Sometimes to move forward, you must move backwards. To understand the future, you must look to the past. While past performance is no guarantee of future performance, looking to the great thinkers of the past can lead you to a better understanding of the present – and a better perspective on the future. I stumbled across Erich Fromm’s book The Art of Loving through a mixture of updates from GoodReads and references to his work in The Road Less Traveled, Coachbook, and Predictably Irrational.
Love Is an Active Verb
Most people see love as an emotion. For most people, to be in love is to be intoxicated with a new relationship. However, Fromm has a different perspective. His perspective is that love is as much – or more – about the giving than the receiving. The view is the same general view as is expressed in Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness. (It doesn’t reference Fromm’s work, though The Art of Loving was initially published in 1956.) The Road Less Traveled does reference Fromm’s work and conveys the same sentiment that love is in the act of loving someone else.
Give to Get
In evolution’s perverse sense of reverse psychology, we’re most fulfilled when we’re fulfilling others. We feel the most lasting joy when we’re helping others. (See Flourish and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness for more.) Somehow, in the expression of our love for others, we recognize the love that others have for us. When we aren’t able to demonstrate our love for others, we believe that others can’t demonstrate their love for us. We get stuck into a negative frame – essentially negative confirmation bias – that we’re unlovable, because we can’t love others. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on negative confirmation bias.)
When we love others, we are more attuned to seeing how others love us. The more that we can see and feel this love, the less separate we feel.
Humans have evolved with a biological need for connection. It’s how we compete with ants for the most biomass on the planet. As How We Learn comments, we have the cognitive niche. However, most of our cognition is designed to manage relationships. Haidt in The Righteous Mind calls our ability to work together the “Rubicon crossing” of our species. Mindreading tears apart this critical piece of mental machinery and explains how it works that we practice our mindreading skills. Robin Dunbar has mapped the size of the neocortex of primates to their number of stable social relationships. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more.)
In short, evolutionary biology, philosophy, learning, psychology, and sociology agree. We need connections to other humans to survive. We’ve got an aversion to being separate from others for good reason. It’s our relationships with others that have kept us alive as a species.
Loving one another is, at its core, our willingness to put others ahead of ourselves. Judith Rich Harris in No Two Alike shares the basic functioning of altruism and how evolution got us caught up in a game of sophisticated set of statistics – that we never think about – when it comes to how we help others, including our progeny. It is in our personal genes’ best interest to sometimes sacrifice themselves for the sake of those likely to share the same genes who are closely – and not so closely – related to us.
Altruism may be hardwired into us, but it’s not locked in the “on” position. There’s a sophisticated set of probabilities about whether our genes will be able to see the positive impacts from this personal set of altruism. This isn’t a game played out in one person. The dice are rolled across countless combinations of genes. Those that survive the shuffle have the right balance of altruism to the right people in the right circumstances.
Love in Three Forms
Fromm doesn’t clarify exactly what he is speaking about when he says love. The Greek had three different words, which all translate into what we call love. Eros is romantic love. Philos is brotherly love. Agape is global or God love. Despite the lack of clarity, I think it’s clear that Fromm isn’t trying to explain romantic love. Fromm is trying to explain the platonic love that a human has for another human. In the Buddhist tradition, this might be best translated to compassion – except that compassion is related to the relief of suffering, and love is more focused on removing the disconnect between people.
Empathy and Compassion
It starts with empathy. Our connection to one another starts with understanding. Empathy says, “I understand this about you.” This is a meaningful step. It’s the first step in connection. Compassion extends this understanding further and moves into the desire to alleviate the suffering of another person. This moves from understanding to action.
If love is an active verb, one of its forms is compassion. Compassion always comes after empathy. You cannot feel sorrow until you understand.
Loving Enough for the Hard Conversations
Fromm makes the observation that sometimes the conflicts that people have are not the real conflicts but are instead poor echoes of the real issue. Sometimes, the conflicts that exist between people who have a genuine concern for each other aren’t the real issues. Those real conflicts are the ones that are hidden between pleasantries. This is the key issue faced in Crucial Conversations.
Love and Faith
Love is an act of faith. At first glance, the statement seems to make little sense. What is love faith in, exactly? The answer is a bit difficult to find. In part, it’s faith that a life of loving is worth living. It’s faith that if you love, you’ll be loved. It’s faith that love is what makes life worth living. If you have no faith in these things – or little faith – then how could one extend themselves so much to demonstrate love?
Love is a choice. For all the high moral beliefs that we behave without regard to how we’ll receive something in return, research shows that we give love where we’ll get love in return. It’s hard to choose love when you don’t believe that you’ll get it back.
Mastery of Love
Fromm makes a point that you must be dedicated to something – to the exclusion of all other things – to be come a true master at it. While I understand the intent of indicating that great dedication, grit, is necessary to become truly good at something, I don’t know that you need to have a single-minded focus on love to become good at it. (See Grit for more on what grit is.)
While I do believe you must be interested in getting better at loving, I don’t believe it must be a single-minded focus. (See Peak for more on improving in whatever it is that you’re striving for.) However, decide for yourself. Do you believe, as Fromm does, that to master The Art of Loving, you must dedicate yourself to loving – or simply that you must be mindful in your practice of loving?