A Little Essay on Love: Having vs. Being

“Fulfillment” by Gustav Klimt

Love is also important because of reasons that are non-biological. At least so far as we commonly understand biology to be like, squishy organ or neurological reasons involving things we don’t have control over, or impersonal processes like instinct.

There is a dangerous instinct in educated people to reduce love to biological processes. I tended toward that way of thinking in the past. Just because one position on a phenomenon reduces that phenomenon to its simplest and most non-sentimental possible interpretation doesn’t mean that position is true. I guess you could call that ‘Occam’s Rogaine.’

One reason that love is important is that it makes the person who is loving more mutable to themselves. That means that when I want to eat a chocolate bar and I’m really hungry, but my wife wants to eat some chocolate too and she’s also hungry, then the fact that I want to share some of mine with her means that I’m less important to myself than I otherwise would be.

I don’t think the importance of being less important to yourself than normal can be necessarily understated. Remember that you are going to die. If there’s only one person who matters to you, and if it’s you, then that’s a pretty terrifying fact that you’re going to have to carry around with you for the rest of your now existentially warped life.

The chocolate bar might seem like a silly example. Maybe you could think about it in terms of pushing someone out of the way of a speeding truck. That would be a good way to save yourself. Lots of people do that, for reasons that have nothing to do with Kin Selection. Because some people just seem to be good. That’s something I’m sure people have done with lovers or partners.

On the other hand, if you manage to love someone enough that you care about yourself a little less, you might wonder what the value of that would be. You might have just jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Surely, your beloved is going to die too.

That’s true. Everyone is. Here’s a cool thought though: love accelerates when it is reciprocated. It is easier to love someone who loves you back than to love someone who doesn’t. And love seems to have benefits for the experiencer directly. So wouldn’t it be nice to give someone the opportunity to accelerate their own freedom from their own ego-perspective, especially if it meant accelerating your own freedom from your own ego-perspective?

That isn’t me saying you should give up your ego-perspective entirely. That sort of behavior strikes me as pretty pathological, and I don’t think it would lead to much good. You would probably overburden who-ever was the object of your affections.

Note that I didn’t say ‘subject’. I think healthy affection retains the subjective nature of the beloved, while unhealthy affection tends to objectify the beloved. Healthy affection wants to be seen. Unhealthy affection needs to hide itself. It needs to consume consciousness, or to sublate it, so that it doesn’t get acknowledged. That’s a sort of dishonesty.

This is one of my main issues with Romantic Love, or Courtly Love as an idea and a reality. Eros is cool and all, but Romantic Love in a destined or pre-ordained way takes so much agency out of the beloved, and it becomes so egotistical. It doesn’t free the lover in any way. Instead, it tells the lover that their one duty in life is to retain the love of the beloved.

This is the essential premise of every Rom-Com since ever, which is, of course, a very flattering premise for everyone involved; after all, how fantastic the Man must be to win the heart of the Woman? How perfect and desirable the Woman must be to rate this much effort and investment from the Man? (Switch/replace nouns as appropriate.) But it is certainly no model to build a life on.

It falls very much afoul of what Erich Fromm would maybe deem an appropriate division between the ‘having’ and ‘being’ modes. To relate in a having mode is to orient yourself such that your behaviors maximize the probability of acquiring or retaining some object of desire. On the other hand, to relate in a being mode is something like maximizing the number of your choices to the effect of embodying some sort of ideal. Not acquiring, but embodying.

To operate in the being mode is to think less in terms of what you can get, and more in terms of who you can be. Or in the words of Shakespeare’s Juliet:

“But to be frank, and give it thee again.
And yet I wish but for the thing I have.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep.
The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”

To love in a having mode is to demand the acquisition of either the object of love, or the acquisition of some pleasure you expect to receive from love, or even in the case of some disorganized attachments, to acquire some displeasure you expect to receive from love. This mode is essentially outcome-oriented.

On the other hand, to love in a being mode is to ensure that the maximum of your actions is oriented towards being loving. This is more difficult, because it requires a deep interrogation of your motives — this is something I regularly struggle with, and I don’t suspect it is possible to be perfectly honest. But the advantage the being mode has over the having mode is that: it is ironically less subject to chance for success; does not make the beloved into an object or treat them as a means to some end of stimulation; and furthermore is transformational for the lover rather than stagnatory.

Let’s explore those points. If you pin the success of your efforts in love to the desired outcome, you will open yourself up to a form of complete failure you could have otherwise avoided. On the other hand, from the perspective of the being mode, while failures are unavoidably unpleasant, they do not completely invalidate the sum of your actions and decisions in love. This, in some sense, frees you from the unavoidable influence of chance in love.

If your efforts in love are oriented towards acquiring a person or a stimulus, then you are in some sense reducing that person to an object, or in some sense ignoring their subjectivity. This might be unacceptable for any number of reasons. Referencing points from earlier in this essay, it’s unacceptable because it steals your opportunity to be freed from your own death-anxiety. It also steals both of your opportunities to reciprocally free each other from death-anxiety, at least in part.

Finally, a being-oriented love makes it easier to negate acquisitive or fear-oriented habits that probably aren’t doing anyone any good in the lover. If the locus of your choices starts to be centered around another human body, it’s likely that you’re going to start taking action that we would normally consider substantially more brave than you otherwise would — for example, the saving-from-speeding-truck example cited above.

In my work, I’ve heard stories from addicts who only found the strength to kick their addictions once they realized the damage it was doing to their families. It is true of any addict that it isn’t over until it’s over, but just the fact that efforts only began to be made after a suitable beloved came around substantiates my point.

While it’s likely impossible to be wholly in the being mode — or if it is possible I need to admit I have no idea how to achieve that state — an attempt to balance having and being modal behavior is probably going to be beneficial on any count. The questions we should ask ourselves in love involve less, then, those considerations of what pleasure or joy it would bring us, and instead what pleasure it would bring our beloved.

In those cases, it would also free us from our own attachment to our own joy, so that when it came about incidentally, it would be somewhat of a surprise. ‘Oh, I’m happy! How fantastic. I didn’t notice.’

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