What the World Needs Now

This just in from America’s most credible news source, The Onion:

(If you aren’t already laughing, then you need to know: it’s a fake news source, just like the Daily Show…)

BOSTON, MA—Upon reviewing his public profile on the dating website OKCupid, local man Malcolm Lighty, 34, told reporters Thursday that he had decided to omit the fact that he has profound and irresolvable psychological and emotional problems. “I didn’t want to include anything too personal, like the deep-seated mental issues that have always prevented me from connecting with another human being,” said Lighty, who reportedly concluded it was “best not to mention” that he is a seriously troubled man in need of professional help. “These profiles are just meant to introduce us, anyway. Later, we can get into the parts of my personality—like how my mother and father’s lack of empathy forever stunted my emotional development, and how I have a pathological fear of [intimacy]—that get in the way of having meaningful relationships with women. For now, I’m just keeping things short and sweet.” Lighty later confirmed that he had been matched up with Kelly Caldwell, a woman who reportedly left off her profile that she is extremely attracted to damaged, unhinged men.

Ahh! Internet dating! Would there be enough time in the day for those of us who have or are using dating websites to tell all our horror stories?


Despite this, in the past ten years, the credibility of online dating has gone up and up. One in every ten American adults does it. And of these, 23% say that through online dating, they have met a spouse or sparked a long-term relationship. That’s the truth from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

It’s because we want to get from here to there. Whether through old methods or new, we want to heal the ache for connection, we want to satisfy the craving. In a poem from several years ago, I wrote:

there are people in this world like suns
in whose presence all ice melts
and there is no other meaning than that.

We want the sunlight to come down warm upon us and melt the ice. There is no other meaning than that.

What we want is LOVE.

The spoiler here, though—the fly in the ointment—is that our culture isn’t really helping us. It confuses us, keeps us in the dark. That’s the argument of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, Fredrickson says that, on the one hand, you have basic cultural understandings of what the supreme emotion of love is all about; and then, on the other hand, you have these amazing findings from the science of emotions which both expose cultural understandings as confused and contradictory and reveal a better, more effective way into the sunlight. That’s her argument.

sermon_love 2.0

Want to hear more?

Let’s start, as she does, in summarizing the ordinary person-on-the-street (person right-here-in-this-sanctuary) sense of love.

Starting with the location of love, where it happens. “If you were raised in a Western culture,” says Fredrickson, “you think of emotions as largely private events. You locate them within a person’s boundaries, confined within their mind and skin.” This Western culture assumption is actually quite powerful, and we can glimpse its power as we address something that has always been rather controversial in worship, which is applause: the action of clapping in response to something that just happened. Something happened which excited you, inspired you, gave you a burst of energy, and you want to give the energy back. But if the emotions that worship generate (including love) are best seen as private events, then you need to give me room to do my inner work and I need to give you room. Do not clutter up my private emotional process with what’s going on inside you. I need my space, and you need yours!

Now I know it—I risk going down a rabbit hole in bringing up the issue of applause, but the analogy to love is perfect. If emotion is something largely private (as Western culture tells us), then, just like worship emotion, love emotion doesn’t need a public physical stimulus to trigger it. It doesn’t need a sensory, in-the-moment context like looking into each other’s eyes or mirroring each other’s gestures or touch of some kind or another. Love can happen in the abstract and at-a-distance. Love can happen on an online dating site, or on Facebook, while you are sitting in isolation at home, behind a computer, and the other person could be a thousand miles away. It makes sense to the Western mind—whereas to the non-Western mind? CRAZY.

Besides the idea that love emotion is private and happens inside one’s skin, there’s also the sense that it’s not really love unless it’s stable, permanent, unconditional. It’s the one thing that you can count on, when everything else around you is changing. Get married here, or in a state that allows you to marry, and now that you have been proclaimed partners for life—now that all THAT’S settled—you can shift your focus to career, or the kids, or something else. Because the love will take care of itself; the love is a rock. (To those who actually believe this—how’s that working for you?)

