“These things abide: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)
“Love, oh love, you crazy love.” Love is the cause and core of being human. Lusty love, luscious love, languid love, lively love, lovely love, we yearn for love, go wild in love, grow stale in love, grant our love, give it, get it, grasp it, lose it, find it, make it, grow it, get saved by it. Annoying love, obsessive love, exploring love, ignoring love, deploring love, exporting love, controlling love, embroiling love, confounding love, astounding love, compounding love, costly love, bossy love, lousy love, lonely love, atoning love, free love, more love – we humans know the risk, and yet we want it.
“The Greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return” (Eden Abez)
On this Valentine’s Day let us consider if we have learned this. How are we at love? It is so human to wonder and care and try and want and miss and hold. We are born of love, love of our parents, love of all our ancestors, love of life’s yearning for itself. How can we be better at love? As religious liberals allowed to honestly consider such topics, as Universalists seeking to love all as God loves all, we can ask in the most cosmic sense and the most intimate, how can we be loving more and be more loving? Love, the yearning to join and replicate, is built into the chemical bonds that make life. From crystals to amino acids to cells to organisms to animals to us, love builds us. From a crystal “wanting” to grow to our “wanting” another, love is built in, seeming to us as attraction, appreciation, and affection. Look at the animals. The birds grow close, share the nest, feed the chicks, and they send their dear ones off. The bull elks bash their heads together, striving with all they have to prevail in order to gain access to those juicy cows. Are not chemistry, bonding, contending and succeeding not part of what is in us?
I don’t want to commit “The Naturalistic Fallacy,” saying that nature’s patterns determine our human ways. We can do it differently if we want. In the afterward of the second edition of Dawkin’s Selfish Gene, he admits that though the worms he studied didn’t demonstrate altruism, we humans could decide to be more giving anyway. I think he was too reductionist. All kinds of cooperative and kind behaviors are also in nature and are built into us. Let’s not commit “The Naturalistic Fallacy Fallacy” either. Should we ignore all similar behaviors to us in the animals as if such tendencies had no influence in us at all?
For instance, we have long been told our closest animal is the chimp. Chimps have a social structure where big males jealously dominate smaller or weaker ones, and so keep more females for sexual partners and mothers. The females are mostly loyal, but they sometimes sneak out and mate with the bachelors in the bushes. We’re told we’re wicked for also being like this – jealous, domineering, sneaky, unfaithful. This is the sort of “animal behavior” we’re to acknowledge but overcome, cleaving to our one mate only and ever. Curiously, on the other side of the Congo River from the chimps, on the “left bank,” as it were, are the pigmy chimps. Physically, they look more human than chimps do. Look at their gait and mouth. These apes, also called the bonobos, are more matriarchal. The mother apes raise their babes served by the males and other females. The bonobos do a lot with sex. Lots of times every day they have short copulations with various males or sometimes females. The babes are right there to see all this, sometimes still clinging to the mother. Rewards are given and disputes are settled with quick promiscuous sex. The bonobos are more peaceful than the chimps. They’re the “free love” apes.
We humans share the same limb of the huge family tree with both the chimps and the bonobos. If chimps somehow justified or modeled domination, ownership, and war, would the bonobos legitimate communal respect, free love and peace? Somewhere between our ape-like beginnings and the first writings of history the creation myths I love so much arose. Curious that the affirmation of all nature, including us, including our sexuality, of Genesis One would be overshadowed by the Garden of Eden myth where the fall from innocent attunement was caused by judgment, and marked by shame, of sex.
‘Yes, we have no bonobos, we have no bonobos these days.’ Except, we do. There’s always been a free love aspect to the natural human community. Any honest telling of the Founding Fathers would show how practiced these guys were at trying to be fathers. But, their bold, humanistic faith in us as we are comes after a tortuous human diversion. Pre-agricultural humans are believed to have been more egalitarian. Not much hoarding when one’s people were mobile gatherers and hunters. It is only when settled populations start farming grain that women could be put to work processing it. Inequality of wealth led to power over others at home and war on the frontier. Wives were owned. They were a dependent breeding and working stock. Even into the industrial age, women were owned as wives (complete with a strict expectation of monogamy – to try to insure what is unsure) or used as slaves, servants, and prostitutes. Lovers there have always been, though, for not even the most vigilant dominate chimp or sultan succeeds in preventing flings and clandestine lovers.
