The confluence of seemingly unrelated events this past Saturday have urged me to think about how mortality — or, the impossibility of immortality — affects our ethics and specifically how we love and our willingness to love. How one perceives her mortality directly influences her willingness to love, to take the risk of love.
This past Saturday I attended a lesbian wedding — oddly enough, my first non-hetero wedding, and my first wedding in general since 1998 — in NYC, and, no, it wasn’t that of Cynthia Nixon and Christine Marinoni. The wedding was made exponentially more significant because one of the brides has four mothers; she is the child of one of two lesbian partners who split around the time she was a tween and who have been happily re-coupled ever since. At the wedding, held at a church downtown, her two mothers walked her down the aisle, and both mothers delivered passionate toasts about how gay rights have progressed since the ‘70s, when they were trying to get legal recognition and raise a child in a society where there was literally no other family like their own. Not until the first decade of the 21st century were LGBT families not an anomaly.
While reveling, ever so slightly, in humanity’s ability to not just tolerate but accept difference in regard to gay rights, I could also not help but to think about marriage, its meaning, if I desire it, et cetera. I mean, who doesn’t go to a wedding and automatically project her ego into the situation? Will I ever find love? Does love really last? Will I get married? Wait, do I even want to get married? OMG I’m old. The mind wanders while we all emphatically agree that everything about the current wedding celebration is “great!” and “adorable!” and “perfect!” Don’t you agree?
I am an unapologetic romantic. And being a romantic is hard, especially in a day in age where the only idealism that seems to be alive is that harbored by ironic hipsters who blissfully believe they can attain all they desire, because, well, what can’t be procured with daddy’s money?
Being a romantic is an ethic that is not valued in a consumerist/capitalist society that proudly devalues intangibles (lest I go off on a tangent about (the value of) education in America). But being a romantic does not necessarily equate, especially for someone of a queer ideology, with the desire for marriage. More precisely, for me, being a romantic entails the belief that love can last over a long period of time. Dare I say it, I really do believe that two people can commit themselves to each other, outside of societal sanctions, through their own individualized contract — a contract predicated (and thus always already challenging) upon the intangible, upon “love.”
“You’re such a Shakespearean,” was a line accusingly thrown my way by “Auntie” Romance last week. Even though the accusation is a bit off — Shakespeare, especially in his sonnets, was skeptical about love at best (and sometimes forcefully concluded his plays with happy hetero-couplings for a cathartic effect inline with what was promoted by Aristotle as definitive of “tragedy”) — I take it to mean that all my Renaissance training has made me a bit “untimely.” Romantic gestures, in my book for instance, do not consist of sending you trite one liners dazzled by emoticons via some online “dating” site. Mine are a bit more grand; if I love you, really love you in the sense that I desire passion, intimacy, and commitment with you, you (and usually the world) will, without the use of iambic pentameter, without a doubt know it.
But I cannot emphasis enough the extent to which I believe, as a romantic, that the biggest risk you can take in life is to love someone — really love someone, with and through vulnerability, intimacy, passion, trust, and (classical/Foucauldian/Nietzschean) friendship. And, to be willing to love again, even after heartbreak, is the true sign of a romantic, the epitome, in my opinion, of what Nietzsche meant by saying “yes” to life, saying “yes” to “the greatest weight.” To be clear, to be willing to and to be open to love, love wholly with the entirety of your being, is not to desire repetition of past love, but to be committed to and to affirm the ethos of love (of vulnerability, of trust, etc.).
What I’m interested in thinking about — and asking you fine readers to think and comment about — is the extent to which our willingness to risk ourselves in love is derived from our understanding of mortality. And here’s where the second event of this Saturday comes in.
Saturday, while my mind was deep in thought about love and marriage, 22-year-old Marina Keegan, fresh out of Yale (‘12), was riding passenger-side in her boyfriend’s car. Keegan had a promising writing career in front of her, and was about to start a job at the New Yorker later this summer — that is, until her boyfriend’s car crashed and Keegan was killed. Her untimely death has been broadcasted all over the news; this past week, I have found myself reading pieces of hers that thematically center around mortality. What has fascinated me is not only the extent to which Keegan contemplated ideas of mortality and permanence but, more so, how she articulated her thoughts in writing, through a kind of calm panic that eerily mirrors how I have, during my own attempt to articulate my fears post-panic attack, done for the past 20 years.
She begins “Putting the ‘fun’ back in eschatology” with:
If you didn’t already know this, the sun is going to die.
When I think about the future, I don’t think about inescapable ends. But even if we solve global warming and destroy nuclear bombs and control population, ultimately, the human race will annihilate itself if we stay here. Eventually, inevitably, we will no longer be able to live on Earth: We have a giant fireball clock ticking down twilight by twilight.
