LOYALTY IN LOVE
WRITING of love and marriage in Virginibus Puerisque, Stevenson says, —
‘I hate questioners and questions. “Is it still the same between us ?” Why, how can it be? It is eternally different and yet you are still the friend of my heart. “ Do you understand me ? ” God knows; I should think it highly improbable.’
Stevenson hated such questions because he found it impossible to answer them truly. Put I wager that he hated them also because of their dearth of venture and generosity. Such a timid questioner, anxiously scanning the weather-gauge of affection, finds it steadily falling toward zero. Under such anxious observation no love can grow or flourish. We need not contribute all the warmth without waiting to be invited, but surely we must contribute some of it.
I lived for a time some years ago in a community whose members seemed to me more tempest-tossed and unhappy than any human beings I have ever known. They were so ‘stupid in the affections’that they had never learned the most elementary lesson about human relationships, —that a passive attitude never works. Two of them happened to notice that they felt fond of each other; they married. Shortly afterward they observed no particular fondness for each other, and therefore separated. The winds of feeling blew them now together, now apart. Mated or severed, they drifted quite helpless, and apparently quite unaware that they could do anything to help themselves or to maintain any single direction among the veering currents of feeling.
Probably every one of them knew that, if he consulted his feelings each morning as to whether he should wash his face or not, he would find the forces of desire often at the zero point or on the negative side of the scale. But being moderns they probably paid no attention to their feelings as regards so important a matter as cleanliness! In all practical affairs (among which the average American does not include affection) we know that loyal adherence to one’s original intention, however one happens to feel, is one of the greatest forces that make for success. Passivity, reliance on the moment’s whim, literalism in reading the face of the future or of the present, is fatal to happiness and to success. No business venture and no human creature can bear the passive stare of the utterly disengaged soul.
Chesterton reminds us that if we face man with the cold and fishy eye of science, we cannot overlook the ludicrous and damning fact that he has two legs. To see him waddling over the ground on these two points of support is more, he says, than any one could bear with composure, did he not view the apparition with a gaze tempered by affection, good nature, and faith. Yet, as he tells us, there is one still more unforgivable fact about man when we view him with the literal eye. How can one ever again view with favor, still less with love, a being whom one has actually caught in the act of making an opening in his face into which he puts portions of the outer world ?
The point of these illustrations is this. Without commitment, faith, the power to distinguish and disregard what is unessential, there is no stability in any human relation. It takes but little experience to show us that no human being is merely what he is seen to be at any one moment . He can no more display himself in a single act or a single year than a musical theme can be expressed in one of its notes. A musical theme is all that it can become before the desire which launched it is slaked. So a human being is in truth all that he has been and can become, not because he now embodies it, but because that vast arc is the only sufficient explanation of his behavior, the only working basis for affection.
But this attainable personality he certainly will not attain without your help. His fate is determined in part by what you do about it, and the most important thing that you can do is to expect of him always a little more than you can see, projecting your vision toward the unseen depths of his soul, not arbitrarily but in the direction suggested by what he has already done.
This creative act of loyalty as it overcomes another’s diffidence is not unlike a football team ‘getting the jump on’ its opponents. The opposing teams face each other in the rush line. The game, pausing after one of its ‘downs,’ is renewed. Each side tries to push the other backward. But it is not chiefly a predominance in weight or in strength that determines which line shall make an advance, which shall yield. It is rather a question of alertness. One of the teams will ‘get the jump on’ the other by being the first to lunge forward. Whichever succeeds in preempting this initial ictus, takes the other slightly at a disadvantage and puts himself into a correspondingly stronger position. The opponent’s disadvantage still further weakens his opposition and lets the successful team advance with increased momentum.
You can ‘get. the jump on’ another’s diffidence if you shoot into his soul a message of welcome, of encouragement, of faith in his power to do something better than he has yet done. You do not wait for him to show his best. Your impulse of welcome breaks down his reserve, melts his shyness, and brings him nearer to the thing that you expect of him. This is mirrored in his face. You see it, and your original faith is reinforced. You follow up the trail of sparks which you have spied within him; the spirit and exuberance of the quest redoubling in him the fire which you seek.
