Last Friday the world was shaken by yet another frightening tragedy. We mourn the loss of so many innocent victims in Paris whose lives were abruptly ended and hurt for the families and friends grieving such painful loss. The immense sorrow that resonates from this attack feels similar to other heartbreaking incidents abroad and here in the U.S. Acts of violence carried out throughout the world and human history remind us that no country, nationality, race, or religious group has gone untouched by cruelty. Further, mass tragedies do not tell the whole story. Closer to home, violence is experienced in our own backyards by those of all ages & backgrounds. I am left asking:
How can people do this to people? How can human life be so devalued?
In the past few days I have finished reading a new favorite book – a classic read by psychotherapist/author Erich Fromm. His thoughts in The Art of Loving feel at the same time fundamentally basic as well as profoundly refreshing. In light of such heaviness concerning massive loss, violence, and pain, his thoughts on love and the effect of love’s absence in this divisive age provides insight…
Age of Division:
“If I perceive in another person mainly the surface, I perceive mainly the differences, that which separate us. If I penetrate to the core, I perceive our identity, the fact of our brotherhood. This relatedness from – center to center rather than from periphery to periphery – is our ‘ central relatedness'” (1956).
Human history is littered with hate between groups, and therefore this ‘Age of Division’ stretches wide. As Fromm notices, when we so quickly make judgements based on “how they are not like me”, we often miss out on experiencing our inherent connectedness as human beings – our similar capacities for life, loss, joy, pain, & despair. Why do we do this?
Often fear of difference keep us separate. We can see this on a group as well as individual level. When people mistake same-ness for security and like-ness for value, people suffer.
“Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity…He is alienated from himself, his fellow man, and from nature” (1956, 97).
As Fromm explains here, when we merely see others as well as ourselves as commodities – merely ‘things’ of ‘good use’ or ‘no use’ to our own aims – we also deeply miss out. On a very subtle individual level, we may find we do this quite often. We prioritize our wants over other people when we continually see this person or that person as ‘in my way’.
Ironically, having more power, wealth, or status than – which is often the aim of selfish desires – never quite satisfies. When people & relationships simply exists to make our individual lives easier, we miss out on much deeper beauty and meaning that exists in life, love, and connection.
Love & Humility:
“Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person: it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole” (1956).
“Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling it is a practice” (1956).
In an answer to the suffering that comes from this division, Fromm shares an answer found in love. He sees love as a conscious choice and action. Unlike the “falling in love” experienced in fairy tales, movies, and in periods of infatuation, this love is not based around idolizing another individual as “a perfect fit.” Rather, it is founded in the way we orient ourselves to others. This orientation of love is marked by compassion, respect, and overall dignity for the existence of others.
In his theory, love is deeply linked to humility. The two are dependent on one another. Humility asks us to see a person for who he or she is rather than what we reflexively wish them to be or fear them to be. It means we take time to understand people who may be quite different than us. It also requires admitting to ourselves that just like we are complex and full of mysteries – so are others. Though it may be much easier to categorize and judge rather than seek to know, this knowing allows for genuine connection between ourselves and those who may have very different experiences, backgrounds, and beliefs from ourselves.
I felt challenged by reading The Art of Loving. In times when we witness such darkness and hatred in the world, reflecting on our on views and treatment of fellow mankind feels incredibly significant.
Fromm, Erich. (1956). The Art of Loving. New York, New York: Harper and Row, Inc.
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