No matter the rules, there’s a bit of bonobo in all of us. In our changing society women are no longer always kept. Independent income allows for independent choices. The great venture of democracy puts trust in us. As we lose the susceptibility to be told and bossed by a dominate male, be he pope, king, boss, or husband, and instead have trust in ourselves to fully be who we really are, other relationships will emerge. There are good reasons and rewards for living your life as “one man, one woman, one lifetime.” But putting all love in that container can keep it from flowing and growing.
If we consider how crucial love is in humans we see its larger scope and hope. Human babes are born far earlier than comparable mammals. Our babes are utterly dependent. They’re born early to get this marvelous big brain out without hurting the mother or infant. For months, we’re dependent on love. We need milk and touch and eye contact and soothing sounds and warm embrace. Babes who don’t get that just wither and die, or maybe they persist in life, lacking in essential assurance and safety. We’re born dependent and we die dependent; we’re held, wiped, fed. In between we learn to be dependable, independent, and interdependent. The mammalian bond of love, touch, and play isn’t just for kittens and babies. Our reliable mutuality informs every stage and phase of human activity and community. Love is not just as the brief spurt of pleasure during sex; it is life-long in every direction. Love influences every aspect of human community. Where it is present and practiced, we flourish. Where it is absent and mocked, we wither.
How can we love more and be more loving? From sex to infant to child to sibling to student to lover to worker to parent to relations to country to world – how can we notice the love that nurtures us and make the ways to give it back? How do we be more universalistic, expanding both the breadth and depth of love in our lives, for those farthest from us to closest, to us inside, how do we find the ways to both love more and be more loving?
“Monogamy,” to alter Winston Churchill’s quote on democracy, “is the worst form of relationship, except for all the others.” We praise and impose monogamy as being synonymous with fidelity, as if it shows and grows love. However, I would assert that fidelity transcends monogamy. We are faithful to being there for the other person as they are and become, for better or worse, not making our love contingent on whether they ever love another. We don’t expect parents to love only one child, or children to love only one parent. We don’t assume all our needs will be magically met by only one person. Monogamy makes a lot of sense when the couple is of breeding age. Beyond that, there is more leeway for having various forms of love in addition to the primary relationship.
Some people even envision new sorts of families, where three or more could “marry.” The UUPA community holds a strong value in open, honest, acknowledged multi-partner love lives. This is not betrayal, for it is open and agreed to, with secondary partners needing the consent of primary ones. They try to maintain their primary love while also loving more. They wish to come to church as a sanctioned unit, not hide their dear ones in shame. It is a new coming out, testing our tolerance and understanding in unfamiliar ways. This seems risky and prone to upheaval, both for the people who wish to pursue this and for those around them. But consider the fragmented and then healed nature of many of our families now. Instead of merely “my X” as the result of a rancorous separation, various parents tend to their offspring and continue caring for their former spouses for their whole lives. Family exists across the marriages. It needn’t be trouble persisting. Children can know their blood parents, not just their step parents. Former spouses can care for each other in ways they never knew before. Family transcends and enfolds various marriages.
We romanticize life-long monogamous relations. We claim models in the animal world, but on closer examination find that hanky panky goes on. A tenth to almost a third of some birds are sired by other than the primary social mate. DNA testing on supposedly monogamous couples shows some two to three percent of the offspring are sired by someone else than the apparent husband. While over half of men (towards 70%) stray at least once during a marriage, almost as many women do too (30% – 60%). Sometimes the most apparently devoted wives have sudden flings with macho sorts of men. Usually, revelation of such extra-marital affairs is met with great upheaval, accusation, hurt, retaliation and assumed divorce. It need not be so if we seek a more informed and compassionate understanding.
Without being reductionist, we can see how our chemistry challenges our love. Testosterone drives sex in men, and to a lesser extent, in women. When a man is successful, admired and moneyed his testosterone goes up. Women are keyed into this, for mating upward in social status is inherent in both animal and human populations. They get excited by status and swagger, especially during the ovulation portion of their monthly cycle. Meanwhile, the thrill of initial love, with its attendant spike in dopamine, has waned for both husband and wife. The thrill of sex or romantic attraction creates and then resides in the oxytocin of comfy connectedness. This bonding agent, high between mother and newborn, is high also in stable couples. High, but dull. Attraction turns to exhaustion. Men shoot hundreds of millions of self-cells a day in as many places as they can; women guard their few monthly self-cells, seeking just one man to father the child and stay by her. He can come and go, as it were, while she gets stuck with the results – life-long results. We can see how her need for support, and his need for assurance the babes are his, both work toward monogamy, but that monogamy itself can be seem like monotony.
