Sunday, April 24, 2011

Love- a comfort emotion

“But there’s a danger in loving somebody too much
And it’s sad when you know it’s your heart you can’t trust,
There’s a reason why people don’t stay where they are
baby sometimes love just aint enough. “
-Patty Smyth

The heart wrenching lyrics of the above song can strike a chord in even the most stone cold heart. Most of us have been in a situation where we felt like our heart just walked out on us, leaving behind an empty abysmal chasm which churns the name of an ex-beloved at a pace fast enough to send the rest of our body in a dizzy state. Most of us have found our self in a state of complete euphoria where roses bloom better, grass looks greener, clouds in the skies look poofier, and the world just seems like one big green and blue smiley face. Most of us have also been in a situation where we crave the look of a beloved every second, the look that makes our knees wobbly and our hearts skittish. Most of us…have been in love.

Love. Love is a many splendored things. Love can be so many things and yet be nothing… for what really is love? Does it really exist in a romantic form? No one knows for sure what love really is and yet most people spend the greater part of their lives persistently chasing this elusive yet desirable beast. Talk of love brings up two very interesting questions: How do we chase something when we do not know what it is, and how do we chase after it? Do we chase everything that looks/feels/smells like love, or do we just wait in a corner and hope the first thing that walks around will carry our personalized version of love? In order to catch a ball one must be able to visualize it and if a person cannot visualize a ball, does it really exist? Similarly, if we do not know what love, especially romantic love is, does it really exist? I am quite convinced of the former condition – romantic love does not exist. It is instead, a surreal figment of our imagination that we choose to hold onto for comfort.

Le Doux, a practicing neurologist popularized in recent times due to his intensive research on emotions, recently authored a bestselling book. This book, titled The Emotional Brain, is concerned with presenting intensive research on human and animal emotions. In this book, Le Doux explains that the best way to study human emotions is to study them in isolation. This isolation of emotions leads to four main emotions which include fear, disgust, happiness and sadness/depression. Any other emotions presented by humans or animals are derived from one of these four main emotions.

This research gives new meaning to a song by Tina Turner which proclaims, quite unabashed “What’s love got to do with it, what’s love but a second hand emotion?" Love truly is a second hand emotion, if even that. It could probably be labeled a third, or a fourth emotion due to the fact that it stems from the culmination of other emotions. It has no real self-sustaining identity. Le Doux’s research also provides evidence towards the fact that all four of the primary emotions listed above are manifested in the form of a physical action or a bodily response. When a person is happy, a smile is expected. Tears or brooding are expected from a sad individual. Fear initiates the ‘fight of flight’ response and disgust invokes a desire to avoid the stimuli. Love however has no obvious bodily symptoms. A person in love could be happy, sad, disgusted or fearful and the symptoms of this so-called love are composed of the tell-tale signs of these particular emotions. Love’s entity is comprised wholly of a blend of various emotions. Not surprisingly then, its physical manifestation is also seen in terms of the expression of the primary emotions involved. The above analysis shows that love, at least as we think of it, does not exist in scientific vocabulary and cannot be explained by science.

If love does not have a real meaning then why do we even use the word? Probing the concept of nominalism, a theory of medieval philosophy which explains that general or abstract words do not stand for objectively existing entities and that universals are no more than names assigned to them, helps shed some light on the issue. In simple words, nominalism is a word used to explain abstract nouns that just have a name but no real meaning. An example of nominalism would be the act of idol worship. When individuals worship idols, they put forth so much faith and devotion of energy into the idol that it ceases to be an artifact made of metal/china but metamorphoses into being the actual deity/God it is being used to represent. Love too is a word that has come to have a nominalistic existence. It is possible that centuries ago, love was used as a word used to explain the feelings of exhilaration, happiness, satisfaction, sorrow, despair and so on which arise when an individual is romantically involved with another. It was used as a stand-in word for the real emotions described above. However, with the passage of time, it has evolved in our minds to have a connotation it was never really meant to have-that of being a verb.

Hence, if love is just a word used to signify some prior well established emotions or the act of performing certain actions then that would mean that love’s being depends on our perceptions of the other emotions. Is a word that conveys no meaning of its own, but instead merely manifests the meaning of another in its being, really a word then? An apple is an apple because it brings with it the image of a red fruit which seeds in it, the word happiness brings with it memory of what happiness feels like, while walk brings with it the notion of performing an act of movement. Love does none of these things; it does not signify a visual, physical image, does not bring with it memory of what love feels like nor does it bring with it the act of loving. Some might claim that love does indeed bring memories of being in love and the act of loving, but these people fail to realize that when they think of loving someone, they are just reminded of caring and desire for that person, which implies, once again, that love really is nothing but simply a way of describing other words.

