Adele and some fundamentals about love

(to be published at Lifeissues.net)
Douglas P. McManaman

On the 14th of November of this year (2021), Adele put on a One Night Only special concert at the Griffith Observatory in Hollywood, which earned more than 10 million viewers. There were some interesting ironies in this; for all of Hollywood’s talk of inclusivity and its aversion to anything that smacks of exclusivity, this outdoor concert was only for the invited, which included the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Selena Gomez, Drake, Ellen DeGeneres, Gordon Ramsay, Seth Rogen, Tyler Perry, Lizzo, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Nicole Richie, etc. I tried to see if the uninvited “plebeians” were at least permitted onto the trails behind and around the Observatory to listen, but the trails appeared to be empty. Nonetheless, it was her interview with Oprah that was aired intermittently during the televised concert that was particularly distressing. In that interview, she spoke of her “unhappiness” and of her divorce from Simon Konecki. She had made the point earlier in her interviews with British and American Vogue that neither of them did anything wrong, that neither of them hurt one another,[1] and she pointed out to Oprah that she still loves Simon very much; but, she said, she is no longer “in love”. 

Why is this disconcerting? There are certain very basic truths that young people need to understand well, one of the most important of which is that love is not a feeling; rather, love is an act of the will. Emotion and will are two essentially different kinds of appetites. Because the human person is a “rational animal”, there are two kinds of love in the human person that correspond to the two distinct appetites: 1) love on the level of the emotions, and 2) love on the level of the will. The former we have in common with animals, and this involves loving something or, God forbid, someone, primarily for what it/him/her does for me; i.e., I love chocolate, not for the good of the chocolate, but for what it does for me–makes me feel good. But the specifically human kind of love, which the Greeks knew as agape, involves “willing the good of another for the other’s sake”. Romantic love, or eros, is fundamentally emotional; it is the passionate attraction between two people–hence, the origin of the word ‘erotic’. Conjugal or married love, on the other hand, is a type of agape. What establishes a marriage are not “feelings”, but a freely given consent or act of the will–it is a decision to give oneself entirely to another exclusively and totally, that is, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, until death severs the union. The implication here is that there are periods in married life when one does not “feel” like continuing in the relationship. A person’s love is challenged when his or her spouse is sick, perhaps sick with cancer and has lost hair or possibly more, or when both are getting on in age and do not look as attractive as they might have in their younger days, or when the couple is going through very difficult and trying situations that put a tremendous strain on the relationship, etc. Romantic love is not strong enough to act as the foundation for such a total commitment, because romantic love is temporary. One of the best chapters ever written on the nature of romantic love comes from M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled. He writes: 

Of all the misconceptions about love the most powerful and pervasive is the belief that “falling in love” is love or at least one of the manifestations of love. It is a potent misconception, because falling in love is subjectively experienced in a very powerful fashion as an experience of love. When a person falls in love what he or she certainly feels is “I love him” or “I love her.” But two problems are immediately apparent. The first is that the experience of falling in love is specifically a sex-linked erotic experience. We do not fall in love with our children even though we may love them very deeply. We do not fall in love with our friends of the same sex—unless we are homosexually oriented—even though we may care for them greatly. We fall in love only when we are consciously or unconsciously sexually motivated. The second problem is that the experience of falling in love is invariably temporary. No matter whom we fall in love with, we sooner or later fall out of love if the relationship continues long enough. This is not to say that we invariably cease loving the person with whom we fell in love. But it is to say that the feeling of ecstatic lovingness that characterizes the experience of falling in love always passes. The honeymoon always ends. The bloom of romance always fades.[2]

It is typical of adolescence to expect romantic love to last forever, but if we reflect on our own emotional experiences, we notice that the various emotional loves that we experience in our lives are always fleeting and eventually “get old”. Only agape love is enduring and humanly-divinely meaningful, for it is freely chosen–we do not choose to “fall in love”–, and agape is sacrificial and fundamentally selfless. There is nothing heroic about “falling in love” with someone, but to will the good of another and work to achieve that good, regardless of how one feels, all throughout a life that has its share of difficult and trying moments, is truly heroic. If young people graduate from high school without a firm grasp of these basic truths and are allowed to remain under the illusion that married love is essentially “romantic” (erotic, emotional) in nature, we should expect to see a continued decline in marriage with all its social repercussions, which in all likelihood directly impact teachers much more than those of any other profession.  

Another important revelation for young people that came out of Adele’s interview with Oprah was her admission that she was unhappy. This is a woman who is universally admired as one of the best voices of all time, a woman who has more money than the vast majority of us will ever see in our lifetime, who can purchase almost anything that money can buy, and who is practically treated as a goddess wherever she goes, etc. The obvious implication is that happiness does not consist in money, wealth, financial security, comforts, pleasures, fame and honors, etc. Adele seems to understand that happiness has something to do with love, but she conflates authentic love with the experience of “falling in love” and expects romantic love to endure. 

