In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Darling, Are You Aware of Your Limitations?

"Nothing you confess could make me love you less."

"If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name in Swiss bank." Woody Allen

"Nothing you confess could make me love you less." The Pretender

Imagination in general (and desires in particular) may take us to an exciting dreamland, enabling us to go beyond our limitations. While this might make us aware of our limitations, it can also make us believe-usually incorrectly-that we can overcome these limitations. Such a profound human predicament is noticeable in romantic love.

The disparity between our imagination (or more specifically, human desires) and our actual experiences is expressed in several incongruities: (a) We are aware of experiences that we want but may not have; (b) We are aware of experiences that we do not want but may eventually have; (c) We are aware of experiences that we can have, but do not want to pursue.

The first incongruity typical of human beings is that we desire much more than we actually have or may have. This incongruity is related to the fact that we have limited capacities and finite resources, but our desires are practically almost infinite and limitless. Given this incongruity, some human desires are doomed to remain unfulfilled; in these cases, human existence becomes a kind of unfinished business involving a never-ending, unsuccessful struggle to overcome our limitations. Narrowing the gap between what we desire and what we actually do is often done by compromising our desires, or more specifically, by changing our view and expectations of reality. This is a relatively intelligent choice, since it is so much harder to change reality than to change our expectations of it. Nevertheless, compromising our desires and hopes is very difficult to bear.

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The second incongruity, that is, recognizing that undesirable experiences that we do not want may eventually occur in our lives, is clearly expressed in our transient existence and bodily deterioration in old age. Our imaginative capacity enables us to refer not only to a prosperous future, but to a depressing one as well. We can, for instance, imagine ourselves living happily ever after, but we are aware that life is brief and death is imminent. People can imagine themselves young forever, and yet they are aware that they will get older. This incongruity is expressed in the case of a man who, while himself engaged in an extramarital affair theoretically agrees that his wife is equally entitled to such an affair, yet cannot bear to sustain the vivid image of his wife having intercourse with another man.

The third incongruity, which refers to what we can attain but do not want to pursue, stems from our need to establish a normative set of priorities to govern our behavior. If the previous type of incongruity is characterized by wanting more than we can have, in this type, we reject something that we can actually have. Desires may remain unfulfilled due to limited capacities, scarce resources, and external barriers; however an additional reason is an inherent incongruity in our complex sets of values, when we value and desire things that are not compatible. Thus, people may enjoy smoking but do not pursue this enjoyable activity because of its health risk. A married person's decision not to have an affair is another example of a normative decision not to pursue something desirable.

Moral dilemmas force us to establish a set of priorities, which implies choosing not to pursue things or activities that are valuable or desirable to us. We are able to reject what we desire or to violate what we value because we are capable of imagining its future negative effect on things that we value even more. To say that not all values are compatible is to say that they cannot all be realized simultaneously, not that they cannot all simultaneously be regarded as valuable. Hence, we may not pursue all of them together, but we may still believe in their adequacy. Establishing an order of preference, which is an essential human activity, often implies violating normative boundaries. In this sense, we may speak about the pain of choice, which is so typical of human experience.

The above incongruities, which emphasize the limitations and deficiencies of human life, generate profound human predicaments along the axes of the actual and the desirable. The presence of such incongruities generates intense emotions. Realizing the presence of unavailable desirable experiences or inevitable undesirable experiences may be frustrating. However, the presence of positive imaginable experiences can divert our attention from these harsh realities and make us feel better.

The perceived importance of love and its intoxicating desires may cause people to overlook human limitations. For example, people may think that their love can be indiscriminate. However, as Harry Frankfurt argues, only for an infinite being such as God, who has no limitations, can love be simultaneously intimate and indiscriminate; only God can romantically love everyone. God can fulfill all his desires without fear of loving unwisely; God need not be cautious about his love. Unlike the safe, indiscriminate love of God, we are vulnerable creatures whose love must be limited. Hence, we must invest ourselves in love wisely. We must set boundaries and accept our limitations. The attempt to fulfill all our desires can be quite harmful for us.

To be sure, imagination has a lot of advantages; thus, imagining an alternative to a present situation is crucial for the generation of emotions. Hence, the purpose of this post was not to paint a dark picture of the world, but rather to describe the possible mental incongruities in order to know how to cope with them. Knowing our limitations is often associated with great emotional and moral values.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, I know that you may desire someone who is better looking, wiser and wealthier than me (though the probability of finding such a person is practically zero). However, in view of your given limitations, having me as your romantic partner is already well beyond your limitations and exceeds the realistic expectations that your mother might have."

 

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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