Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Folly of Love -- April Fools 2011

          Hello, and welcome to my sixth annual April Fools observance. I have set aside this day each year in order to celebrate the opposites that simultaneously enrich and aggravate human life. These opposites are often conflicting values and choices, and we get torn apart in the space between them. We want to be true to our selves, but our selves are too complicated, too multiple— we can’t be true to all parts of our selves at once. And so we make our choices, and take our losses, and we feel foolish. So instead of mourning this, I say we celebrate it, we share our stories of holding and being held by tension, and appreciate, at the very least, that we all end up fools together.
         Given that it is a little under three months until my wedding, I thought it would be 
appropriate to call my speech this year “The Folly of Love.” And for those of you who like to know how long their attention is required, my speech is about eight and a half minutes from this point on.

 The Folly of Love
          I am very pleased to be speaking on the theme of love, because it is one that Erasmus, whose book In Praise of Folly is the inspiration for this party, touches on a few times. In his book, Folly herself speaks, and tells us how necessary she is for human life and happiness. This is especially true in the arena of friendship and love. While harsh truth dictates that we correct every fault we see, folly preserves friendship and love by enabling friends and lovers to turn a blind eye, laugh things off, and often even delight in the other for their faults. Self-love is similarly an important quality for a person, which also can require self-lying. This is a foolishness we can embrace.Folly also points to some other follies of love that are out-dated and offensive, but I thought you’d appreciate hearing them. Folly relates how she had the idea for heterosexual marriage, on account of the fact that women are silly creatures that are nevertheless amusing, and so a wife serves her husband by “seasoning and sweetening the sourness” of the masculine mind with her folly. (28) Good stuff. Similarly sexist, Folly tells us to be grateful that she keeps marriages together by making husbands stupid and thus blind to their wife’s extramarital indiscretions. These are follies we are less into.

