If I were to ask 100 people to define love, I’d get quite a range of responses. I’d expect most to narrate love in terms of feelings they experience in relation to family members, romantic partners, close associates, treasured pets, and/or humankind as a whole. They’d certainly be influenced by scores of poems, songs, stories, and other works of art on the subject. But for a far less sentimental approach, I turn to Dr. Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.
Fromm locates our deep-seated yearning for love in a desire to transcend separateness. Interpersonal union acts as a salve for anxiety-producing aloneness. Yet Fromm cautions against seeking love’s healing balm amidst feelings that come and go. While we feel great when falling in love, what happens when the excitement inevitably wanes? In like manner, true love cannot be found by cultivating an object of affection in expectation of basking in the glow of the other’s eyes. Such behavior may satisfy an instinctual need but does not form the basis for sustained happiness.
According to Fromm, mature love emanates from a condition of inner wholeness and independence; it demands nothing from the beloved. Such love establishes an abiding bond that unites the parties while maintaining each person’s integrity and individuality. It finds expression in the sharing of joys, interests, understanding, knowledge, dreams, humor, sadness, and all other manifestations of our “aliveness.”
Mature love is characterized by four foundational elements: (i) care and concern for the life and growth of the beloved; (ii) responsibility for taking action in response to the beloved’s needs; (iii) respect for the beloved’s unique individuality and developmental journey, and (iv) deep knowledge of the beloved’s life. These elements do not stand alone. Fromm tells us:
“To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge. Knowledge would be empty if it were not motivated by concern.”
A practitioner in the art of loving must strive for mastery in four essential character traits: discipline, humility, faith, and courage.
Discipline forms the basis of excellence in any art form. It is an expression of personal will along with an intention to make continuous improvement in one’s abilities. When applied to love, discipline implies proficiency in skills that may seem tangential – e.g., being sensitive to oneself, living fully in the present, avoiding distraction, listening with the intent to understand. It also implies an exercise in patience. One never masters an art when expecting quick results.
Humility serves as the antidote to narcissism. We must learn to experience life and the people with whom we share it objectively. We must not taint our perceptions with our own desires, interests, needs, and fears. Fromm deems humility, objectivity, and reason essential to love.
Rational faith implies reasonable certainty in our convictions and confidence in our powers of thought, observation, and judgment. One who has faith in oneself can have faith in others – the core of who they are, the reliability of their fundamental attitudes, their love. “Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love.”
Love also requires courage – the ability to accept risk and a willingness to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security cannot truly love or be loved. “To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person.”
In short, Fromm sees love as an attitude and an activity. It is the active use of one’s powers in a constant state of readiness to be open and giving toward the beloved. It is an attitude that must prevail in all aspects of one’s life, not just toward the object(s) of one’s affections. An attitude of openness, objectivity, and generosity determines the relatedness of a person toward the world and is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.