No one can set a limit to this wonderful give-and-take, as the lightning of two souls leaps back and forth. Yet it is no mystical or unusual affair. Emerson referred to something of the kind when he said,—
‘I have heard with admiring submission the experience of the lady who declared that “the sense of being well dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow.” ’1
Mr. Slack, a timid citizen, emerges from his door unusually well dressed, and thereby ‘gets the jump on’ his passing friend Bouncer. The good impression made upon Bouncer is written in his face and instantly makes him more attractive and stimulating to Slack, who brightens and responds by giving something better than his ordinary pale gruel of talk; a delightful exchange is set in oscillation, the day becomes brighter, and the two march downtown to business in a path of glory.
This process of ‘getting the jump on’ any one is an expression in modern slang of a spiritual truth which sustains the life of industry, invigorates science as well as religion, and is the essence of psycho-therapeutic ‘suggestion.’
A fine example of this occurs in Shakespeare’s Henry V. The king is before Harfleur. His soldiers lean on their scaling ladders, taking breath in a pause of the fight. By all they hold sacred in home and country Henry urges them once more to the attack. Then his creative faith breaks loose: —
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot;
Follow your spirit: and, upon this charge,
Cry — God for Harry! England! and Saint George! ’
He saw them straining, — yes, with the eye of faith. They tugged like greyhounds in the slips,—especially after he had recognized their eagerness. He brought to birth in them more spirit than had otherwise been born, and they in turn brought to his lips, as he faced them, the very nobility of his words. A disloyal or uninterested spectator would have seen merely a crowd of dirty, sweaty soldiers. King Henry saw that, too. But within the gross total of what he saw, he selected and summoned forth what most belonged to him and to them, — their germinating souls, their destiny, the courage which they had when he believed in it, not otherwise.
Thus the best of one’s loyalties, those to vocation and to one’s mate, begin—with a choice. With this profession, with this person, we determine to unite our forces. But if we are to keep these pledges and preserve the spirit of youth, the initial choice must be renewed again and again. After choosing the physician’s calling, I have still to determine what sort of physician, and finally what particular physician, I shall be. Within the broad field of medical service I must select the kind of work (research, teaching, public health, surgery, midwifery, general practice) which is best suited to me and seems most needed at the present time. Then within that field I must find some particular path, some combination of methods and manners which are individual and progressive. Year by year the choice is thus revived and made more sharply distinctive. Success and happiness demand that it shall be so.
It is the same in marriage or in friendship. Again and again we repeat and reform our original choice. Within the domain of our friend’s life we find a certain corner (his recreation, perhaps) where we can contribute something to enrich the friendship. There are other parts — say his family life — where, with our present ignorance, we are in the way. We choose and cultivate the parts that we are fit for, leaving the rest for the present undisturbed. Next year, when we come to choose again, we may be able to direct our efforts more effectively. Here we can learn; there we are baffled. Here we are in full sympathy; there we are in the dark. We select and select again, as often as a wave of enlightenment strikes us.
But selection goes further still. There are double and triple meanings in many of your friend’s remarks. You can make a sentence or a person mean different things by the emphasis you put on selected bits. Then if you are tactful, you pick out and answer the meaning most in harmony with the whole texture of your friendship; the other meanings you ignore. I do not mean anything subtle. A woman hears in her husband’s greeting at night fatigue, anxiety, a shade of irritability and a touch of playfulness. She ignores all but the playfulness, and by encouraging that healing element helps him to recover his balance. Just so she starves out some of her child’s faults by choosing to ignore them and to cultivate his best.
You can be willful and cruel instead of beneficial in this selection, or in all innocence you may go clean astray, but you cannot escape the necessity of choice by remaining passive, for even passivity is never neutral. It reinforces some element in your friend’s character. If you decline to choose, the wheel of chance makes selection for you.
