Some people say, “Love is a verb.” Others say, “Love is a choice.” When they say these things, I suspect that few people mean to suggest, “Love is a facade.” But maybe it is at times. Maybe it can be.
Why do so many people fall in and out of love, sometimes even with the very same person? How can the things about them that catch our eye and enliven our heart become the very quirks that irritate us and kill our romance? In a young relationship, maybe one just learns more about the other person and can feel quite satisfied with simply explaining, “As it turns out, she’s not who I thought she was.” In other situations and as time goes on, maybe we get complacent, or perhaps something intangible changes in us. Apologetically, one might console the other by assuring him, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Or, quite defensively, one may even cry, “I can’t help the way that I feel!…or don’t feel.”
Such statements are familiar for many and, when it comes to forming and maintaining relationships, we tend to put a lot of stock in our feelings. It’s as if we actually believe that our feelings know best. As if a sustainable and healthy feeling of love for another can be reliably known upon first sight. As if our attraction for another reveals a passion that simply cannot be denied. As if our gut has intuitive knowledge of something certain, pure, and true. As if our hearts, minds, guts, and loins could not conflict with themselves or each other. As if infatuation, admiration, passion, love, lust, envy, resentment, distrust, exhaustion, and impatience are not all feelings that can grow, dwindle, intensify, disappear, erupt, and change.
For years now, as I’ve thought about what it means to really love, how to love, how to understand the experience of falling in and out of love, I’ve been haunted by a scene from the film, Paris, Je T’aime. The scene itself is ingeniously titled “Bastille,” which references an old Parisian fortress-turned-prison that has come to symbolize the numerous internal conflicts within French history. The focus of the scene is on a husband and a wife – a man and the woman he no longer loves. With an unexpected turn, he does not leave her. Instead, he ends up loving her. His loving feelings, however, were not the extension of good feelings he already felt but rather the product of much conflict. Indeed, they emerged from the opposite of feeling in love – his love was created (fabricated? faked?) until it eventually became real. Ultimately, as the film suggests, “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again.” The action – the seeming – begets the feeling, the becoming, and the being.
This story may not be real in the sense that it recounts actual events in the lives of specifically identified people, but it may be very real in the sense that it illustrates an experience that lots of people have had or one to which they can relate. And it leaves me wondering… is it possible that we can or do cultivate our feelings? If so, which is what the scene suggests (and I tend to agree), how often do we acknowledge the choice we have when it comes to how and what we feel? To what extent do we choose to be a bitter person? an unhappy person? a loving person? a generous person? a confident person? a joyful person? I resist thinking that everything boils down to a matter of conscious choice and decision-making, but I do not underestimate the plasticity of who we are, the extent to which we can change, or the influence we can have on how we go about those transformations.
Maybe it’s true, after all, that love is a verb, an action. It may also be true that love is a choice. And underneath both of those statements there seems to be the implicit recognition that love is something that isn’t always immediately felt. Sometimes it has to be performed and created. There is even a nod to the possibility that the ability to love, to repeatedly fall in love with our beloved, is something that we (can) cultivate within ourselves.
All of this may seem utterly unromantic but perhaps there is also a way to see it as actually very romantic. The other possibilities that emerge from this insight, I think, can also be quite exciting. If we can cultivate something that is presumed to be so fundamental, such as our feelings of being in love, what else do we cultivate that we might often taken for granted as natural? What else can we cultivate? These questions are important. For ethics. For politics. And most certainly, for ourselves.
(This is a theme that I’ve thought about for a very long time. Read more about it, Nietzsche, and my previous philosophical rumination about “seeming” and “being” here.)