Easy to Love

When Cole Porter thought up those song lyrics he wasn’t thinking of me.  I am coming to the conclusion that I am very difficult to love, and perhaps that is one of the conditions that lies at the bottom of my failed marriages and other romances for which the coroner quickly adjudged D.O.A.  Maybe they were really D.O.I. — Dead On Instigation.

These thoughts are not new to me, but they resurfaced last night during one of those eleven-sided Facebook messages that make me wonder how I wasted my time in the past.  The message seems to have begun as some sort of ungainly welcome-to-the-new-semester by a well-meaning colleague.  My contribution to the string of groans was the announcement that this is likely to be my last at the campus where I was tenured and from which I retired to begin this blog in 2013, Blue River.  A few people essayed words of regret and tried to express feelings that I was irreplaceable.  Two or three even said that they loved me.  I recognized the words, and even the sentiment of love, since I have spoken those words and felt those sentiments, but I was not convinced that it was anything more than a superficial version of love they were expressing.  I know this sounds harsh and ungrateful, and maybe it really is.  I hope not, since these are people I have valued as colleagues for 15 years and whose faces I have greeted with pleasure on each teaching day.  So why am I appearing to reject their love?

Proclamations of love seem to have the role of patriotic or religious incantations in our world today.  Like the Declaration of Independence, or memorized creeds and catechisms, they seem easy to utter, hard to live up to.  Or they seem to make possible self-righteous posturing of both types.  Love covers your ass.  You’ve said the ultimate when you’ve said that you love someone.  You can’t be one-upped, and the person you claim to love can’t raise the linguistic stakes; he or she can only call.  But this seems counterfeit to me, a verbal sleight-of-hand meant to create the illusion of emotional depth.  As the great aphorist, S.J. Lec, said, mud gives the illusion of depth, and there is no muddier phrase than “I love you.”  He only said the first half of that, by the way.  If I am questioning the love of my colleagues, what necessary conditions do I feel their expressions lack?  Well, their expressions lack nothing, but if love is more than the saying of it, what substantive ingredients can be found in love that the words do not contain.  In this analysis, I will be guided by the thought of three people whose thinking I admire: my father, Harry G. Frankfurt, and myself.

My father, Rev. W. Gordon Lowden (1915-1975), remains my greatest influence and inspiration.  And he was the most loving man I have ever known, and I aspire, imperfectly, each day, to emulate his wonderful example.  For him, love had to contain the conscious attempt to better the life of the one you love in tangible and personal ways.  So that will be the starting point for my understanding of the shape and content of love.  One way in which he loved was truly exceptional; he loved the unlovable, or at least, the ones society refused,for either rational or irrational reasons, to love.  One story the family tells, though I have no way to authenticate it, is that the KKK burned a cross on the lawn of one of his churches early in his ministry, probably before he enlisted as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy for World War II.  It would not surprise me if it did occur.  South Jersey, as it is called, is mainly south of the Mason-Dixon line, and in the early 1940s pro-white racial violence was open and unapologetic.  He preached civil rights sermons even if half the congregation wanted to walk out, and attempted to integrate every church to which he was assigned.  There was never a skin color he saw that he didn’t consider beautiful.  At the same time, because he knew a little high school Spanish, he worked among the migrant laborers of the South Jersey truck farms run for the profit of large corporations like Hunt.  Most of the workers came up from Puerto Rico for the harvest, lived in forlorn dormitories, were paid little, found only distrust or hostility in the wider community during their time off, and were discarded at the end of the harvest.  His ministry to them had no ulterior motive.  He wasn’t try to convert them, but to show them a love absent most if not all their other contacts in the Anglo world.  And in his last years in Broward County, Florida, he spent time in jails and penitentiaries, showing that he believed in redemption and feeling that love was a necessary step toward that happening.    He gave his time, his tears, what little substance he had, and eventually, himself.  He might never have said to any of them that he felt love, but his giving and sacrifice could not be mistaken for anything but that, except by the terminally dim, cold, or cynical.

I recommend Harry Frankfurt’s book “The Reasons of Love,” and I have assigned it in a class I used to teach at Blue River.  In what I write today, I only want to focus on one element Frankfurt identifies as crucial to the experience of showing of love: volition.  It is the will we marshal out of our own inner forces to act in a way that gives meaning both to our own lives and to the larger word within which we act.  In other words, both he and my father would chime in with Tina Turner that love is something more than a “second-hand emotion.”  If love only motivates you to the easy, and easily-forgotten, words of love, you’d better be Shakespeare, or work for Hallmark.  Otherwise, they deserve skepticism.

