for crumbs, and how, when I held out a morsel of scrambled egg one of them flew down from a twig, landed on the tip of my finger and took the egg. How light it feels when a small bird lands on your finger, not to mention the pulse of electricity that zips through you when unexpectedly graced with the touch and trust of a wild creature. Especially one so esteemed for its pugnacity. Apparently, if you’re a robin, the sight of another feathery red breast on your patch flips the switch and down comes the red mist. Robins have been known to fight their own reflection in a puddle (it says on Wikipedia). But everyone else, especially those who are good enough to scuff the surface of the soil, like a lumbering gardener or snuffling hog, or a curious dad and two kids who clearly mean no harm, gets a free pass.
We talked about the other creatures whose attention and in some cases apparent devotion we’ve earned with edible treats – pet dogs, neighbours’ cats, random squirrels – and I wryly suggested to the children that snacks were perhaps the determining factor in their affection for their old dad.
Image: a nest of scrawny hatchlings when parent returns with a fat grub. A row of gaping mouths, impossibly wide, each shrieking “Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!”.
No, no, no! they laughed. Five minutes later they were wheedling in their most winningest ways for chips (fat fries) and fizzy drinks on the pier. Back home, it wasn’t long before their only communication with me was, as usual, yelled variants on the theme of “Da-ad! When’s dinner gonna be ready?!”
When small we love our parents, or more specifically whoever loves and feeds us, intensely. Food and love are interwoven from the first breath we draw, and for the fortunate, throughout childhood. Could this be the rootstock of all the love we give, take and make in the rest of our lives?
And then comes sexual maturity. Hormonal programming kicks in and we start to randomly fall in love. With faces in the crowd, pictures on a bedroom wall, the girl/boy who smiled at us on the bus. This is something else, a different species of love. It’s the definitive version of love if we take our cue from consumer culture. It is fuelled by sex, which feels good and sells product, but it also transcends, raises us to a higher plane – or so we imagine – and then, traditionally, drops us onto the rocks below.
Image: Romeo and Juliet. A love heart. Klimt’s The Kiss.
There’s hunger in this kind of love too, though. An impulse to gorge and be satiated. A yearned merging of two people’s minds and bodies, rest of the world be damned, and maybe also a kind of greediness. Because there’s a shadow of selfishness lurking in this love, a demand for satisfaction that can easily slip into possession and worse.
And then a third variety of love. Maybe you become a parent and maybe for the first time in your life you discover something in yourself you never knew was there. Blimey! Is this what it’s like to have a heart? Maybe for the first time you love another human literally more than yourself and would give anything for them to be healthy and happy. This kind of love won’t make you drool or turn your knees to jelly, but it completely possesses your being and rewrites who you are. And unlike cupboard-love or romantic-love, it’s all about giving.
Image: The madonna and child. Lion king reclining on the savannah in hope of a nice kip, scrunching his eyes as one cub clambers down the front of his face while another gnaws his tail.
At its best this variety of love is genuinely selfless and enduring, though unfortunately it’s not always at its best. Nevertheless, it is (imho) the deepest and most expansive love of the three. And maybe we have to exhaust the possibilities of varieties one and two before we can do justice to variety three.
Three images of love: greedy hatchling, throbbing love heart, madonna and child. At their extremes they can be so different. Should they even be covered by the same word?
But there’s a common thread too: attachment. In all three varieties, we wish to bond with another. To be ruthlessly Darwinian about this we could boil it down to the survival imperative. To be bluntly non-Darwinian we could shake our heads and say uh-uh, that’s not it at all. Because when you’ve felt it, proper open-hearted love, you know it’s bigger than survival.
That’s the key though, isn’t it? An open heart. If the heart is pinched shut then it’s not love, no matter how intense the feeling and how strong the desire to bond. Instead it trends greed, selfishness, ownership. It’s fear and neediness. It’s exploitation. Even hate.
Now, just to confuse things, there’s a fourth category of love – and this brings us back to St. Augustine. Not love as a high-buzz bodily process, inflaming the glands and filling us with raw emotion, but rather love as a state of being. One Love.
Whereas the other varieties of love are inseparable from the physical self, this kind arises in the spirit. At root it is a love of Creation – of air, water, the Earth. Of our ancestors, descendants to come, and all our fellow passengers on this planet. Robins included. It most resembles a parent’s love for a child, in that it centres gratitude and giving. And it’s a slow burn. But it can also be like a child’s love for a parent, in that it is love for the source of life itself.
The kind of love it least resembles, ironically, is the ubiquitous, commodified variety of love that we Moderns most associate with the word – sexual-romantic love.
Spirit love can manifest as love of (the idea of) God, love of (the idea of) My Country, love of (the idea of) Freedom – in fact a love of the idea of almost anything – and it can take on the behaviours of those more physical varieties of love we practise from the day we’re born. And just like those varieties – perhaps because of the ways we practise and experience ‘love’ in the course of our lives – it is giving and open-hearted at its best, but needy and closed-hearted when coming from a damaged place. Where the latter is narrow, exclusive and cruel, the former is broad, inclusive and generous.
So we must be careful which ‘common objects of love’ we, as a multitude, choose to define ourselves by, and how we encourage that love to be expressed. (…part 2)