Once again, however, a very basic principle of the moral life is that happiness is virtue, not pleasure, honors, fame and power. Moreover, genuine love is channelled through virtue; for it is the virtues that dispose the emotions to follow the demands of reason, and the emotions have an innate need to be guided by reason. When the emotions are so governed, they become more fully what they are intended to be, and the result is that the virtuous person is much more passionate than he or she otherwise would be. It is for this reason that happiness is difficult to achieve–because virtue is difficult. If happiness were as easy as falling in love, and if romantic love were permanent as young people tend to believe it to be, we’d be living in heaven on earth. But happiness is work, it is an achievement, a moral achievement, one that is rooted ultimately in the will, not the emotions. When a married person is no longer ‘in love’, that’s when the difficult work of genuine love begins–unless of course one turns one’s back on one’s spouse in the pursuit of adolescent excitement. 

Genuine love, and thus real joy, demands an “exit of self”. Consider that the word ecstasy is derived from the Greek word ekstasis, which means ‘to stand outside of oneself’. That is why those who are inordinately preoccupied with themselves, that is, with their body image, with how they are feeling at every moment of every day, with their own personal state of happiness, etc., are always unhappy. But the more a person exits the self in a self-forgetting posture of genuine agape love of others, the more that person finds himself, or herself, and marriage is precisely that context in which the conditions for a continuous exit of self are established. If the highest and most noble kind of love were romantic love, marriage would be the last place to secure the conditions of its continuance. That is why when love was identified with eros in the period of the late 60s and 70s, marriage went on the decline, and rapidly so. Adele says she’s been on a journey to find her true happiness ever since, but hopefully the majority of those ten million viewers understand that we only really find our true happiness when we no longer search for it, but forget about it, and focus on willing, despite our feelings, the true good of others, first and foremost our own spouse. 

Notes

1. Christina Montford. “Adele Reveals the Real Reason She Got Divorced”. <https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/adele-reveals-real-reason-got-divorced.html/> Showbiz Cheatsheet. Oct 8th, 2021. 

2. He writes: “Falling in love is not an act of will. It is not a conscious choice. No matter how open to or eager for it we may be, the experience may still elude us. Contrarily, the experience may capture us at times when we are definitely not seeking it, when it is inconvenient and undesirable. We are as likely to fall in love with someone with whom we are obviously ill matched as with someone more suitable. Indeed, we may not even like or admire the object of our passion, yet, try as we might, we may not be able to fall in love with a person whom we deeply respect and with whom a deep relationship would be in all ways desirable. This is not to say that the experience of falling in love is immune to discipline. Psychiatrists, for instance, frequently fall in love with their patients, just as their patients fall in love with them, yet out of duty to the patient and their role they are usually able to abort the collapse of their ego boundaries and give up the patient as a romantic object. The struggle and suffering of the discipline involved may be enormous. But discipline and will can only control the experience; they cannot create it. We can choose how to respond to the experience of falling in love, but we cannot choose the experience itself.

Falling in love is not an extension of one’s limits or boundaries; it is a partial and temporary collapse of them. The extension of one’s limits requires effort; falling in love is effortless. Lazy and undisciplined individuals are as likely to fall in love as energetic and dedicated ones. Once the precious moment of falling in love has passed and the boundaries have snapped back into place, the individual may be disillusioned, but is usually none the larger for the experience. When limits are extended or stretched, however, they tend to stay stretched. Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience. Falling in love is not. 

Falling in love has little to do with purposively nurturing one’s spiritual development. If we have any purpose in mind when we fall in love it is to terminate our own loneliness and perhaps insure this result through marriage. Certainly we are not thinking of spiritual development. Indeed, after we have fallen in love and before we have fallen out of love again we feel that we have arrived, that the heights have been attained, that there is both no need and no possibility of going higher. We do not feel ourselves to be in any need of development; we are totally content to be where we are. Our spirit is at peace. Nor do we perceive our beloved as being in need of spiritual development. To the contrary, we perceive him or her as perfect, as having been perfected. If we see any faults in our beloved, we perceive them as insignificant—little quirks or darling eccentricities that only add color and charm.

If falling in love is not love, then what is it other than a temporary and partial collapse of ego boundaries? I do not know. But the sexual specificity of the phenomenon leads me to suspect that it is a genetically determined instinctual component of mating behavior. In other words, the temporary collapse of ego boundaries that constitutes falling in love is a stereotypic response of human beings to a configuration of internal sexual drives and external sexual stimuli, which serves to increase the probability of sexual pairing and bonding so as to enhance the survival of the species. Or to put it in another, rather crass way, falling in love is a trick that our genes pull on our otherwise perceptive mind to hoodwink or trap us into marriage. Frequently the trick goes awry one way or another, as when the sexual drives and stimuli are homosexual or when other forces—parental interference, mental illness, conflicting responsibilities or mature self-discipline— supervene to prevent the bonding. On the other hand, without this trick, this illusory and inevitably temporary (it would not be practical were it not temporary) regression to infantile merging and omnipotence, many of us who are happily or unhappily married today would have retreated in wholehearted terror from the realism of the marriage vows.” The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. M.D.Touchstone Books. 1978. p. 84-90.

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