Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lord Valentine

Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has written a book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, in which she argues that our ideas about love need to be overhauled. Love is neither a long-lasting, continually present emotion, nor a deep-rooted blood-tie of kinship. Rather, It’s a "micro-moment of positivity resonance" that you can share with anyone you happen to come into connect with in the course of your day.

Part of Fredrickson's motive in advancing this unorthodox theory (according the article in the Atlantic where I heard about the book)  is to remind lonely,  love-starved people that the absence of a “significant other” in their lives doesn’t mean they’re incapable of loving or are leading a loveless existence. She writes:  "Thinking of love purely as romance or commitment that you share with one special person—as it appears most on earth do—surely limits the health and happiness you derive" from love.

The point is well-taken—and it has often been made before. But Frederickson veers into error when she suggests that the myriads of single people who are looking for a partner are in the grip of a "worldwide collapse of imagination.” 

The fact is that Frederickson’s definition of love—as a momentary thrill that we feel in spite of ourselves, which she and other biologists can no doubt write a chemical equation to describe—is severely limiting itself. The most profound and satisfying thrill of love is, perhaps, a low murmur of heartbreaking affection for that special someone with whom we have shared many years of living. (Some would go further and take the argument into the theological realm. But we’ll leave that train of thought for another time.)

I suspect that individuals who have experienced the long-standing affection of a soul-mate are better able to tap into those micro-moments of love that are all around us than those who lack a shared inner world. We love our spouse or significant other more than the clerk at Walgreens, not only because we know them far better and are tirelessly attracted and engaged by what we know, but also because we get far more in return. The ricochets of ongoing experience are the source of endless interest and more than occasional delight. 

For myself, I love the snow on the trees, the music on the stereo, the article in the morning paper about tofu, and a hundred other things just now. I love waving to the postal worker I see almost every day who returns my wave with an appreciative smile before returning to her plodding path around the block. But I love my wife Hilary a whole lot more.

This is not to say that Frederkson’s researches are unimportant. She presents us with an entirely new meaning for the phrase “love triangle”—it involves mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone. And she offers compelling proof that love is connected to the heart—via the vagus nerve. Her research also lends credence to the power of Buddhist and Jewish teachings of loving kindness to strengthen vagal tone, thus helping people to become more loving, whatever their condition in life might be.

Her advice to single folk--to seek out little moments of connection--is probably sound, though I’m not sure how she feels about flirting.

And when she describes love as "a single act, performed by two brains," she touches upon a realization as old as the troubadours, though it’s also possible to love something that doesn’t have a brain—a pear, say, or a mountain. Or a poem.

In one of his lyrics Bertrand de Ventadorn writes:

Of course it’s no wonder I sing
better than any other troubadour:
my heart draws me more toward love,
and I am better made for his command.
Heart body knowledge sense
strength and energy—I have set all on love,
The rein draws me straight toward love,
and I cannot turn toward anything else.

A man is really dead when he does not feel
some sweet taste of love in his heart;
and what is it worth to live without worth,
except to irritate everybody?
May the Lord God never hate me so
that I live another day, or even less than a day,
after I am guilty of being such a pest,
and I no longer have the will to love.

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