Familiarity breeds contempt, yes, but familiarity can also breathe content. It depends on how people understand their mutual predicament. Can we admit marriage can become a bore and a chore, trying always to serve it, losing our soul as we go?
Something Else by Nin Andrews
“Sometimes you say I’m something else, and you mean I’m good, really good, but honey, don’t say that, please? Reminds me how my dad used to say, I’m just not myself today. As if here were some kind of imposter dad. Then he’d ask things like: Why don’t you go play with James? Has the dog had his walk yet? Will you kindly get out of my cotton-pickin’ hair? Sometimes he’d come home from work carrying his hat and a brown paper bag, and I’d know he wasn’t my dad… My mom often said he wasn’t the man she married. And I thought about that. How, when they were married, I wasn’t me, either. I wasn’t anyone. I didn’t like to dwell on that. It kind of gave me the creeps, but I liked to ask, Were you really in love then? Of course, she’d say. Did you hold hands? Yes. Kiss in public? Sit on his lap? Yes, yes, I did all that. Once She even showed me photos she kept in her lingerie drawer beneath her slips and silky things she never wore anymore: him in his spats and slick-shined hair, her in a pink crinoline cocktail dress with her long bangs clipped back in pearly barrettes. Not a thought in her head, except maybe Don’t I look swell? And Love me. And he did. Did he say so? He said it every day. He was something else back then.” (“Something Else” by Nin Andrews, from Southern Comfort. (c) Caran Kerry Press, 2009)
Love fades. Attraction leads to fulfillment, then emptiness often. The oxytocin serves our relatedness and family stability. It reduces cortisol, the wearing stress reaction chemical. But to be whole, we need some passion, some sizzle, some fun. I would not chase us because we are built this way. Rather than insult the Creator by saying we’re flawed, maybe our expectations of our relationships are flawed. And it’s not just sex that we want with others. Our romantic love life is part of what keeps us alive. Can we agree to help find it with each other? Can couples admit their attractions without cringing for fear of reprisals? Can we admit we need various kinds of persons at various times of our lives? Can fidelity to the other transcend the expectation of monogamy by the other? Can love of one’s spouse be so selfless as to be glad and supportive of their knowing occasional others, closer to a polyamorous ideal, more bonobo than chimp?
It depends on how honest and adventurous we are. This is largely influenced by the supportive culture around it and the norms and agreements of what is fair and loving and not. I’ve seen settings where hugs are given in every direction. Current couples get along easily with former lovers. Jealousy is admitted when needed, and held as need be, but a more generous ideal is admitted and attained. Other settings tolerate no hugs. Every hug is eyed suspiciously, cause for confrontation, ready to be riled. Attractions are not honored; they’re shamed, ridiculed, seen as failure, betrayal. Which sort of expectations did you come up with? Which would you like to continue with? Lest we be blinded by the narrow norms of our somewhat puritan culture, let us consider the mistress system in Europe and the wives-have-their-lovers system in South America, South India, and South China. In these cases, community cohesion and lack of violence prevail. In places were women are owned and repressed, stoned, whipped, burned, and shot, jealousy and righteousness ride rampage, blinding all understanding, compassion or love.
Sex was not the sin in the Garden, judgment was, and shame, blame and pain were the alienating consequences of forgetting the great good that God made for the shallow goods and evils of subtly deceiving moralists. Love and sex are not our fault; they are our origin and glory. I’m not for us breaking into a free-love frenzy. But I am for freeing love. Couples need not dissolve because of attractions, connections, and honesty. We can be with each other with all our fears and failures, and we can be with each other with all our daring wholeness and success. Who is to say? If we were to get out of the dominating, jealous, repressive style of the chimps, and into a more egalitarian, liberal, and communal style of the bonobo, what might come of it? We’re neither chimps nor bonobos, but of something akin to both. Being human is becoming aware of how love pervades our very existence, enlivening our private and communal souls. Can we be authentic, supporting each other as we go deeper than fear and reaction? Can familiarity breathe content? How to love more and be more loving?
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
© February 14, 2010