Perhaps there’s little I can bring of myself to add to what these two men have given me, but love has to be more than generic.  My buzzwords from the life of love I have sometimes tried to live are focus, priority, commitment.  Socrates famously saw teaching as an act of love, and many teachers share that orientation.  I believe myself to be among them.  My way of understanding that was by setting a list of priorities to which I referred when uncertain about an academic decision I needed to make.  The priority was to serve the most vulnerable and perishable first, and then work my way down to clients of greater strength.  My rule was: students first, discipline (in other words, philosophy) second, colleagues third, institution fourth.  I know far too many colleagues who have that order precisely reversed, pimping themselves to the institution first, and letting the students get whatever droppings remain.  These same colleagues may even claim to “love” teaching, but they only love themselves.  Loving the powerless above the powerful takes an act of will for which few have a stomach.  This is not heroic, any more than any act of love is, but it does require a rational analysis of the structure of power and the will to serve those who need serving.

A romantic entanglement of a couple years ago was with a woman who disliked sex with me because she said I was too “crazy” in bed with her.  Even taking off my rubber Richard Nixon mask didn’t help.  For her, sex was a marginally distracting activity to which she would consent when she really wanted to be doing something else.  Usually, that something else was to have my company while she went shopping with her tip money for clothing that she would return to the store the next week.  It was if she said “Sure, I’ll fuck you if you take me to Dillard’s afterward.”  For me, sex is all about focus.  Nothing in the universe exists during that time but the bed and our bodies.  Philosopher Alan Goldman has an excellent essay on this general subject, “Plain Sex.”  The phone doesn’t exist.  The doorbell doesn’t exist.  Children don’t exist.  The house being engulfed in flames doesn’t exist.  Certainly Dillard’s doesn’t exist.  It’s just us, rutting away like crazed weasels (Thank you, Peter Shaffer!).  Anything less is just shaking hands.  But for many people, that attitude toward sex, and toward life, is just plain crazy.

All of these things enter into an act that could fully be described as an act of love.  You do have to be a little crazy to love, and I’m the only crazy person I know at Blue River, so their insipid protestations are hardly credible.  Some posture and feign craziness, but if you’re not crazy enough to love when it gets you stared at, and talked about, and the dean shakes his head in dismay at the very mention of your name, then you’re just a pretender.

You can see why I’m not easy to love.  I set too tough an example, and not many people have the will to keep up.  Most just give up and walk away, sometimes only figuratively.  They don’t vacate the room, but everything else has checked out.  I’ve had marriages like that.  So did my father.  I guess it runs in the family.

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Relationships II

Relationships are all about character. Period. That is a durable truth Aristotle left us 2400 years ago, and it was never more true or poignant than this summer, as I tried to think about the unthinkable: the possibility that my relational life had come to an end. As I look at the past, and experience the present, deficiencies in character, primarily my own, produce a glaring, garish raspberry to some of my pretensions.

Let’s begin with Aristotle, whose thinking on this matter will provide a conceptual framework for understanding the details.  Most translations describe the topic central to Books XIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics as “friendship,” but that word has been so diluted and bastardized by the Facebook mentality and rampant self-absorption of our current times, that I feel it is no stretch to say that he was writing about what we today would call relationships, and I’ll continue on that reasonable assumption.  There are three kinds of relationship, he felt, and if we’re lucky we’ve experienced them all at one time in our lives.

The most profound, and also most elusive, is what he terms “complete.”  Not perfect, mind you, or must I send you to the final blog about LA?  A complete relationship is based upon character, both yours and the one you love — not a term that ought to be excluded from discussions of this sort.  You are drawn to someone of an admirable character motivated primarily by that fact and you wish to further the activities of that character for two reasons.  One, because you recognize how wonderful that person is, and, two, because you yourself are of admirable character.  No one of good character would want to further the aims of someone who is a scoundrel; to do so would reveal that you are deficient in character.  Character feeds character, and in this sort of relationship, your aim is to increase the good that the other is creating, and serve that good.  Of course, if the other person does truly act out of a good character, he or she will also attempt to further your good.  But because we are autonomous, and of good character, we define our own good in our own way, and it is the role of love to uncover what is the lover’s good as he or she envisions it, and act to make it more wonderful through what you do.

A tall order, I know.  Aren’t there some relationships that aren’t so demanding?  Does Dirty Don’s have expired whipping cream on sale today?  He does, of course.  I bought some.  The other two are incomplete, but that does not mean unsatisfactory.  They can produce a measure of fulfillment within the limits of their aims, but they are also prone to failure in a way that complete relationships are not.  One is a relationship based on sensuality, pleasure, passion.  You know: sex.  Aristotle says this is what young people think love is, but he is not being critical of their mistake.  Not having developed much of a character by that time, it’s all they’ve got going for them.  I take it that his view is that they ought to go for it!  There’s nothing wrong with infatuation, attraction, and rutting away like crazed weasels, a quote I never cease to enjoy employing.