And, nearly a year later, in “Song for the Special:
The thing is, someday the sun is going to die and everything on Earth will freeze. This will happen. Even if we end global warming and clean up our radiation. The complete works of William Shakespeare, Monet’s lilies, all of Hemingway, all of Milton, all of Keats, our music libraries, our library libraries, our galleries, our poetry, our letters, our names etched in desks. I used to think printing things made them permanent, but that seems so silly now. Everything will be destroyed no matter how hard we work to create it. The idea terrifies me. I want tiny permanents. I want gigantic permanents! I want what I think and who I am captured in an anthology of indulgence I can comfortingly tuck into a shelf in some labyrinthine library.
My panic attacks begin with these thoughts: “someday the sun is going to die and everything on Earth will freeze.” Then the freak out commences and continues until I’m able to work out that anxious energy—for instance, during one occurrence while I was at Oxford, I took off running, out of my residence, down St. Aldate’s in the middle of the night…barefoot in my pajamas. I continued running until my panicked thoughts dissipated into the night.
My existentially-induced panic attacks over began when I was 8; my mother resolved that I would be cured by visiting the minister at my family’s methodist church. The minister could not answer any of my questions about life and the universe; instead, in dogmatic fashion, he resorted to the same, trite, Christian tautology of “God” (“God is all things,” etc etc) in a lame attempt to answer my questions.
Needless to say, I became an atheist when I was 8.
My panic attacks subsided for the most part when I fell in love with my now Ex, about 4 years ago. I had loved other women, but, with her, I felt a sense of calm and purpose. I felt like my ability to love and the depth and intensity of the love that I felt made life worth living — that, yes, Beatles’ fans: “Love is all you need.” In comprehending the depth of this love, I felt satisfied with my life. Who knew I could love so profoundly? That my body was capable of this feeling? With this satisfaction, my panic attacks became nearly obsolete.
The calm that this understanding of love provided me, I think, coincides with what Stephen Cave, in his new book Immortality, explains as the three necessary virtues we should cultivate in order to quell our fear of death: empathy, mindfulness, and gratitude. In his review of Cave’s book at reason.com, Ronald Bailey explains:
Empathy reduces our fear of the death by shifting the focus from ourselves; mindfulness encourages us to enjoy the present moment; and gratitude makes us conscious of what an incredible stroke of luck it is to be alive in the first place. It seems to me that the cultivation of these virtues is valuable in its own right, and if such cultivation happens to reduce one’s fear of death then that’s a nice bonus.
Love is a feeling that incorporates and requires these three virtues for its continuation. I, in part, value love because of this reason; it enables me to feel that my life has value—real, qualitative value — outside other accomplishments (getting a job, having a successful career, being able to financially support myself) that, to me, feel commonplace, even boring. That is, I’m indifferent to the benchmarks of life that revolve around money—which, to be honest, is sometimes frustrating because I’m tired of going from sublet-to-sublet and not having a proper job. I, then, would agree with Deleuze, who equates money with shit: “And when I speak of shit,” he proffers, “I hardly speak of a metaphor: Capitalism reduces everything to a fecal state, to a state of undifferentiated and unencoded flux…” (cited in E. Kaufman & K. J. Heller’s Deleuze & Guattari: New Mappings in Politics, Philosophy, and Culture, p.100). And, sure, friends of mine know that I bitch-n-complain about being poor, but, perhaps, if I cared more about money I’d find a way to have more of it.
What I want, and what I value is love. If I feel that I am loving fully, with all my being, and honestly, then I am more than happy with the current state of my life. Being loved in return is just icing on the cake.
So, for me, taking the risk of falling in love — and doing so, again and again, in the face of the demon of the eternal return — is the biggest risk one can take in her life. Because you only live this life once. So live it to the fullest. Of course, a decadent pessimist might argue the opposite, asserting a kind of risk-averse position because of life’s finite finality: Why take risks if life ends, nothing matters? As Bailey even notes, “research shows that it takes only 70 years after our deaths before most of us are forgotten.” Who cares? About anything?
The difference, for me, is the temporality of that value and of the value of that risk in particular: life, our actions and behaviors, have value now. It’s impossible to suggest they have value in the distant future. Nihilism is the negation of life in the here and now, which, to me, is just plain wasteful. And stupid.
In terms of love as an unconditional value, this means that the love I have for someone is something that I affirm and reaffirm everyday, both in language and in action. There is a conceptual fluidity to its definition that allows for the ebb and flow of life and all the emotions and events wrapped up in it. This conceptualization of love accounts for an understanding of it that has duration; a love that isn’t momentary but that could, well, last a lifetime. A love coupled with the daily grind, the irritations, the complications, the changes. Because love fundamentally requires a desire for longevity of relations; this means that the idea of “working through” (disagreements), and not just giving up and walking away, is one of its central tenets. Love in this sense is not simply a fleeting feeling (such as lust or infatuation), even though it is a value and a commitment that is re-affirmed every day.
What I am wondering, my dear, patient reader, is both how you define love and how this definition, in terms of risk, correlates with your worldview concerning (im)mortality.
My answer? I can say without hesitation or equivocation: Love is an ethic that has duration; it is comprised of the qualities of passion, intimacy, and commitment; it flourishes on the willingness to trust, to make oneself vulnerable, and to be honest.
Love is a risk that gives life meaning.