Love conquers all. It’s a cliché and trope that’s been used in stories for as long as humans have been telling stories, but is it true? If love could truly move us past any boundary, then why can’t it overcome spousal abuse, infidelity, suicide or poverty. Are these things a result of a lack of love, by either individuals, families or society, or is our capacity to love a finite resource?
Love for the Untouchables
There’s a video by Model Pranksters where they film the candid reactions of random street walkers as actors intentionally trip and fall in front of them. One of the actors is dressed in a nice button down shirt and coat, while the other is dressed as a homeless person. The video shows many pedestrians stopping and assisting the man in a suit, yet most pass by the homeless individual experiencing the same type of fall.
So why were people more likely to help the man who doesn’t look homeless? More importantly, why do people feel so strongly that everyone should help the homeless person? In the Christian faith, Bible stories of the New Testament talk about how the religious ruling class of the era would often avoid the homeless and those struck with leprosy; the unclean. Jesus goes out of his way to physically touch those with contagious skin conditions and tells a parable praising the man who stopped to assist the Samaritan who others had left to die.
Replace leprosy with bad hygiene and Samaritans with those in poverty, and the story can be imposed on a modern Western context. Unlike the character of Jesus, normal humans cannot cure people suffering from poverty, HIV or disease with a simple touch. Christ is a representation of the hopes of what humanity should be in perfection. All of humanity longs for every other member of the human race to be taken care of, because we want to believe that no matter what happens, we will be taken care of too.
The reality is that we are taken care of less by the hands of an unknowable God and more by our social context. Even the deeply religious, who attend church regularly, depend more upon the kindness of their congregation when they hit tough times than on the faith itself. They may however project this level of care onto an all knowing god, thereby believing that God cares for all people. Ironically this does make it easier to ignore the suffering of others; as the homeless person on the street will be taken care of by God. The suffering of the poor may be viewed like that of the Biblical character Job, whose plight was for a purpose and brought rewards for him in heaven.
The idea of Jesus intervening in these situations, where many of us wouldn’t, is a projection of the divine human; of what we hope humanity and love could be as opposed to what it actually is. It is the embodiment of idealism and the people we would want to be, if we had infinite resources to help everyone and anyone we came in contact with.
Love and Lack
We like to tell ourselves that love is something that we cannot run out of. Parents often tell their children, “We’ll always love you, no matter what.” There are countless stories, both in news accounts as well as fictional whodunit films and novels, about family members who cover up crimes, even homicides, for the people they love. In contrast, society tends not to stigmatize a parent refusing to help a child if they are addicted to substances or are constantly in and out of jail. A scene from the 1995 film The Basketball Diaries illustrates a concept we generally regard as “Tough love.” In that heart wrenching scene, a mother locks out her son, a heroin addict begging for money, as he screams the words, “I’ll be a good boy,” through the closed door.
Another more recent film, The Boss Baby released in 2017, is somewhat subversive, when it comes to the concept of unconditional love.
“…[The Boss Baby] is selling a very dangerous vision of the family … from a psychoanalytic perspective, Freud would argue that someone is well adjusted if they sort of like cope with and go through … problems that arise in the tensions of the Oedipus Complex, right? That’s what being well adjusted is. It’s kinda figuring, ‘aw fuck, I can’t always have the object of my desire’ … So you have to cope with it. You have to realize that life is filled with that traumatic disconnect, right? But what this film sells you is that, ‘No, you can. Love is infinite, and we can love both of you with all of our hearts,’ and there’s no such thing as lack … and what I think is even worse … that there is actually such a thing as the pure family unit that is devoid of any sort of external pressures, and that all you need are each other. … and I think there’s something lovely about this idea; that love binds people and you can do things together, but that’s kinda a load of horse shit man…“ -Austin Hayden Smidt, Show Me The Meaning! (Podcast)
I don’t want to suggest that our idealized concepts of love are just nice stories. These emotional responses take on a very real meaning in our lives and provide us with a foundation for aspirations on what pure, unconditional caring can be. Yet even within that context, many of us come to learn throughout the course of our lives that people are not ideal, and that there are limits of what we can and cannot accept. We therefore realize, often begrudgingly, that there are limits to what other human beings can offer to fulfill our needs, and that relationships can fade or be broken over time.
What is Love?
“Listen Morty, I hate to break it to you, but what people calls “love” is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage. I did it. Your parents are gonna do it. Break the cycle, Morty. Rise above. Focus on science.” -Rick and Morty (TV Show, 2014)
Love, like every other emotion, desire and inclination of what it means to be a human being, can be broken down to a series of electrical and chemical reactions in our brains. We can look at the evolution of society and make assumptions about how our desires for love and companionship might have come about through the simple biological necessity for the propagation of ourselves as life forms. This view is one we don’t like to confront; a perspective that is often seen as cold or nihilistic. Instead we embrace the lyrics of The Beatles when they sing “All you need is love”, ignore those of The Gatlin Brothers when they sing, “Love is just a game,” and quote Einstein in an effort to proclaim that even science cannot explain our hearts.
“Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love. How on earth can you explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?” -Albert Einstein
We have some interesting societal norms on who we are expected to love unconditionally. We are expected to love our children, because they are ours biologically. We are expected to love children we adopt, because we have chosen them to be a part of our family. We are expected to love our siblings, even though we may grow up to have absolutely nothing in common with them. In the Star Wars saga, Luke Skywalker loved his father; a father who was literally the second most hated and evil man in the galaxy, and sought to redeem him simply because he was family.
We, as human beings, like to romanticize love as this force that is beyond science or understanding. In doing so, we dismiss the realities of all the relationships we’ve seen fall apart, the families we know where siblings treat each others as strangers, and the people we’ve know that continue to exploit and hurt others in a way that makes them difficult to love or redeem them. In both our fiction and in our day to day lives, we hold to esteem this notion of love and selectively dismiss the aspects of our reality that challenge those notions as being true.
“Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Each time I look at my diploma, I remember that I am still a student, still learning every day how to be human. Send an e-mail. Write a letter. Kiss your mom. Hug your dad.” -A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Anna Quindlen
Yet if we truly take a good step back, and look at how we learned to become adults, we’ll realize that love is not a mystical connection to the divine. Love can build, similar to trust. Love, like friendships, can fade if not cultivated. Love requires lack, for you cannot experience happiness without sadness, vitality without suffering, or a mountain without a valley.
Love is not an absolute. As human beings we cannot love everybody. We simply do not have that capacity. But the idea behind that unconditional love is part of our hope. It is the belief in that perfect divinity inside the human that we aspire to be. It is not helping one homeless man or woman on the street, but the desire to build a world of humans so in-tune with one another that there would never be a homeless person again. In some ways, love is the impossible. It feels fleeting only because love is that fire that burns within us to bring about a better world.