To Define a Thing (#poem)

He broke her spirit when he declared

He didn’t even know what love is.IMG_7275

She had only asked a simple question

As she planned her own future.

Whilst he resisted closing his options,

He never noticed how open hers were.

She awaited his answer as her suitors

Sat on the sidelines biding their time.

 

He pretended he didn’t understand

The comfort of constant companionship

Or the fear of inestimable loss.

He needed time to think about

This question of love, to contemplate

The reality of solitude or the

Possibility of greater satisfaction.

And his hesitation was her answer.

 

She knew that whatever love is,

She would never feel it for him.

She could see a future free from

Waffling and wavering solidarity.

She imagined a life where love

Never demands a sacrifice.

For her, love was ultimately freedom

Of choice to soldier forth in unity.

 

And she knew love as a litany of lies:

Each person has only one intended.

Love is blind to the beauty of others.

Love is a freshly paved road.

Love is a bind, a prison, a restraint.

Love is devotion, obedience, compliance.

He saw love as a list of restrictions,

But she saw love as a prison break.

 

She no longer thought so much

About love. She only lived

With enthusiasm for those moments

That brought her unalloyed joy.

She decided to be selfish and

Forget about the cares of others.

And her dogged egoism brought her

Continually to your arms.

 

And if she had not, my dear friend,

You could not stand on your own.

 

Confessions (#poem)

At the interview, she said,

“These are some designs I’ve beentruth

Working on since I got out of jail.”

 

On his dating profile, he said,

“I’ve finished the last course of antibiotics

And feel I’m ready to date again.”

 

At dinner, she confessed,

“I listened to a Justin Bieber song to see what it was

And I ended up listening to the entire album.”

 

At the office sexual conduct training, he admitted,

“I once positioned myself in the audience

So that I could see Grace Jones changing costumes.”

 

And I feel I must disclose that

I saw you eating in a café,

And I wanted to break through the glass

To get to you as the door would take too long.

 

I wanted to be close enough to absorb

Stray electrons orbiting your body.

I wanted our consciousness to commingle,

So I could know all that you know.

 

I wanted to share your feelings of

Elation, sorrow, indifference.

I wanted eternity. I wanted permanence.

 

As your gaze rose, I started,

Coughed, looked toward the pavement,

And shuffled off, slack-shouldered, to the east.

 

Nussbaum and Rand on the Politics of Love

I’m currently reading Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. Love is an important focus of the book, but it is certainly not the only emotion that Nussbaum considers important to a minimally decent society. Still, love (and its relevant associate, compassion) is an integral part of a stable and humane democratic society.

English: Photograph of Martha C. Nussbaum take...

Nussbaum suggests that it is entirely appropriate for governments to encourage the development of political emotions that are absolutely necessary for a functioning society. Of course, totalitarian, repressive regimes often rise to power on waves of extreme patriotism coupled with xenophobia and violent anger. This is a risk of the state cultivating emotions, but it is also likely that inappropriate emotions arise because we shirk our duty to cultivate the correct emotions. Who decides which emotions are correct? Why, we political liberals, of course. Nussbaum is more optimistic than I about the ability to create a state that will encourage the appropriate arts and literature to cultivate emotions that will engender empathy and promote democratic feeling. Still, we are obligated to make every effort to counter those who would work to destroy both compassion and democracy.

Nussbaum recognizes the potential for paradox in her claim, but she defends her position with depth and detail. The fact that I agree with both her goals and method make it quite easy for me to follow along and hope, against all odds, that is possible to create a more decent society than what I currently see around me, even if I feel we must go it alone without the full support of government.

Ayn Rand

But all this talk of love got me thinking of Ayn Rand, of course, as many things these days get me thinking of Ayn Rand. She said that we should be selfish and never sacrifice ourselves to others. In contrast, many of us have foolishly believed that to love someone was, in fact, to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for his or her well-being. On this point, I think Ayn Rand was able to explain herself quite clearly. When asked whether we shouldn’t be selfless in our romantic relationships, she said,

When you are in love, it means that the person you love is of great personal, selfish importance to you and to your life. If you were selfless, it would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you.

