The Call of Duty: Your Heart May Call, the Beloved Isn’t Obliged To Answer.

Call of DutyRecently, I ended up on the wanting end of a “I-want-more-than-you-want” affair. Contrary to what you might expect, it was a pretty positive experience.

Things worked out well for two reasons. First, and most importantly, she was upfront and very clear about what she wanted — or did not want — at this point in her life. Second, I was able to adjust my expectations based on a fairly important insight: my feelings for a person don’t create any duties, responsibilities, or obligations for that person.

So, instead of anxiously fretting over what I didn’t have and wasn’t going to get, I was able instead to focus on what we both wanted in the here and now, and, as a result, some good to beautiful memories were made and no one hurt anyone else in the process.

I probably should be clear: this is a “way-to-go-brain” post and not a “woe-is-me” post. I mention the backstory only to provide context for the important insight that one’s feelings for another person do not create duties, responsibilities, or obligations in that person. Only a person’s choices, actions, and/or promises create duties which he or she is obliged to respect.

It’s an important insight and, I think, relevant to all relationships, romantic or otherwise. I suspect also that there are many people who would be a lot happier, if they also learned to adjust their expectations based on it.

The Relationship Calculation: What Motivates Your Pair-Bond?

BondsFor most of human history, a pair-bond between humans has almost always been a kind of business deal, whether the deal was struck by two families on behalf of the prospective business partners or by the partners themselves. In this model, the pair-bond is normally expected to be created by the agreement to share the costs and benefits of raising children, maintaining property, and supporting each other’s families. Arranged pair-bonds (e.g. arranged marriages) tend to make sense; romantic and sexual love is nice, but hardly necessary. What really matters is that the couple gets along reasonably well and that their families do, too.

Even now, in the developed world, as the relevance of child-rearing and one’s duties to the extended family diminishes, it seems to me, very many people still make sense of their pair-bond in terms not unlike a business deal. The main difference is that it is the relationship itself that is now the enterprise, whatever its outputs may be. The pair-bond motivates or is created by an agreement to share the costs and benefits of the relationship. The fact of the relationship is the primary good and each partner makes concessions to ensure the relationship continues. In this model, arranged pair-bonds still make a lot of sense (hello, eHarmony); romantic and sexual love is yet again a nice to have, but not a must have. What really matters is that the couple gets along reasonably well and that their friends and families do, too.

If one wants to raise a family or have a relationship for its own sake, either of these kinds of pair-bonds make a lot of sense. On the other hand, if one doesn’t want or need any of these things and one isn’t required by social norms to have them anymore, neither of these pair-bonds make a lot of sense. To put it more simply, it doesn’t make much sense to take on any of the costs associated with the pair-bond, if one doesn’t want any of its benefits. Moreover, there are also many other benefits that one must deny oneself in a pair-bond. Which is to say, the great increase in the number of single person dwellings in recent years can probably be explained by this simple calculation. For many people, the costs of a pair-bond and/or cohabitation outweigh its benefits.

For me, personally, the point of a pair-bond has always been the experience of love, especially an experience of love that exists at the intersection of eros and a secular version of kenosis, which involves the lover rather than God, and kenshō. Sure, I can see the benefits of a partnership for the sake of children, family, and property, but, for me, the benefits and purpose of the relationship are one in the same: love, tenderness, trust, and all that gooey stuff.

For the record, part of me recognizes that there is more than a measure of adolescent selfishness in the priority I place on the experience of love. There’s also another part of me that sometimes worries that this emphasis on the experience of love treats the beloved as a mere means to the end of experiencing love.

Ultimately, I say, fuck it. I am very lucky to live in this unique time in human history, a time when I can give priority to this experience, so, if and when I am so lucky to find it, I will try and enjoy it for as long as I can. Furthermore, I don’t think there’s even an opportunity for the experience of love, unless the other person is an equal participant. One must see the other as an absolute end before truly losing oneself therein.

Returning to the beginning, I guess the point of all this is to admit that, even though I understand the reasoning behind a marriage for the sake of children, property, family, or for the sake of a relationship in its own right, I don’t really understand why one, in the age of reliable contraception, would pursue the practical relationship rather than the one that is quasi-mystical.

Of course, the age of reliable contraception has been a short one and you probably have children or have the opportunity to have children, whereas I currently do not. From the perspective of evolution, it is clear who is the winner and who is not. Having said that, I’m sure (or hope, maybe) that very many babies have been born and well-raised in the name and glow of ooey-gooey love. In the age of reliable contraception, however, we romantics, in the name of love, might eventually eliminate ourselves from the gene pool.

Ain’t Nothing but Mammals: Do the Reasons for Attachment Matter?

AttachmentsA friend recently made the point to me that a woman’s decision to go home with a man on any given night might be something that simply happens, without explanation, and for no particular reason. I’ve been trying to figure out why I find the plausibility of this claim unsettling.

On the face of it, it certainly does seems plausible. From a biological perspective, we are on this planet because we mate, we mated long before the reason-giving part of our brain was fully functional, so, maybe, like so many of our decisions, the decision to mate happens at a level of cognition that predates and precedes the storytelling part of our brains. In other words, we don’t mate for any particular reason or reasons. We simply mate and, then, some of us tell elaborate stories to explain why we mated.

