Dear Donagh O’Shea,
…I feel I don’t know what love is anymore…. I always end up on my own. I've had to learn to live with my husband’s remoteness…. Anyway, I never had more than a part share in him. His work was always coming up between us. Then the children… always had their own friends and were always running off to see them or going out with them… The last straw was when my daughter took off for America with hardly a thought about how it would affect me. We get breezy e-mails every week that actually make me cross. I don’t expect you to know much about it but can you tell me what love means, if anything? Is it just empty talk? Does anyone care any more? Do you have any thoughts on this subject. C.
Dear C., I hope you don’t mind that I abbreviated your letter to the above.
I tend to agree with you that there is too much talk about love. Talk is capable of becoming a substitute for the reality. Still, it can be helpful to make a few distinctions.
I’d like to make a distinction between loving and being loved.
Everyone would like to be loved - “loved to bits”, as the phrase now has it. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, except when it becomes the dominant theme of one’s life. It feels like an enrichment, an enhancement of one’s own life, a lucky stroke. But like many strong feelings - and many strong substances - it quickly becomes addictive. Then, like any addict, one has problems of supply, as well as the problem of begging and craving, and the problem of withdrawal: ‘cold turkey’. There’s a useful book entitled Love and Addiction by Stanton Peele. I'm not suggesting for one moment that you are addicted! - but addictions are a useful study: they are the extreme versions of ordinary appetites; they can show us in lurid colours what may be less visible in its ordinary shading.
Loving, on the other hand, is about giving, not about getting. If there is no twist in it, no disguised neediness, it is quite simple and straightforward. Its temperature is usually moderate, because it’s our nature working as it was meant to work.
Some people so stress the difference between these - calling them ‘need-love’ and ‘gift-love’ - that they equate gift-love with pure unselfishness, suggesting that it is simply self-sacrifice. I'd prefer to say that love is a communion - a communion of lives, or interests or wills or whatever. While it may often be self-sacrificing, it is not identified with self-sacrifice. It doesn’t mean becoming nothing, or becoming a slave to the other. It means becoming one with the other: expanding oneself to include them - as other than oneself - in oneself.
I have a special relationship with Norway, and recently I have been reading Ibsen’s play, ‘Little Eyolf’. The peculiar thing about it is that all the characters think of love as possessive and therefore competitive - with tragic results. Recurring motifs are the fear of dividing oneself, and the need to have the other all to oneself. This kind of consuming, predatory love is bound to end in tragedy and emptiness. The parents of Eyolf realise, after his death, that neither of them loved him. With their obsessions, that was hardly surprising. The mother saw the child only as a wall between her and her husband. The father saw him only as an ideal that he, the father, wanted to realise. “Our lives are empty wastes,” says the mother at the end. A critic described the play as “a horrifying experiment in vivisection, conducted with deadly skill.”
The colours of our ordinary experience are intensified by a great dramatist, but that is what theatre does. “The play’s the thing….” When love is not a communion it is a fight for property. The ego’s parody of love has nothing really to do with love.
I can't comment on the other things you mention, C., but it strikes me from your description that your children are normal and extravert young people, and you are lucky to have a daughter who writes to you every week despite all the excitement and distraction of foreign travel. She may be trying to cheer you up with her breezy emails. Why not identify yourself with her excitement and her adventures? You can do that without a visa or an air-ticket! Then her joy will be yours, and you will not feel alone in the world. It must be very difficult to be a parent. It is your way to God. May God bless you and lighten your step.