Towards the end of the book, Folly acknowledges a riddle of love that introduces my central paradox for today. She says “consider that Plato had some glimmer of this notion when he wrote that the madness of lovers is the height of happiness. For a person who loves intensely no longer lives in himself but rather in that which he loves, and the farther he gets from himself and the closer to it, the happier he is.” (136) Let me spell that out for a moment. According to Plato and Folly, while wisdom and sobriety consist in being self-possessed, folly and madness are characterized by being removed from oneself—thus the expression of “You must be out of your mind.” And yet, to be outside of oneself, which we can call madness, also goes by the name “ecstasy.” The paradoxical wisdom implicit in this point is that, while we seek happiness for ourselves, in love we always find it outside ourselves. In order to possess happiness for ourselves, we must give up on the self-possession which guards our sense of dignity. We have to allow ourselves to affected and transformed by others in order to share life with them. Somehow we gain happiness in losing ourselves.
Now, Folly is speaking here of a very Christian notion of love, one which contains the truth that love is about finding happiness and fulfillment by living in and for the other. This is not an absolute truth—in fact, there is an equal and opposite truth, but we’ll get to that. Still, this piece of wisdom is important, so I want to share it with you by relating my personal experience of it. Like any and every other couple populated by expressive people, Mimi and I have our share of miscommunications and arguments. What I admire in her, among other things, is her persistent ability to momentarily stop taking her own side in order to make me feel heard. Nothing de-escalates an argument like repeating the other person’s argument and validating the emotions behind it. Nothing is harder in an argument either. As a person who generally agrees with my side in arguments, it can feel like a dreadful self-sacrifice to let down my guard and take up the other’s side. It is a betrayal of everything I am (at that moment) standing for. And, of course, the wisdom is that in giving up my position for a moment, I regain my sense of us, regain my sense of self as living not only in myself but in this other person. Because in love I am not merely one, but also a two that is one, I gain happiness in losing that solitary notion of myself.
Now that I have argued for the paradox of selfless love, allow me to make things more complicated by arguing for selfish love. The equal and opposite truth I mentioned before is one I learned from Ayn Rand. That’s right, Ayn Rand. Her famous saying about love goes like this: “To say ‘I love you’ one must first be able to say the ‘I’.” While the Christian definition encourages love by losing the self, Rand argues that the selfless person has no self from which to give love. Applying this truth to my earlier example about arguing as a couple, Rand might point out that Mimi loves me for the strength and content of my convictions, and so giving up my side will only gain me pity, not respect. I suppose, really, that my above example involves a qualified, momentary selflessness, and not the utter self-sacrifice which Rand mocks as the Christian ideal.
I’ll start over. Rand rightly shows us that the phrase “I love you,” cannot be a statement of other-affirmation unless it is first a statement of self-affirmation. To love another person means that I have some strong beliefs about what is worthy of my love. Rand tells us that love is the “response to one’s own highest values in another person.” Beautiful, isn’t it? Let me repeat that, because I think what Rand is saying here is in some sense the secular equivalent of the term “soulmates”: Love is the response to one’s own highest values in another person. I love my partner because I see in my partner a living embodiment of those values I hold most dear—love, learning, openness, justice, communication, ambition, community, creativity, family, and fun. When I love her I also truly love myself, by loving those values in her which I consider sacred. My sense of self, rather than lost in love, is built up, expanded.
Still, while Rand’s point is certainly powerful, it is far from absolute. I mean, listen, I shouldn’t be quoting Ayn Rand anyhow, a thinker who did not even believe in paradoxes. In Atlas Shrugged she writes “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises.” Of course she would call me foolish for saying so, but I think this point is ridiculous. The entire premise of this party is that life is full of contradictions. So Ms. Namesake-of-Rand-Paul, let me give you a contradiction about love that shows that love must be both selfish and selfless, and thus in essence is not really selfish or selfless. In fact, the whole concept of love problematizes any idea of a self, so there!
So here are my premises:
1) I love Mimi.
2) My love of Mimi includes the desire to serve her and her values.
3) Mimi loves me.
4) Mimi’s love of me includes the desire to serve me and my values.
5) Thus, me and my values are included in Mimi’s values.
6) And thus, my love of Mimi must also include serving myself and my values.
7) And this conclusion is true from Mimi’s side also: Mimi’s love of me must include serving herself and her values.
You with me so far? All I’m saying is that two people who love each other miss the point if their love leads them to give up on themselves and their own values. Part of our loving each other is insisting that the other loves themselves.
Of course, the contradiction arises from the fact that our love includes too many damn things to serve, and these things are not always served by the same means. In fact, serving one thing often comes at the expense of the other. C’mon, Ayn Rand—there really is such a thing as conflicting values. Look—I want to be a force for good in the world, and I want to do that through my work, but also in large part through my loving care for my partner and her work. But giving loving care to my partner, well, it can get in the way of my work. But giving less loving care to my partner can get in the way of her work. And the selfish/selfless dichotomy doesn’t really work here, because I find self-affirmation in promoting both my work and in promoting her work. Both are forms of self-affirmation, and because the world is complicated and time is short, these forms of self-affirmation conflict!
And that is one of the many follies of love. Love requires that we be true to ourselves and the other, by serving ourselves and the other. And that’s a lot of servitude for a finite world. So often we are forced to act paradoxically.
Love expands our sense of self so far that it breaks it, and we get lost in the other. And yet a healthy love must also come with a solid sense of self, in order for there to be a self to give and receive love. Do you see how frustrating this is, and how it is a truth about life that is designed to make us feel foolish? Love is supposed to be so beautiful because it’s the place where “two become one,” but rarely do people point out that those two are still also two! Not to get too mathematical on you, but sometimes love makes me feel like I’m two, like I’m one, like I’m one-half, and like I’m nothing. In each interaction I feel my sense of self change over and over, and it is very confusing. I said this to Mimi the other day while discussing this—I turned to her and said: “So if I’m yours, and you’re mine—whose are we?”
So what’s my advice? First of all, who said I was here to give you any advice? And what kind of advice can one fool give to another, anyhow? I’m just letting you know, from my experience, something to expect from love. I don’t want you to look so shocked when love appears to require these heart-breaking contradictions, because—it does. Love’s gifts come hand-in-hand with its sacrifices. The ecstasy of love is a double-edged sword. So let’s celebrate that—because if love is so awesome, then we have to celebrate the parts of it that tear us apart, too.
Thank you.

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