In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

‘Aside From the Lack of Love, Everything Is Fine'

Love Is Not a Bed of Roses

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” Viktor E. Frankl

“Everything good in life
you've got to pay for
But feeling good is what you're
paving the way for
So, don't let it get you down, my friend
though it seems the blues will never end
On this you can depend, they always do
And I can tell you that it's true
it's a feeling that can't be beat
And you've got to do it
You've got to take the bitter with the sweet.” Carole King

 Many cultures have considered romantic love to be a crucial factor in achieving personal fulfillment and a happy life. However, romantic love is also a major cause of misery, as it involves many disappointments and unfulfilled hopes. Love may be wonderful and fill our heart with joy, but love also hurts a lot and can be dangerous, leading us to foolish actions. Committing suicide because of unrequited love is not an unfamiliar story; it has even been regarded as a perfect instance of true love. The hardships of finding and maintaining profound love should not imply completely giving up on such love, as profound love is a central factor in making our life meaningful and happy. I will illustrate such hardships by considering the case of Miriam.

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The true story of Miriam

Miriam was 19 when she got married. She had a boyfriend at that time and they were both madly in love with each other. However, as he was not Jewish, her parents did not want her to marry him. Instead, she married a Jewish man (who later told her that when he married her, he had believed that her parents had a lot of money—which was not entirely true). She did not love him and considered him to be inferior to her and a great compromise. She constantly thought and fantasized about her boyfriend and felt very sad during this period. She continued to stay in this distressing situation for seven years till her first child was born. From that time on, her response toward her husband could be described as neutral or emotionless. She devoted all her energy to her child and her work. A few years later another child was born. After about 18 years of marriage, Miriam met a man at her work; he was married with children. After two years of acquaintance, each of them got divorced and they married each other. (This time she divorced her Jewish husband in order to marry a non-Jewish man.) They were both madly in love with each other.

After about 10 years of marriage, her second husband, who was by then 53 years old, suddenly left her for a 29 year-old woman, who was their neighbors' daughter. This woman is of average appearance, and Miriam considers her to be just “nothing”. Miriam still loves her husband, but would not take him back if he asked. At the moment, he does not want to return to her.

A few months later, Miriam renewed contact with her first boyfriend. She has exchanged a few emails with him, but she is not trying to trigger a romantic relationship. He is married with three teenage daughters and is in the process of starting a new business. She does not want to complicate his life, although she is glad to know that he, too, has continued to think about their relationship throughout the years.

Her current husband has officially moved in with his girlfriend, and Miriam continues to realize how much better off she is without him. She feels good about moving on with her life. Aside from the lack of romance in her life, everything else is quite fulfilled. She is busy at work and seems to be constantly out with friends or relatives. For the most part, as she settles into her "new life," things seem good and she is happy. Life without romance might be good for her after having experienced such difficulties.

Miriam’s romantic life has been a mixture of the bitter with the sweet. Her life has been full of profound positive and negative romantic experiences, passionate love, as well as romantic compromises. Among Miriam’s positive profound romantic experiences, we can list her passionate relationship with her first boyfriend, and then her relationship with her lover, with whom she then enjoyed a passionate marriage. Romantic compromises are also evident in Miriam’s life: not marrying her first boyfriend because of external circumstances (the opposition of her parents); marrying someone she did not love, having loveless marriage, being unfaithful to her husband, having an unfaithful husband, being forced (by her second husband) into a divorce, and ending up being alone, apart from some nostalgic communication with her former boyfriend. Nevertheless, Miriam does not regret the upheavals in her life and still searches for yet another profound love.

Should we avoid profound romantic experiences?

Miriam’s profound negative and positive romantic experiences are not uncommon; many people experienced such ups and downs in their romantic lives. Some would be willing to give up on romance, but many more prefer to keep walking through the wild jungle of romantic love, believing that the sweet is typically accompanied by the bitter and that the combination of both is better than the lack of both.

Profound romantic experiences provide our lives with profound meaning and make us more human. Most people would rather be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. If we were to settle for a superficial life, with no profound satisfaction or dissatisfaction, we would have no incentive to pursue our ambitions or to seek deep fulfilling activities. In the long run, this would make us continuously miserable, living in a meaningless world. Gorging ourselves on consumer goods may give us short-term pleasure, but it is unlikely to make us substantially happier; gluttony is not the same as nourishment.

One explanation for the presence of evil and suffering in our world is that when we overcome evil and suffering. our life becomes happier and more meaningful. This may explain why we consider our world to be the best of all possible worlds (as the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz assumed). In the same vein, the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl claimed that “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.” Similarly, the philosopher William B. Irvine argues that humans have an inbuilt tendency to feel dissatisfied. Irvine contends that the process of evolution dictates that we should feel dissatisfied with any stable circumstance, whatever it may be. The urge for more and better has great evolutionary value. Thus, Irvine claims that early humans who basked in contentment were less likely to survive than ones with a nagging itch to better their lot.

To return to Socrates: He famously commented that having a wife is always good because if you find a good wife, you will be happy; if not, you will become a philosopher. (Xanthippe, Socrates’ young wife, was notorious for her sharp tongue and bad temper.) We may adapt Socrates' comment by saying that to experience profound love is always good: if the love continues for a long time, you will be happy; if not, you will have something to yearn for while in your current unpleasant circumstances.

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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