An old Scotch phrase describes a lively companion as ‘good at the uptake.’ He is responsive, always ready to help out, always keen for the game. If he pauses it is but to make sure what game it is. On such responsiveness friendship thrives. When we ask a friend for the loan of his cloak he is swift to strip off his coat also. When we ask for advice he gives us also sympathy. Later, as an historian, he may place and judge us, but now and as a man of action he takes his chances and contributes to fate his best strength.
To meet our opportunity as Newton met the falling apple, to greet our friend as the ‘wasteful woman’ greeted Jesus when she poured out the box of precious ointment (and was chidden by the onlookers for doing so much more than was demanded), this is the way not only to friendship, success, and health, but to originality and creative power. It is when we ‘greet the unseen with a cheer’ that we and our opportunity enter into one another. Then of our union something new is born.
In love, as in work and in play, giveand-take is the great source of novelty, of creativeness, and so of miracle. Therefore between friends there should grow up a child,—new truth and vision sprung from both. This miracle of sprouting friendship and truth is not best described as ‘giving’ or ‘getting.’ It buds while we talk or merely sit together — fruit of our lives like other children, common delight to all, gift of God to all. Each of us contributes something; God over our shoulders contributes far more, which neither of us is conscious of giving, but each of receiving.
Friends always face the unseen child of their friendship, if they are true to their unspoken oath. Faithfulness to this child should guide every moment, every sentence. In every hearty handclasp, in every flash of eye to eye, something new is created. As you speak to a responsive friend you feel him speaking through your surprised lips. Then your words live and fit the occasion. We would eagerly thank our friend for giving us such thoughts to utter. But it is rather God’s bounty — his perpetual miracle of new life sprung up between our two lives — that deserves our gratitude.
For our ‘child’ and in his name, we can accept laudation without shame or self-consciousness, just as we welcome money for precious ends. For the work, or the new insight which we create together, we can take — nay, demand ‘favors’ which modesty would prevent our taking for our naked self, unclothed by the loyalties which dignify our clay. We can accept money, time, love, in quite an amazing way, provided it is for the palace we are building. For this palace is one not built with hands, — eternal in the heavens.
IMPERSONALITY IN LOVE
One of the most sacred things about human ties is this, that in any intimate and sincere affection you discover what is unique and, choosing it out of all the world, unite yourself with it. To you if you love your father there is literally no one else like him on earth. To outsiders he looks much like the rest of mankind, not so to you. It is true that you did not choose your parents, yet much that is most precious in your family tie is of your own making. Your own family life you have helped to build up; the family jokes and customs, the pet words, tones, and gestures are sacred to you in part because you have helped to create them by what you have encouraged and what you have discouraged.
The more durable relationships are moulded and perfected by a multitude of distinctions. If these distinctions are blurred, the love within us that should go to build up a family life, a centre for our other activities, may burst its proper channels as electricity darts from the overcharged wire, destroying itself and other lives outside. When marriage is late or unhappy, because of poverty, because people cannot find their mates, or for less worthy reasons, love becomes impersonal, a blind, gigantic world-energy, hardly a blessing, easily a curse. When it fails to build up a home or a happiness, it may ennoble us like any other lost cause; failing that, it may drag us lower than the beast.
In perverted forms love falls from the spiritual heights of choice and mutual understanding, and is swept into a current where there are no distinctions between right and wrong, between higher and lower, between person and person, or between person and thing. The essential shame of perverted affection is it s impersonality. It is so impartial that almost anything will serve its purpose. Losing the miraculous clearsightedness of loyal love, we are mastered by the blind vague urgings of a force that stupefies and debases us until we bump up against a human being as though he were a post. Persons are treated like machines. Indeed, a clever machine might do as well.
If I am right in charging up the sins of the flesh to the score of impersonality, the scope of our campaigns against them must be widened and the tone of our just condemnations must be changed. In a recent book called Hygiene and Morality (though it deals almost wholly with disease and immorality) the great power of the truth is weakened by a bitterness which stimulates that most disastrous of all class antagonisms, the antagonism of women against men.
