We’ve been through more than a decade of struggle now, haven’t we? There’s that economy thing that’s been eating at all of us this past three years. But there’s also the insanity of extremist violence and murderous intent directed randomly at those of us who are innocent.
All of this seems to have at least temporarily altered the core sense that most of us have of what counts in life. What seems to have happened is not that we’ve changed our values or our definition of the meaning of life, so much as we’ve forgotten the importance of those issues and their bedrock necessity.
This stuff ain’t going away. It’s no ones fault. Economic and social chaos have always been with us. These days, though, this chaos is amplified because of the reach of media, the density of world population, and the fact that peace and happiness in almost every culture seem so near at hand and almost possible — more so now than ever in history.
And yet, we all know the old Thomas Hobbes saw about how life in the Middle Ages was “nasty, brutish and short.” What’s the modern version of that? Oh, yes: Life is now nasty, brutish, and long.
But we have a secret weapon in all of this. It’s a simple weapon — crude yet delicate. It’s called love. There is the love between partners raising a family (or just living together). There is that amazing love we have for our children. There is the love of family, friends, and neighbors. And then there is the love of life — from sports teams to food to music to the incessant allure of technology. Love is simple and it’s easy and almost cliche to speak of it, but it has also taken a back seat for so many of us. And to my mind that’s really why everything has fallen to shit in this world.
Love is a funny thing. Neuroscientists and psychologists are only just now beginning to be able to study it objectively. Digital brain scanning diagnostic tools have developed over the past decade that let scientists map the dynamics of consciousness and emotion. Neuroimaging is still a very young field, but we’re learning a lot quickly.
Biologically, love is just a bunch of chemicals and energy flows firing through our bodies, effecting our limbic (emotional) awareness. But at the same time, love is an active creative process that each of us has the power to exercise — or not. Whether it’s a chemical response or something almost magical, love is governed by how others in the world react to us. If you love your spouse so deeply that you want to cry and laugh simultaneously every morning you wake up next to them, only to have that spouse betray you in an adulterous affair, or leave you for some one else, your once overt and profound joy at just being around them goes out the window. You feel like a victim. You become anxious and depressed. Self-immolation becomes a matter of course. Life can really suck.
And yet, just the week before, you felt deep, overt, excessive happiness in their presence. That very love you felt, by being crushed and snuffed out, is what tortures you into obsessive compulsive self-destruction.
Or, perhaps not. Perhaps you just become cynical and jaded about the whole love thing. Why should it be any different from anything else in life? All that glitters and shines is transitory and ephemeral. What are the two most profound symbolic acts in the modern world? 1.) Clicking on the “Reload” button; 2.) Hitting “delete” after highlighting something.
Love is fading from our public discourse (except in the movies and romance novels). It’s fading from our private conversations as well. My generation and the ones behind us hit Delete or Reload on the screens of our lives with mounting ease every day. Love is so hard to hold onto. It’s easier to embrace fear of terrorism and to resign ourselves to economic despair. Love is hard to make work. It’s a creative act. In the case of families and friends, it is a creative act between people. It won’t work without mutuality. Love requires faith, strength of character, self-awareness, and the humility of vulnerability.
Fear and despair aren’t creative acts at all. They’re simplistic emotions. Behavioral psychologists might call these emotions “learned helplessness.” Fear and despair slide right in if we’re too vulnerable and must confront those already hardened by failure and pain.
I don’t bring this issue up lightly. After the age of 10 or so (ten is the golden age of life, for sure), each of us must grapple with the tenuousness of love and the learned helplessness of fear and despair. Life is painful, and life is beautiful all at once. My concern for us these days, and I see it best in the anger and hostility that has become the norm in American politics, is that love is losing right now. In fact, as love continues to lose to fear and despair, and people become less and less creative, and more and more self-absorbed and threatened, the balance between these two points of view becomes more and more obscure, even meaningless. Proof of that may be found in whether you understand what I’m saying here and whether you agree.
Such an imbalance makes us profoundly stupid as a culture. We each contribute in our own way to a mass insanity. We can’t really talk to each other at all when love has taken a back seat. Communication requires compassionate speaking and listening. That is all but gone.
Take as an example the current debate in this Presidential election over taxes. The simple discussion is over whether rich people should be taxed more since we can’t pay our bills, and have gone deeply into debt over the past decade. Democrats say annual income over $250,000 should be taxed at pre-Bush tax rates (there was a timeframe on those cuts, afterall). Republicans say such a cut is unfair to small businesses since many of those at the 250K margin are actually sole proprietor entrepreneurs.