Of course, the goal of such relationships is to gain romantic and sexual pleasure for oneself, and as long as it’s happening this relationship works fine.  Of course, if both people are looking for the same thing — gratification — and both are getting it, they can carry on for quite a while, and in quite a few different locales.  But this is a fundamentally unstable relationship for at least two reasons.  One is that erotic drives and focus are unstable, and a wandering eye can lead to a relationship crash.  The other is that there may be an imbalance in what each partner perceives he or she is getting out of it.  And since this sort of relationship is founded on what you want to get for yourself, when you think you’re not getting what you deserve, you move on.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a relationship like this, so I’ll move on to the next type.  But since both of them exhibit crucial structural and motivational similarities, I felt it was necessary to talk a bit about that one.  One thing Aristotle doesn’t spend a whole lot of time with is what I might term a hybrid relationship, which is one in which the basic features of the relationship are, say, erotic, and most of the activities are sexual in nature, but one of the partners is looking for something other than mere sex.  Maybe for him or her, it started out as just the fun of boinking but eventually he or she began to desire a more complete relationship, while the partner just wants to get mindlessly naked as frequently as possible.  At this point in my life, it sounds like a wonderful quandary to have, but differential goals eventually destabilize this kind of hybrid as well as most kinds of hybrid relationships.

The kinds of relationships, or — I think a far more accurate word — “associations” I am currently engaged in, and ones which have dominated my last few decades of connection with women, Aristotle calls ones based on “utility.”  It is coldly correct and painfully accurate.  These are associations in which one or another of the partners identifies something useful in the other that they wish to take advantage of for their own benefit, and they use the polite framework of a relationship for the impolite purpose of getting what they want at as small a cost as they as forced to pay.  These are relations of what he calls coincidence and convenience, and they have been almost my entire social life for a long time.

I don’t believe in false modesty or false bragging, but I have a few qualities that a vanishingly small number of women find useful, and maybe even marginally pleasant.  “Culture”  might be the general term under which they can be collected.  I love to attend concerts and am generous when I have an extra seat, which is always.  I have excellent taste in wine, 350+ bottles in my house, and am generous with them as well.  Rather enjoyable and interesting art hangs on the walls of my house and I am pleased to share the experience.  I cook a decent meal and am generous with that as well.  I can hold a conversation of some hours duration if necessary, and never once have to resort to a phrase like “How ’bout them Chiefs!”  I am also a good listener to voices other than those in my head that keep telling me to flee before she brings out the Glock from her handbag.  I presume that a few women find it useful to avail themselves of experiences of this sort, and it also seems to have been true in the past.

However, as it was with the erotic relationship, these associations, in order to work, need to have a kind of parity of benefit.  If I am providing something useful to you, and you wish to have it provided in the future, you need to provide me with something useful to me.  Not just something you didn’t want anyway, but something that, on my own terms, I desire and feel will benefit me.  The women in my current associations seem to have the view that their mere presence in my life is far more than I deserve, and my ingratitude, when it infrequently surfaces, is puzzling to them.  Such naïve narcissism, if that’s what it is, might be somewhat charming were the person in question a bright elementary school prodigy, but in an adult, it is nothing better than calculating and callous.  They make some sort of bloodless computation that they can get what will benefit them in they way they want it, but never have to provide anything comparable in the bargain.  These people may sport the language of friendship and even affection or love, if the occasion seems to warrant it, but it is nothing more than a cynical mask for base self-interest.  Aristotle claims that the imbalance I have described and am experiencing is also inherently unstable, and yet, in my life, this genera of association seems sadly durable.

The first sentence of this blog mentioned the centrality of character in relationships, but I seem to have abandoned it after only a couple of paragraphs.  Let me try to reinstate it.  Most of the individual associations of the sort I have been recently describing are unstable and disappear, but the phenomenon remains in my life.  Thus, the fault would appear not to be in my stars but in myself.  Just as manipulating someone for personal gain is a despicable character flaw, so is permitting it to happen to yourself at least a lamentable one.  Here is where I must invite Kant to the party, or wake, whichever it turns out to be.  He would not have acknowledged any but the complete relationship as a legitimate sort of relationship, and since I have it from a very reliable source — the Internet — that he died a virgin, the sensual variety seems to have passed him by anyway.  By regarding people as a commodity or object to be used just for the purpose of self-aggrandizement was to dehumanize them.  All human associations should aspire toward the Aristotelian complete relationship in his mind, and if you let yourself be used you are dehumanizing yourself as well.  There’s not much character in self-debasement, and if character is key, my own willingness to settle for imbalanced treatment is a defect that interferes with anything like a life with healthy relationships to sustain it.

What am I left with?  Currently, it seems like I must accept the ugly, bitter taste these associations leave in my mouth, or walk away and have nothing at all.  Those sporadic times in which I am not even exploited are lonely, devastating months.  It has begun to feel that a horrible taste is preferable to none.  But is there a third option?  In part, that’s the subject I will pursue in the next blog.  If I can find a way to develop a relationship closer to the complete one described by Aristotle, I will rinse my mouth of the bitter ugly tastes I have become accustomed to, and spit them on the ground.

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