Such bitterness would be impossible if we realized that the essence of the sin against which we fight is impersonality, — the sin of treating a person as less than a person. For is it not a sin of which all are guilty? Is there one of us who does not sometimes treat a person like a machine? Do we always think of the railroad conductor as more than a machine for taking tickets? Do we not often treat our fellow creatures like masks on flat cards without substance and personality? I have been striving for years to overcome in myself and in my medical fellows the professional habit of treating a personas a ‘case’ or a walking disease. But the habit of impersonality persists, like original sin, in myriad forms and unexpected ways. In law courts we treat a human being as a ‘prisoner at the bar,’as the ‘plaintiff,’ or ‘defendant,’ to the exclusion of the fact that he is as real and sensitive as ourselves.
I often hear my faculty colleagues talk about ‘the student,’ his failings and malefactions. But few of the teachers who speak in this way know their students even by name. They are further still from grasping the personalities which make up their classes. Yet merely from the point of view of success in teaching, it is folly not to know those whom we are trying to teach. I have often found that after a man has given me the opportunity to learn something of his personal life, his home and family, his hopes and forebodings, he begins to do better work in class. Such improvement goes to show that we never get the best out of people so long as we treat them as a class, ignoring the unique interest and value of each individual. Love at its best is a command as well as a desire and an intimacy. Its law reads, ‘Find and create a new personality in so far as loyalty to your previous pledges and insights allows you.’
If your love is pledged to one God, it is sacrilege to worship others. If you have sworn fealty to one country, it is treason to work against it in the interest of another. If you commit yourself to the faith of Christ, you cannot experiment, with teachings which contradict it, unless you first renounce your faith. You hate to see a dilettante meander from flower to flower of literature, or friendship, because you know that such a life is full of broken pledges and is falling apart from the rottenness of its own structure.
But in many of our most poignant experiences we seem to love what is impersonal, and to make no pledges of loyalty. When a man drinks his wine or jumps into a mountain stream for pleasure, we do not reproach him with unfaithfulness or brutality. Some people certainly love animals as much as they do human beings. I think that Emerson preferred companionship with trees, flowers, brooks, and skies to the company of men and women. Many a musician loves music, many a poet loves ‘inanimate’ nature as passionately as he is capable of loving any being. Yet these affections seem to involve no loyalty. We turn from one to another in a way that would be villainous if we were dealing with persons.
Love of food and warmth, of reading and sewing, of adventure and research, love of beauty — these may be very lukewarm emotions in some of us, yet no cooler than our love of persons. From birth to death, tepid may be the hottest one knows in human relation, and there is no standard of normal temperature in affection. Neither is there any standard for the degree of personality which we should recognize in our fellow men. Most of us can be justly blamed, when we stumble over a fellow creature as if he (or she) were a chair — most of us, but not all.
On a crowded sidewalk of the tenement district have you never felt a baby wandering between your legs and fending you off with its hands precisely as if you were a tree? A few years later he will duck and dodge around your person in the heat of an exciting pursuit, with just as little realization of your august and delicate soul! Such impersonality is normal enough in babyhood. But some of us grow long and wide, put on the dress and occupation of adults, and are piloted about the streets, without ever ceasing to be babies at heart, without ever acquiring the heart that recognizes a person as a person. More often we get over the baby’s absent-mindedness but never grow beyond, say, the ten-year-old’s or the adolescent’s limited sense of individuality.
Swedenborg expresses this by saying that, in its early and elemental forms, our love is attracted by sex, not yet by one of the sex. Even in babyhood girls may show a decided preference for men. Love of a whole sex is already awake in them, but they are rarely devoted to one man to the exclusion of all others. A newcomer is especially welcomed. This means that their love is at first general and vague, though later it may attach itself to one individual and cleave to him, forsaking all others. This lesson we sometimes fail to learn. We then remain impersonal and desire the emotions of love, as many people desire the emotions of music, without any awareness of an individual, or of the meaning of the piece. To yield to such a desire is villainy in case we really know better (as we usually do); but not otherwise. When we listen to good music we are actually listening to the outpourings of the composer’s heart. He is speaking to us earnestly and intensely, and we are listening to him, not to it. And yet it is often no crime to drink in music merely as pleasure; indeed for most people it cannot be a crime because they know no better. But it is always a ghastly mistake, for it is treating music, which is a bit of a person’s life, as a means of sensual gratification.