She makes a good point. We sacrifice for those we love because we value them so much that their loss is a personal loss to us, and their suffering is a suffering we share. We do not love out of duty; we love for the pleasure it brings us.

For Rand, altruistic concern for strangers entails a denial of self-satisfaction and an indenture to others. By living for the needs of others, we deny our responsibility to determine and seek our own needs. It does not occur to Rand, as it does to Nussbaum, that is possible to value other humans with a love that extends beyond our realm of personal contact. It is possible that I want to preserve the lives of strangers thousands of miles away because I value them, even if abstractly, to the point that their suffering causes me suffering.

I don’t want to live in a world where millions of people starve to death each year, and I do not believe they are starving because of the poor choices they have made. I believe they are starving because of structural economic violence against them. In many cases, the world’s resources have been stolen by brute force (did farmers and fishers in Africa foolishly give their land to oil companies?). Poverty, addiction, and disease are largely a result of violence against people who are not recognized as being fully human, fully deserving of respect.

We don’t have to accept this reality. As Nussbaum says, “We should surely not assume that the form emotions take in the corporate culture of the United States reveals a universal and timeless truth about how things must be.” No, we can work to ensure that our moral imagination can perceive other human beings as beings worthy of respect, dignity, and, yes, love. If we seek to respect ourselves, we must demand respect for all.

Love is possible.

How happy should you be?

I’ve never considered myself a strict Utilitarian in the narrowest sense of the term, but I always believed that suffering is generally a bad thing and that relieving suffering when possible is morally laudable. I still believe this for the most part, but lately I see myself in a dilemma of sorts. I have rejected all arguments for the necessity of suffering offered by theodicists, for I do not find belief in God to be more plausible based on the idea that suffering is the product of love and mercy from a being who only wants to motivate spiritual development and love for the good in people. I would be more able to imagine a merciful God who neglected to create life at all out of concern that life would entail suffering.

Given the fact that life with its attendant suffering is here (and unnecessary, in my opinion), I find myself agreeing that suffering does seem to be an essential element in developing any sort of moral worth. When I’ve met people, usually quite young, who have never faced financial difficulty, disease, or loss of a loved one, I generally find these people to be underdeveloped. They also seem unaware of the basic truths of life. The lack of suffering in their own lives makes them indifferent to the suffering of others. While most people believe we can’t take all the problems of the world on our shoulders, we also believe it is wrong to be “too happy” in the face of pain and suffering, but it is our own suffering that brings meaning to our experience of the suffering of others. We can never know the pain of others, but our own pain can make us care about what others may be experiencing. I realize some people experience pain and remain stubbornly egocentric, but I believe those who never experience any pain are likely to be incapable of placing any value on the pain of others. At least, they are unable to develop a fully empathic individuals.

All of this is said really to argue against the idea that we should be as cheerful as possible at all times. An old movie asked what is so bad about feeling good at a time when gloominess was trendy. Now, especially in the U.S., we have banished sadness, even when sadness is appropriate. We rush to the pharmacist when we experience the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or even more minor life changes. We are attempting to deny the experiences that make us human.

My feeling on this surprises me. When I was much younger, I read many of the existentialist philosophers. I knew then that the brute force of one’s own existence could lead only to anxiety and, in the words of Sartre and others, anguish. I remember now that Heidegger would have us find an authentic existence by contemplating our own death, an experience that pushes the superficial features of life out of our consciousness. Camus would have us constantly justify our existence by defending our choice to not commit suicide every day. For Sartre, the happy people could not be said to even exist in any meaningful sense–just automata going through the motions of life.

When I think of what it means to love or care about someone, I can’t imagine this emotion without pain. (I must add that I wish I could write this without hearing the strains of “Love Hurts,” but so be it.) We love our parents, our children, and, of course, our lovers, and each relationship is laced with deep pain, fear, worry, and uncertainty. The joy we get from these relationships can’t possibly outweigh the pain, but we find it worth the effort. Perhaps the pain intensifies the joy. It may be that the more pain we feel, the more we love. The more we love, the more we care for others. The more we care for others, the less pain we hope they will feel.

I’ve led myself to a paradox I cannot resolve. And I feel vaguely peaceful about it.