Then there’s a third commonsense idea about love, perhaps the one we all go to quickest: how love is intrinsically about some kind of special relationship: a romance with a lover, a commitment to a partner or spouse. Love is something that’s exclusive; love is a promise, love is a pledge. It’s why being single can be so full of despair. It’s what leads people to lie like crazy on dating sites: to say they are 40 when they are really 50; to say they are 6 foot 1 when they are really 5 foot 6; or to post pictures of themselves when they were 35 and not as they are now, 45 and paunchy and balding; or to neglect to mention “the profound and irresolvable psychological and emotional problems” they are carrying. It’s also why people throw dollars at dating sites or speed dating schemes or singles holidays or other ways of meeting people. Anything but being alone. Anything but. Because being alone—not having a special someone—means you can’t be happy. Love is the supreme emotion, but you have to pay your dues. Love is supreme, but it comes only (ONLY!) with a lover.

Now here’s where Dr. Fredrickson wants to step in and shout: hold on just a fricken moment! Just waitaminute! Science has something important to say here! (And we thank our lucky stars for science, right?)

What does science—the science of emotions—show?

The main thing is this: that “although [your mind] may subscribe to a whole host of definitions about love, your body subscribes to just one: Love is that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being.” To the body, it’s not love if it doesn’t happen in a physical, immediate context. To the body, love can be felt in contexts that have nothing to do with romance or marriage or special someones. To the body, love is a fleeting momentary thing that requires constant renewal.

I want to call love from the perspective of the body “basic love,” to distinguish it from all the other ideas of love out there. Basic love is like the sunlight that makes everything grow. Basic love is what a nursing baby craves for and is fine-tuned to sense, why the baby you are nursing can seem absolutely asleep and you put the baby down because you’re exhausted but the instant you withdraw your touch the baby starts to cry. Because at the withdrawal of your touch and your physical warmth, the micro-moment of love has passed—and the baby’s craving for love is constant.

We all crave it: doesn’t matter how old you are. The sense of being in sync with another person. The sense of belonging to something larger that just you, the sense of being a part of a dynamic that lifts everyone up into an experience of mutual care and trust and openness and all the other good things that love the supreme emotion carries. We crave it. Basic love. Sunlight.

Brain scans can show just how all this looks. Fredrickson, in her book, includes mention of an experiment by Princeton University’s Uri Hasson in which researchers recorded a young woman telling a story about her high school prom. They played the recording for the participants in the study, who were listening as their brains were being scanned. What researchers witnessed was activity in the listeners’ brains that often was perfectly synchronized; there was no time lag at all between the speaker and the listener. In cases where the listener was particularly tuned in to the story—if he was hanging on to every word and really got it—his brain activity actually anticipated the story-teller’s in some cortical areas. What we have here, says Fredrickson, in this moment of listening, is “a single act, performed by two brains.” “Love,” she says, “unfolds and reverberates between and among people—within interpersonal transactions—and thereby belongs to all parties involved… Love belongs not to one person but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections.”

In light of this, the common sense idea of love as a private event that happens in one’s interior—the idea that love doesn’t need an immediate, physically-embodied sensory context—of course falls flat. Love as an emotion—just as Fredrickson says—unfolds and reverberates between and among people. It’s a single act performed by two or more brains. So think back to what I was saying about clapping in worship. If what we’re hearing about basic love is correct, then it’s unhelpful to see what’s trying to happen in this worship space as hundreds of separate bodies needing space to generate their own love emotions independently, from within. Rather, we sing together and greet eachother and listen together and meditate together and look at eachother and (yes) clap when the energy is appropriate for clapping as ways to crank up the love feeling in the room. That’s what it takes to get emotions to unfold and reverberate between us and among us. That’s what it takes for the single act of love to be performed by hundreds of brains. Non-Western cultures get it. And if we want more diversity in the room, we need to get it too.