Do not misunderstand me. I condemn the act of man or woman who, knowing the nature of the act, uses another as a means of pleasure. But I insist that there are some who do not know the nature of their acts, loose livers who have no more idea that they are dealing with immortal souls than most of us have when we drink in an artist’s music merely for our pleasure. Ignorance is often their curse. Sin there may be, but if so, it is the sin of impersonality and of sentimentalism. For the rake is a sentimentalist, — that is, he loves emotion for its own sake. He will take or buy emotion from many, just as a girl may dissipate her energies in a multitude of suitors or novels, sucking in the enjoyment for its own sake without answering by word or deed, without learning anything or building anything out of the experience. Her mind is too feeble to recognize individuality, and to treat it accordingly. Let us blame her as we blame the ignorant sexual offender. For if we exclude (as in some cases we can) the evils of disease, alcoholism, slavery, secrecy, and violation of marriage vows, the curse of prostitution is this: it involves degradation because it treats life as less than life. That is a grievous error, but one of which every one of us is guilty in some degree.
To recognize the universality of the sin which we are discussing makes us condemn ourselves enough and others enough, but no one too much. It is essentially the same sin which we meet in many forms, in official insolence, in professional blindness to the person behind the medical or legal case, in heartless gossip, flirtation, prostitution.
Have I been justified in using the sacred word love so broadly as to include sex-relations outside marriage? It is easier and cheaper to draw a sharp distinction between love and the more elemental sex-relations which we condemn as merely ‘physical’ or brutal. But I believe that the use of these distinctions often does harm. To condemn even the most impersonal and momentary attraction as ‘merely physical,’ is like calling a man a mere brute, or a child a mere blockhead. The name of the act tends to brand itself on the person, and to degrade him at a time when he most needs help.
Call a dog a bad name and hang him. Throw mud enough and some of it will stick. The more degraded a man is the more he is hurt by our contempt. But in their ordinary context ‘merely physical’ or ‘mere lust’ are words of contempt, not of scientific description. To condemn any conscious human act by calling it ‘merely physical’ is not only bad psychology: it is an attempt to push a living act out among the dead, and the attempt may succeed. It is like cutting an acquaintance or disdaining a poor relation. Just when an act is most in need of improvement, we damn it with a phrase. Just when a traveler is most dreadfully astray from his road, we dishearten him by telling him that he has no road. In the less personal types of love, falsely called ‘physical,’ an elemental impulse, almost blind to the sacred meaning of its trend, is groping its way along. We should help it to find its goal, instead of branding it as forever outcast. If I think of my sight and my hearing as ‘merely physical,’ or if I am convinced that I am tone-deaf and color-blind, in either event no spiritual comprehension of music and color is possible for me. I can only give up trying.
Those who are color-blind and tonedeaf in their affections are rare. They include, among others, the ‘moral imbeciles ’ of the courts. If we have accurately named them, they cannot do right or wrong, and cannot be hurt or helped, whatever term we apply to them. But in the vast majority of instances we apply these terms with reproach and condemnation. First we separate body and soul by an impassable chasm; then we attempt to spiritualize and subdue the body. A hundred recent books on ‘sex-hygiene’ tell us that we should teach the sacredness of the body and of sex. But the instant we have branded love as ‘ body ’ or as ‘sex’ we have begun to deprive it of sacredness. For the sacredness of love comes from choice, and a ‘body’ cannot choose. The sacredness of love springs from enthusiasm and self-direction such as no ‘body’ possesses.
It is with an instinct that we are dealing, and the sacredncss of an instinct is developed by showing its profound though vague spirituality. The lower can be rationally governed by the higher only if they share a common nature. Passion can be mastered only by an intenser passion, not by any power that stands aloof and contemptuously denies its kinship. Personality is what we want in love, because personality is always both physical and spiritual. In the impersonal, one of these elements often seems to get lost, though it is never gone beyond recovery.
- R. W. Emerson: ‘ Social Aims,’ in Letters and Social Aims.↩