Many Forms of Love Essential to Relational Intelligence
May and June posts will focus on Relational Intelligence – strengthening our capacities to relate skillfully to ourselves and engage skillfully with others – with open-heartedness, trust, and joy.
This week’s quotes offers a unique perspective on engaging with the world with resilience and with love in a different format, the article “The Other Kind of Love by Hugh Mackay. Excerpted from Dumbo Feather, a very intelligent Australian “mook” (half magazine, half book) devoted to “conversations with extraordinary people” focused on Passion-Purpose-Community. This excerpt is a contemporary epistle of wisdom, hope, and relational intelligence.
The Other Kind of Love by Hugh Mackay
[re-printed from Dumbo Feather, first quarter 2018, with permission of author and publisher.]
Ah, love. It’s one of those words, isn’t it? We routinely use it to refer to romantic passion, or the bonds of familiar affection, or close friendship, or even our emotional response to music, food, travel, pets, or poetry. We can say, “I love your scarf” with the same kind of intensity as when we say, “I will love you forever.”
Because “love” is such a carry-all word, it’s open to endless misinterpretation. The very power of it – the charm of it – creates the potential for all kinds of misunderstanding. “Love you!” we might chirrup, as a light-hearted way of ending a phone call – rather like the affectionate little “x” we add in a text to someone we’d never dream of kissing. Yet even those apparently innocent signals can cause trouble if the person they’re addressed to is hoping for some sign of a more heavily-freighted kind of love, and chooses to interpret them that way (“but you said you loved me!”).
Mostly we think of love as being about our feelings of affection for someone or something. But there’s an equally potent form of love that has nothing to do with our emotional state at all. It’s the kind of love that makes sense of the idea that you could love someone you don’t actually like very much, or someone you violently disagree with. It can even make sense of the idea that you could love your enemies.
The best way to describe this kind of love is to say it’s motivational rather than emotional; it’s about how we choose to act towards other people, regardless of how we feel about them. A better word for it might be compassion – that wonderful human capacity to act with respect, kindness and charity, not selectively, but as a general rule, a mental discipline, a way of life. It’s a commitment to the idea that I will approach every encounter with another person respectfully and with a disposition to show kindness towards them. If you’ve mastered the art of compassion, you can even terminate a relationship kindly.
Although compassion might sometimes spring from feelings of pity or sympathy or concern, we don’t have to depend on those feelings to trigger the compassionate response. Compassion is not about attraction, or even about the enjoyment we might experience in the presence of someone we love romantically, or with whom we share an enduring friendship. It’s not about desire, either -except, perhaps, the desire to make the world a better place. This does not mean it’s the province of saints or martyrs, by the way; it can be found all over the world in the everyday lives of mere mortals like you and me.
Romantic love sweeps us away. The love of family and friends wraps us in reassurance about who we are and where we belong. But compassion is human love at its noblest, because it’s the form of love that gives without any expectation of receiving, a gift with no strings attached. It’s a sign that we acknowledge our common humanity.
In contemporary Australian society, that selfless kind of love is in shorter supply that it used to be, because, like most Western societies, we are in the grip of a rampant individualism, linked to an equally rampant materialism – a toxic combination that feeds the mad idea, “It’s all about me.” In that atmosphere, it’s easy to overlook the deepest truth about us: that, like most species on the planet, we are essentially social beings who need communities to nurture, sustain, support and protect us. That’s why most of us live as we do – in villages, towns, suburbs and cites, where we form sustainable neighbourhoods and communities.
Sure, there are hermits and social isolates who don’t enjoy human company much, be even they rely on a community to build roads and bake bread for them. The truth about most of us is that, although we need bursts of solitude, being cut off from the herd is a bad state for us to be in – no wonder solitary confinement is the harshest punishment we inflict on prisoners.
But here’s the beautiful symmetry of the human condition: while we need communities to sustain us if we are to survive and prosper, those communities in turn need us to engage with them if they are to survive and prosper. And compassion is the engine that drives our engagement.
It makes more sense for us to co-operate rather than compete. In fact, our survival as a species depends on it. That’s why we act altruistically towards people who need our help, and it’s why we don’t hesitate to offer assistance to people affected by a natural disaster, or someone hurt in an accident, or a lost, child, or a frail elderly person who is bewildered or frightened. We don’t stop to think, “What’s in it for me?” or, “Do I like this person enough to help them?” No, we simply respond to the need.
It is normal for humans to show compassion towards each other, because, in the end, we are each other. Although we like to think of ourselves as independent, we are more like islands in the sea – separate on the surface but connected to each other deep down. We are all part of the greater whole. The differences between us are endlessly interesting – and can be fascinating, charming, irritating or infuriating – but the most significant thing about us is the similarities between us, arising from our common humanity.
If we were to lose that sense of human connectedness, we would risk losing our sense of compassion. Then we would stop living as if we need each other, though we do.
We would fail to recognize that our own mental health depends on the health of the communities we belong to, thought it does. We would lose sight of the fact that a good life can only be a life lived for others, though that’s all it can ever be. How else can you make sense of th idea of a good life? You can’t be good on your own: goodness is inherently about responding to other people’s need of our kindness, charity, compassion, respect. Our love.
Compassion lowers our anxiety levels by releasing us from the trap of self-absorption. It encourages our tolerance of difference. It generates a disposition to be kind and non-judgemental, and that’s good for everyone. Compassionate people are more likely to forgive those who have wronged or offended them, and the act of forgiveness is therapeutic both for the forgiver and the forgiven.
Compassion changes everything. It encourages us to build a better society by responding to bad behavior with good behavior, and by setting an example of kindness and respect especially when it would be easier to give in to negative impulses like revenge and hate. Falling is love is wonderful but, alas, all too fleeting. The impact of this other kind of love goes on and on.
Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and author. His latest book, Australia Reimagined, will be published by Macmillan in May 2018.
Dumbo Feather is a quarterly “mook” half (magazine/half book) devoted to “conversations with extraordinary people” focused on Passion-Purpose-Community. St. Kilda, Victoria, Australia.
https://www.dumbofeather.com/ for podcasts: Paul Hawken, Ester Perel, Krista Tippett, many more.