Sunday, September 26, 2010

Various love states

Not too long ago, someone asked me, “What’s the difference between friendship and [romantic] love?” Hard to say sometimes, especially when everything seems right between two people who hang out together.
Many people still believe that men and women cannot be friends with each other without sex entering the equation sooner or later. While this may be true, I know from personal experience that it may manifest itself as nothing more than perfectly harmless “behind thinking” - acknowledgment that you “could” get together (assuming you’re both heterosexual), but never would in a million years. (If there is more tension and attraction than that, well, things need to be discussed.)
I have felt respect and affection for many male friends, and they for me. The word “love” eventually crept into letters and even declarations after especially good visits. Some of the men involved were attached at the time, others not. But we all knew what the word meant. It made us feel good to hear it. Connected.
That kind of love has plenty in common with the common use (i.e., in a romantic context). Both imply loyalty, emotional intimacy (lots of stories and advice exchanged), affection, delight, and commiseration in times of strife. But in friendship, a line is drawn somehow. There may be physical affection – even without considering the new spin on this called “friends with benefits” – but there is no sense of belonging to each other, of being a self-contained unit, a couple.In neurological terms (can't resist), in friendship there is a brake on the release of oxytocin - and that limits the amount of intense attachment. (Adding "benefits" pushes the envelope.)
Romantic love itself is complex, as most people know by the age of, say, 15. Since it pivots on the couple, the “universe of us,” it is all-enveloping and all-consuming … until it shifts into something else. It either burns itself out, shatters on impact with undeniable and unworkable difficulties, or settles into a quieter but far stronger version of its fiery debut.
People who enter long-term relationships often bewail the settling-down stage, saying “the romance has died.” If they still really enjoy being with each other and have a friendship plus a sense of being a unit, then they are likely uninformed about the nature of human emotions (fireworks don’t last indefinitely!), and should realize how lucky they are. (A total lack of togetherness and pizzazz is another matter altogether, and indicates true trouble.)
The all-consuming stage is the exciting part: exciting like a roller coaster, a combination of near-death terror and out-of-body delight! It is probably nature’s way to get us to mate – always a dangerous enterprise, especially for women – by giving us temporary brain damage. (This may be less a joke than it sounds.) By the time we recover, we are either hip to Sweetie’s faults, or we are bound to him or her for the long haul.
In any case, the bond is what counts, not the brain damage that preceded it (as amazing as that can be).
In some ways, what happens is that a kind of friendship settles in – the best kind of friendship imaginable. You have someone there with whom you can be your truest self, and vice versa. You have shared the most intimate aspects of your mind and body. You look to the same future. You make each other grow through pruning and TLC.
The ancient Greeks saw love as eros, phileo, agape, and storge. Eros is not just sexual love, but the need to see Beauty in another another person. It is a manifestation of the life force. Phileo is love of humanity, generalized or individualized (as in love of a friend). Agape is most interesting: it is proven through selfless action rather than feeling - so is closer to the word "respect." Finally storge is the long-lasting love within a family. 
Clearly, romantic love combines or should combine all of these aspects of human emotion. Is the answer to the question: friendship is everything but eros?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Drowning in possibility"

Today, I return to one of my earlier themes on this blog, neuroscience.
I just read another of Jonah Lehrer's postings on his blog, Frontal Cortex. He asks, are distractible people more creative? As someone who is definitely both easily distracted and creative, I'd have to say yes.Others may beg to differ.
I love the quotation Lehrer takes from that great melancholy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard (author of such laugh fests as Sickness Unto Death, which I had to read in Philosophy class), undoubtedly referring to (what else?) the downside of multiple options: "Drowning in possibility."
When the mind is alert enough to pull in sights, sounds, smells, scraps of conversation, odd juxtapositions, interesting coincidences and the like, it feels like a huge gift from the universe. Poetry and other kinds of leaps of faith will arise from the synthesis of the right things rushing in together at the right time. It's a heady experience. No wonder many creative people say they feel like idle observers in the creative process: it's as if they hardly have to do any work at all to get something golden. (That's an illusion, of course. Everything involves hard work at some point - 99% perspiration, right?)
However, all that sensation rushing in can cause a log jam. That's why we need discipline, guidance from the Master, and so on. The selection process (instinct, carefully employed memory, experience, education) has to work, otherwise what occurs is far worse than an embarrassment of riches. It may bring creativity to a complete stop. (Been there, done that.)
The modern world provides access to millions of data to anyone with a computer. And yet a distractible person can be overloaded even while walking down the street. In the extreme, of course, it's mental illness.
No wonder we think there's a thin line between genius and madness. Creative people walk that line almost all the time.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Gardening as Metaphor

After this morning's rain, a cleansing wind swept in and opened the clouds. I finished reading a very good book - Allegra Goodman's latest, The Cookbook Collector - and headed to my community garden plot as the sun beamed down.
For a variety of reasons, one of them a kind of benign neglect, I have been allowing my little plot to do its own thing. Being the end of the summer, and not the middle, members of the Compositae Family tend to be most visible. Many species of sunflowers, asters, and goldenrod appear everywhere in the Eastern forest zone. The predominance of yellow hues really brings to mind light and flames. How fitting!
However, it's an embarrassment of riches. My plot is tiny, so a large Rudbeckia plant (pictured) and several Jerusalem Artichoke/sunchoke plants (Helianthus tuberosum L.) took over. My carrots, new arugula and sorrel were all overshadowed by the towering stems and foliage.
Today, since the sunchokes had stopped flowering, I felt I had permission to yank them from the soil. I pulled up about 10 plants in all, and harvested the potato-like tubers. The stems and spent flowers all went into the compost pile. Their day in the sun was over. To everything a season!
I certainly opened up the plot to what's left of the year's useful sunshine. My undernourished leaf and root crops might have a chance now.
According to Kahlil Gibran (if I recall my adolescent reading of The Prophet), "love will be your growth, but it will also be your pruning." Indeed, a very close connection to another person can lop off the odd "dead branch," much like on an old rose bush, allowing us to grow better. (I'm thinking of the loss of bad habits and routines, and openness to new plans.) Gibran also might have meant weeding the garden of the soul. Love forces us to re-evaluate ourselves by changing our surroundings like the shifting seasons; things we took for granted no longer apply, at least not in the same way. It may be comforting to cling to old ways of thinking, and allow the status quo to continue without question. However, well-timed change can do wonders.
Not too late to let in more light. In my garden, at least six weeks remain for the greens to catch up, and I may have a nice salad to go with some delicious sunchoke fritters in October.