And for some reason, I find this conclusion very upsetting. If I dig down and settle into it, it creates in me a body-deep feeling that I don’t know how to describe, before it veers off into good old fashioned sadness. The weight of the feeling, the experience of the feeling, the profoundness of the feeling, the depths to which it invades my body is comparable to the feeling that comes when I reflect too long on the non-experience of death and the fact that my experience of life won’t exist one day. The two feelings are different, but the impact of the feelings are comparable.

Which, for me, is perplexing. I’m not upset by the fact that the universe, the planet, the species, and my life exist for no particular reason. Furthermore, I’m not at all upset by the fact that it is entirely arbitrary when and where I bump into a potential mate. I know and accept the fact of all this arbitrariness right up until the point of attachment. For some reason, I want that attachment to be motivated by a reason that isn’t arbitrary and that is directly connected to the people involved.

At this point, I should probably state specifically that what’s at issue here is much more than getting laid on any given Friday. It seems to me that, if the basic claim is true, it is probably true of the whole gamut of human attachments. From the perspective of my friend’s claim, we may form all of our attachments arbitrarily. They simply happen, one moment or the other, for this reason or that. Humans, from this view, are simply sticky beings. Sometimes, we stick to other humans that we have bumped into, and then we play out the consequences of those accidental stickings.

Because I’ve come to accept the more fundamental arbitrariness of existence, it puzzles me that I find this claim about human attachment so upsetting. Of course, to be honest, I probably shouldn’t claim that I’m not upset by the fact that I won’t exist one day. More accurately, I have come up with a series of reasons, a way of thinking, a story to tell, which allows me to enjoy and cherish living, even in the face of certain oblivion. The mammal in me, however, whenever I force it confront the fact of it’s own oblivion is very very upset by that certain oblivion.

There is, of course, a very important difference between the claim about my existence and the claim about human relationships. Most importantly, I know we are dust. Even if we develop an immortality pill, the sun, the universe, everything, it’s all going to end at some point. Period. Not even an exclamation mark. Ellipsis are probably the most appropriate punctuation to use here. In contrast, I don’t know that humans are sticky beings, that we develop relationships and form attachments arbitrarily. It’s a plausible theory, but one that might be falsified. In fact, it seems to me that the utter despair that rises in me when I really sit with this idea of all human attachments simply being sticky implies, at least this much: for this mammal, the reasons for attachment do matter. Of course, I suppose I need to consider the possibility that my visceral reaction is just a sign that I’m still too attached to attachments.

Coming full circle, it seems to me that my conclusion doesn’t really undermine my friend’s initial observation and it certainly isn’t relevant to a much less strident version of the claim, which is that some people sometimes arbitrarily form attachments for no particular reason, whether we are talking about one night stands, marriages, or friendships. It might even be the case that they are two different kinds of human — those who require reasons for attachments and those that don’t — and the survival of the species probably requires both of them.

Even so, I can’t shake the suspicion that whenever someone claims to do something for no reason at all, it may really mean he or she doesn’t want to recognize, acknowledge, dig down, or settle into the actual reasons s/he is doing something. For fear that if s/he did, s/he might also encounter an anguish s/he’d rather not experience.

The Greatest Thing You’ll Ever Learn: Be Bad for Business

Bad for BusinessFor the first time ever, the most viewed post on my blog is not my “About” page.

Instead, it is this post, which I wrote to let people know that I had started a new relationship — the blog equivalent of changing my relationship status on Facebook. Looking at it now, three years later, it is, perhaps, a tad more subtle than I thought at the time.

Sadly, and yet fittingly, the relationship the post is intended to announce ended about a year after it was written. I say, sadly, because it was the end a good thing; I say, fittingly, because the post was about the movie Moulin Rouge and about whether or not it is worth risking everything for love. Three years or so later, I’m glad I risked everything for love, even if, in the end, I lost it. The sweet edged lack of a lost love is far better than the empty hollow of what might have been.

Every choice we make cuts off a hundred million billion possibilities and every choice opens up a hundred million billion more. The choices we make for love are no different and no more special, in that respect. They are unique, however, in that they are choices made both for a person and an ideal. A choice made for love is both personal and universal, immanent and transcendent. In and for love, these distinctions are meaningless.

A friendly critic once said of my writing that I have nothing to say, which may be true, but I suspect it may sometimes seem that I have nothing to say only because what I have to say isn’t terribly new, complicated or profound. You, I, we know all the things we need to know to live happy, healthy lives; it’s really just a matter of making choices in line with that knowledge and finding new ways to remind ourselves of that fact.

But, in case you are wondering, in case I have been a tad too subtle once more, let me write it plain: yes, it’s true, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.” I’m glad I have learned it, felt it, and will gladly throw my life away for one more happy day, if I’m ever so lucky to have the chance to do it again. We could, after all, be heroes.

But, I should let Ewan explain it.

The Rabbit and the Tiger: A Short Story (For Tony and Terry’s Wedding)

The Rabbit and the TigerOnce upon a time, a Tiger and a Rabbit fell in love.