It takes something physical, something immediate, in the moment. Basic love needs that. This is not at all to denigrate dating websites like OKCupid. I’m also not trying to say that the feelings we might have for others in our solitude—when they are absent, or unavailable—are trivial. But it is to say that, without here-and-now connections, connections in which you can look at someone in the flesh and they can look at you, connections in which you can hear a person’s voice, mirror their behaviors, touch them, hug them, or a do a host of other in-the-flesh things, you aren’t going to experience that micro-moment lifting you into basic love. The inner baby who craves direct physical contact (doesn’t matter how old you are on the outside) won’t stop crying. It just won’t.

But now, let’s look at yet another common sense idea about love that our culture gives us, and which the science of emotions debunks: that it’s not love unless we’re talking about some kind of romance or committed, exclusive relationship. This idea in particular needs debunking because it causes so much unhappiness, as I suggested earlier. No love relationship, no love. No love, none of the opportunities for health and growth and wellbeing that this supreme emotion promises.

Thank God that the basic love of the body is wayward, wanton, on the town, lax, loose, of easy virtue… Well, what I really mean is what poet Mary Oliver says in the back of our hymnal:

You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

It means that the sunlight of love can shine down upon us as we’re checking out of the grocery store, and we share a laugh with the cashier.

It means that while we’re out walking the dog, we see a neighbor out walking her dog and, while the dogs circle and sniff, we talk about the Halloween decorations in the neighborhood.

It means that when you come through the receiving line today, we look at each other and smile, we shake hands, or hug.

It means that you don’t have to have a special Valentine to experience the positive connections with people which warm you up and feel like love to your body even if, to your mind, it’s not LOOOOOOOOVE.

It means that if you are single, love can still be yours right here and right now.

It means that if you are grieving and lonely—the one who has been sunlight to you is no longer available—there is more love, right here.

It’s true that intimacy within a healthy committed relationship is wondrous. Can’t deny that. But it’s so helpful to see that relationship intimacy is far more than the micro-moments of connection which ARE the sunlight that nourishes and heals. In vibrant, growing relationships, what you have is the privilege of experiencing a lot of micro-moments of connection, because you get to be with that person all the time. In great relationships, there’s also shared history you can draw on; there’s a sense of safety and trust and you can let your guard down; and there’s also an easy capacity to get in sync with eachother. You and your partner know how to tango, you know how to cha cha, you know how to waltz around the room—you are in rhythm, you fit, you match. Even your neuroses match. Even the ways you are weird go together. That’s what I call a soul mate. How absolutely amazing it is, to be with someone in this way. Absolutely amazing. But let’s not then say that without something like this, there’s no love. Basic love doesn’t need committed relationships to exist. Basic love is a free agent. Basic love is like sunlight and it goes everywhere.

The only thing is, can we see that? Can we get outside of our mental constructions of love and encounter the real deal?

There’s that thought that culture gives us: that love is a stable, permanent thing. But from what we’ve already seen, we know that love at its most basic comes and goes. “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone,” says writer Ursula Le Guin; “it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” Babies get it. You put down a nursing baby and immediately she’s crying because she doesn’t feel the love any more. And our need for love as adults is no less sharp.

So can we find the time to slow down and nurture more love in our lives? The speed of the Internet (with all its dating sites) is crazy fast. The speed of worklife is 100 miles an hour. But the speed of love as the body experiences it is slow as a snail. It’s as slow and gentle as the rocking motion that soothes a baby. We have to love ourselves more. We have to love others more. But in the way of slowness, in the only way the body can understand.

I’ll close with a poem. “The Word,” by Tony Hoagland:

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,
between “green thread”
and “broccoli” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”
Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful, it touches you
as if you had a friend
and sunlight were a present
he had sent you from some place distant
as this morning–to cheer you up,
and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing,
that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember
that time and light are kinds
of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder
or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue
but today you get a telegram,
from the heart in exile
proclaiming that the kingdom
still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,
to any one among them
who can find the time,
to sit out in the sun and listen.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s