Now, forget the complex rigmarole of the actual nature of taxes. Just look at the issue. We have a lot of people who need help and support in this country. We also have dozens of profoundly important public goods — from defense and public safety to infrastructure, education, and R&D. These are essential to every person in this society — rich and poor. We can’t cut spending on these anymore. If anything, we need more money for all of them. That money has to come from somewhere. Taxes were reduced for the “rich” a decade ago and now they need to be raised. The proper discussion between Democrats and Republicans should be about the cut-off number. Should it be $250,000 or should it be higher? Or lower? The compromise on that number is the issue. That’s the way we used to do things. That was a world where love was in balance with fear and despair. Now, however, both sides appeal to fear and despair. Forget love. Forget actually solving problems. “Fuck you.” That’s the new American Way. “No. Fuck you.”
This giving in to fear and despair, this utter lack of imagination and character, resonates in everything around us. I look at it as little tiny implosions everywhere. Each of them — from the demise of once strong marriages, to the inability of people to solve problems in Washington (or Palestine) — seems like a specially engineered demolition of hope and trust in one way or another. Some of these implosions are huge — like the 9/11 attacks or the Great Recession — but they’re all linked and connected.
It’s quite easy for each of us to implode in the world. When you leave love behind, you leave hope, joy, and beauty at the door as well. Even when you feel like you have those things, you can still implode. Imploding is part of life. Out of self-destruction comes a chance at re-creation.The question is whether you hang onto love in the middle of that implosion, or whether you let yourself fall into fear and despair. Quite frankly, most of us let ourselves fall. We often don’t even know this fall has occurred until it’s too late.
One of the anthems of my generation used to be the Jefferson Airplane song “Volunteers of America.” It is a rousing, rabble-rousing battle-cry for change. To me, now, the song that would make more sense is “Implosions of America.” The battle-cries for change from both The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements imploded in so many ways. One made a fool of itself with anger and hostility, the other spread across the nation and then allowed itself to be sent home just as winter began to set in and things were getting interesting — and possible. Both demanded change everywhere but took no responsibility for crystallizing a list of concrete demands.
Implosions of America spread far and wide. Today I read in the Huffington Press more evidence of what I’m talking about. In an essay called “The Scarlet Manifesto: The Rise of the Adulterous Woman,” by Dr. Peggy Drexler, the issue of infidelity was discussed at length. Her commentary highlighted the shift in gender responsibility for adultery. She gives research results and anecdotal accounts from her own counseling work. Of an AARP study, she notes divorce is up across the board in this country, and that: “Wives are now more likely to initiate the split than husbands. In two out of every three marriages longer than 20 years, it’s the woman who leaves the man.”
Given what I’ve written here, this was not surprising to me. I have so many male friends whose marriages have ended because their wives decided to move on. What amazed me, though, in her essay — and many essays on the issue of fidelity and women’s role in society these days — is that love isn’t discussed at all. Drexler astutely notes that infidelity is a piece of the empowerment puzzle for women, but misses the fact that this means love has taken a back seat in their lives (no doubt, many marriages in America have been imploding for years and it was only a matter of time before one of the partners took action).
Drexler writes that we’re becoming “a society that is more equal than ever before. Women are becoming more confident about making choices. Sexual exploration — and, yes, at times infidelity — is just one example.”
The issue of love in this country begins and ends with marriage. Three things mark our lives most definitively — birth, death, and marriage. Everything else is secondary. Two of those three have sex connected to them, but they are also supposed to be connected to love. That’s the theory, anyway.
So where is love? Why doesn’t it get discussed when we talk about the implosion of marriages? Seriously. What happens to love? Why is that not the first thing brought up in such an essay? Love should always come first.
I know what the answer is. You do, too. Any explanation you give to these questions will prove the answer. The implosions in life come from despair and fear. My own marriage was challenged ominously once by fear. My reaction to that was despair and, after awhile, desperation. And so was my wife’s. Love goes from being delicate to becoming brittle and make-shift. It’s implosion is as much a function of how easy it can fall apart as it is about betrayal, cynicism, and anger. When love is reduced to a form of bric-a-brac, communication becomes nearly impossible and our ability to create hope, joy, and beauty is all but lost.
None of what I’ve written here depresses me. It does, however, sadden me. There is nothing in life that can’t be achieved when we put love first. And yet, putting love first is usually the last thing on someone’s mind when fear and despair begin to set in.
None of this is simple. Even if you agree with everything I say here. Every one of us has implosions happening all around us all the time. Fear and despair go hand-in-hand with love, hope, joy, and beauty.
Life is so complicated and yet so simple. That’s what gives art its power. And that’s why the life you live is so potent. It’s also why we live at the most consequential moment in human history. It is not time to give in to fear and despair. It’s time to love. And it’s time to live.
David Biddle is the author of the novel Beyond the Will of God and the story collection Trying to Care. His second collection, Implosions of America, will be released in mid-November. He lives in Philadelphia, happy, always positive, and deeply in love with his wife of 22 years.