“Rabbit, I love you so much,” said Tiger. “I want to eat you up whole, so you will always be a part of me.”

“Tiger, I love you so much,” said Rabbit. “ I want you to chase me forever, so I will always feel wanted by you.”

And so around and around they ran, day and night, much to their own frustration and much to the frustration of the other animals of the forest.

After nine years of the ceaseless chase, the other animals of the forest begged the Jade Emperor to intervene.

“Tell me Tiger and Rabbit,” said the Jade Emperor, as the two animals quivered before him, after answering his summons. “Why, year after year, do you endlessly chase each other in noisy frustration, disturbing all the animals of the forest?”

“I love Rabbit so much, I won’t be happy until he is a part of me forever,” said Tiger.

“I love Tiger so much, I won’t be happy unless I always feel him seeking me out,” said Rabbit.

“Very well,” replied the Jade Emperor. “Rabbit, I will cut off your foot, so Tiger can always have a part of you. Tiger, I will blind you, so rabbit will always feel you seeking him out.”

Rabbit and Tiger 2Tiger and Rabbit, who were both very selfish animals, each only thought of himself first.

“I won’t be able to run,” said Rabbit.

“How will I hunt,” said Tiger.

The Jade emperor replied, “you must each give up a bit of yourself for the sake of harmony.”

Understanding for the first time that there is more to love than desire and it’s satisfaction, Tiger and Rabbit replied in unison, “There must be some other way!”

“Very well”, replied the Jade emperor. He plucked two hairs from each of their tails and he  fashioned two rings, using hair from both animals in each ring.

“Tiger, you must trust that Rabbit will always be with you, even if he is not always near you. Rabbit, you must trust that Tiger will always want you, even if he does not always chase you.’ The Jade Emperor held out the rings, which had turned into gold in his hands. “You will give each other these rings, as a symbol of your trust, and you will wear them, as a symbol of your promise to honour that trust.”

The Rabbit and the Tiger Tiger and Rabbit exchanged the rings and they forever after honoured the promise that their rings symbolized. Rabbit often nestled close to Tiger, when he would rather run, and Tiger often encouraged Rabbit to run, when he’d rather hold him close.

And they lived happily ever after.

Watch me read this story on YouTube.

To Be or Not To Be: What Does “Parent” Mean To You?

Recently, a friend asked me, “why don’t you want to be a parent?”

It’s been a long time since anyone asked me that question, and my first response didn’t seem right.

So, I thought about it some more.

Fortunately, some time earlier, the same friend had asked me to define what I meant by “parent.”

I define “parent,” as a person for whom a child is the most important consideration in his or her life. A parent, in this definition, is a person who gives ultimate weight to the well being of a child when making decisions about life.

By reflecting on that definition, it became clear to me why I don’t want to be a parent.

I don’t want to be a parent because I am not prepared to give a child that level of consideration in my life’s decisions. Moreover, I’m not prepared to sire and/or raise a child, unless I am willing to give him or her that level of consideration.

I should say, my observation is personal and not general.

I think it’s possible for parents to live very fulfilling and productive lives, however, I’m not convinced that I could live the life I want to live, while giving a child’s well being ultimate consideration.

How do you define “parent?”

Are you a parent? Why did you become a parent?

Not a parent? Why do you want to become a parent, or why don’t you want to become a parent?

Philia v. Eros: What (How Deep) is Your Love?

For all women, there is at least one person she is meant to love with all her heart and not to desire sexually. For all men, there is at least one person he is meant to love with all his heart and not to desire sexually. Depending on a person’s sexuality, it will either be his or her mother or father or, perhaps, both.

From this, it makes sense that a child learns to distinguish between the person or persons s/he loves and the person or persons s/he sexually desires. Because a parent is such an important figure in a child’s life, it also makes sense that s/he learns to hold the person or persons s/he loves in higher esteem than those s/he desires sexually.

To further complicate matters, historically, sexual desire is often characterized in a negative light and love — familial or romantic — in a positive light.

As a result, many men and women often distinguish between the persons they love, the persons they love romantically, and the persons they desire sexually. They also tend to hold in higher esteem the person or persons they love. Moreover, when a person both loves and sexually desires another person, typically, the love is thought to be more important than the sexual desire.

By the time I hit puberty, I had decided there were two kinds of girls: girls I could include in my sexual fantasies and girls that I shouldn’t include in my sexual fantasies because I loved them. I had sexual desires for the girls I loved but, for some reason, I thought it inappropriate to entertain those desires even in my imagination. I suppose I had internalized the meme that sexual desire corrupts love or, at the very least, that love should trump sexual desire.

At some later point in life, presumably after some relationships that were both loving and sexy, I realized — or I should say, I hypothesized — that romantic love is sexual desire that has been rebranded by the choices and commitments we make with the person we desire and who desires us in return. We start with the k-i-s-s-i-n-g and only get to love, marriage, and the baby carriage if we use that desire as a motivation to create a lasting attachment. Ideally, we will also be compatible with the person or persons we love but often that is not the case.

So what do you think? Is romantic love and sexual desire distinct or are they more or less the same experience?