The meaning of love has escaped the act of being carved into stone. It is hard to determine one generic definition of love and apply it to the lives of every individual who walks the planet. Any other word in the English language, or any other language for that matter, has a concrete definition. One can argue that the same word can have different meanings when used in different contexts as is the case of words like gay, blue, beat etc. Love too, is one of those words that can imply different associations when used in different contexts. For example a person may love God, love his/her friends, love chocolate cake, love his/her parents and love a beloved. Obviously, love for chocolate cake does not compare to love for God nor does love for a beloved compare to love for friends. However, each usage of the word love implies one of two definite emotions- those of caring and of desire. Love does exist in the form of a verb, as in “I Love you��? which is actually quite a convenient way of telling someone that I care for him and want to be with him. However, love as a noun does not exist. To love is an act but love does not imply a person, place, name or thing. Thus, love as an entity has no existence.

Further proof of the elusive nature of love comes from the census of the National Center of Health Statistics (NCHS) which reports that in the 1990’s for every two marriages that took place, one divorce did too. If love is the amazing magical feeling that most people chase after, then why does it fizzle away? This fizzling out effect of love occurs due to the fact that we are disillusioned about love. This disillusion occurs in part due to our social conditioning of love. Everything that we hear about love comes from external sources such as family, friends who all have a different meaning of love. We put so much faith in the abilities of love that when we are in a romantic relationship, we hinder its growth by expecting too much form it. These exaggerated expectations lead to a sense of despair which follows from not achieving what we thought we could achieve and consequently, the foundation of the relationship sinks under the weight of gloom.

The above discussion sheds some light on the elusive identity of love. However, if love really does not exist then why do we spend so much energy and passion on it? This is because there exists, in each and every one of us, a natural human tendency to desire objects/meanings/feelings that are unbeknownst to us. When we eat something, we want to know what we are eating, before we read a book, we want to know what it is about. When someone tells us about a delicious chocolate cake, we want a slice to find out for ourselves whether it truly is good or not. When someone tells us about a wonderful new movie that is out, we flock to the theaters to form our own opinions. Love too is one of those unknown yet familiar words that each one of us has definitely come across. It is a part of our society and is presented to us in various mannerisms by those around us. We are born into a world which is obsessed with the pursuit of love and it not shy to pass that passion onto us from the moment we are born.

Little girls are fed a rich diet of fairy tales in which the princess is fair, beautiful (and in most cases, blonde) and waits by the castle all day for her wonderful prince charming. This prince is expected to come galloping on a shining steed and whisk her away to his wonderful world where they will live happily in love ever after. Little boys are fed a similar, gender equivalent diet, of fairy tales where the prince is misguided about the direction of his life until he views the face of a princess so beautiful that the heavens part and the angels sing and he stays mesmerized by her beauty. As soon as this amazing woman comes into his life, everything magically falls right into place and the prince’s crisis are solved and they live happily in love ever after. Love is something we have been told is amazing and life changing. Not to be outdone, we embark on our own personal journey to find out what this love thing really is. Life becomes a journey and the conquest of love becomes its most desired souvenir.

The above discussion might lead to feelings of anxiety or dread in the hearts of most of us. It is hard for us to convince ourselves that love does not exist in the way that we have always thought it did because…simply put, we want love to exist. Much like the myth of the abominable snowman, we want to believe there is a ‘yeti’ of emotions that breathes amongst us and feeds off our joys and sorrows. Love is a concept that most of us have relished since childhood and we fear the risk of losing this emotion because it is comforting to us. We want to believe that there exists an emotion out there which is more powerful and awe-inspiring than any we have ever come across. It is like a comfort emotion and can be likened to a comfort item most of us probably remember from childhood. This item could range from being a flannel blanket with satin trimmings to being the ratty old Mr. Wiggles or Mr. Bear with a missing eye and a loose limb that eventually needs to be tucked away in a box with all our other childhood memories. Love has been our comfort emotion for too long and we risk the chance of unconsciously sabotaging our potential romantic relationships by unsuccessfully trying to find glimpses of it in them. The sooner we accept the lack of existence of love, the sooner we can pave the way for relationships that are sustained by trust, faith and compatibility and not by the idea of a word which has no real identity in itself. 

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