For the last four weeks, I have been focusing on the theme of four guideposts on the path to a more nourishing kind of love than what is typically achievable without committed study in today’s society. I say “committed study” because I agree with Erich Fromm that loving is an activity and a way of being, and not merely an emotion. It takes work. As Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet, “Work is love made visible.” And as Fromm says in The Art of Loving, “love and labor are inseparable.” After discussing the previous three guideposts (self-love, mindfulness, and embodiment), I have now come to the fourth and final guidepost: universal love.
Most of us are no strangers to the concept of universal love. It is considered a virtue by many world religions, and I’m sure if you stopped a random person on the street, they’d agree that it was a good idea, so I’m not going to spend too much time here trying to argue for the idea of universal love. We’re all human. All humans are adorable and naturally loving when we’re born. In practice, the only people who we find it difficult to love are usually grown-ups who have done things that we disapprove of, or who have caused us harm. When we find it difficult to do something that we value, we have a choice: we can give up, or we can learn a new skill.
In this case, Erich Fromm would argue that the skill that one needs to learn is how to love, because selective love is not true love at all, but rather an enlarged egotism. And before learning the skill, one must learn the theory. According to Fromm, love has four basic elements: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. Care implies taking active concern for another’s well being. Responsibility is the choice that we each make to respond to another’s needs. Respect reminds us that the other person is their own person despite the concern we have for them. Without knowledge of the loved one—knowledge of their feelings, needs, history, desires, vulnerabilities, interests—our love of them will be misguided. With this understanding, whenever we find it difficult to love someone, it can be instructive to re-examine these four elements through the lens of the four guideposts.
|Knowledge||My inability to love this person is evidence of an unhealed wound inside me.||My negative thoughts about this person are mental habits and not the truth.||These uncomfortable sensations in my body are my nervous system’s way of responding to an emergency that my mental habits cause me to perceive.||This person is like me. They just want to be happy and avoid suffering and are doing their best with what they know to achieve that. Some of their actions might harm me, but they are still deserving of love.|
|Respect||The challenge that I’m facing in loving this person is a part of my process, and is not a problem.||My negative thoughts are a part of my process. They are not a problem.||My nervous system is doing its best with what it knows to protect me. There is nothing wrong with it.||I do not need to control this person in order to love them. I can respect their process.|
|Responsibility||The challenge that I’m facing in loving this person is evidence of an underlying unmet need in myself which I choose to respond to with care.||My negative thoughts, though not a problem, are preventing me from acting on my values, and I am choosing to get into right relationship with my thoughts to unleash my capacity for love.||My flight or fight response to this person, though not a problem, is preventing me from acting on my values, and I am choosing to get into right relationship with my nervous system to unleash my capacity for love.||This person’s process is an attempt to meet an unmet need and is not a problem. If I can see what that need is and can help to meet it, that is what I will choose to do.|
|Care||I am consistently doing what I can to care for my needs.||I am consistently doing what I can to care for my mind.||I am consistently doing what I can to care for my nervous system.||I am consistently doing what I can to care for others.|
As you can see, love is not simply an emotion that we can wait around for. It is a way of being that we must cultivate through consistent practice. And just like with any practice, it’s generally not a good idea to start at the highest difficulty level. If you’re still struggling to consistently love yourself, or your friends and family, it’s too soon to try to love someone who has harmed you, or a political opponent. Just like with any practice, patience is essential. Starting where you are is an act of self-love.
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Nauser Bear (Nicholas Reynolds) is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT#123099) in California. To work with Nauser, send an email to email@example.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.
Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.