Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Love is Attention

Justin Taylor interviews Shelly Oria about her new collection of short stories:
So many of your characters seem to want, more than anything else, to have their reality confirmed by a lover’s attention. There’s a lot of ego in that desire, but a lot of supplication, too. You’re giving someone else enormous power over you, and that person might not know what to do with it or even want it at all. Are people too quick to give away this kind of power? Is love just a form of attention?

I do think love is a form of attention, yes. It’s arguably much more, too, of course, and I think it has the power to confirm and confer not only our reality but our humanity. But at its core it’s a deep form of attention—we fall in love with the people who pay attention the right way, to whatever it is in us that most needs attention, and who let us do the same for them, no?


G. Verloren said...

My personal philosophy has long been that love is the measure of your own willingness to put someone else's needs or desires - or perhaps happiness and wellbeing - first. This may sound somewhat simplistic, but I honestly believe it is true.

The more you love someone, the more you care about their happiness, the more you are willing to sacrifice to promote their happiness. Those who we love the most are obviously the ones we're willing to go to the greatest lengths to please.

And at the same time, love can be much less potent, yet it is still love. We have love for our fellow humans, for example - at some basic level, we want other people to be happy. The difference, of course, between our love for our "fellow man" and our love for those closest to is in our willingness to endure hardships for the sake of the other party.

We'll do small things for total strangers - minor acts of kindness or courtesy and the like. But there are limits to what we're willing to do, or to endure, for the average person's sake - because we only have so much patience, or resources, or attention, or care to spread around without jeopardizing our own wellbeings. We can't possibly invest ourselves freely and fully with every single person in the world, because at a certain point our capacity to give becomes exceeded.

This is why we tend to only deeply love a small handful of individuals - typically those who have proven themselves to be "worthy" of a deep investment. Being selfless is inherently dangerous from the standpoint of self preservation. Biologically, it doesn't make sense to sacrifice your own needs and desires for others if you cannot have some degree of trust and certainty that those sacrifices will not be in vain.

Oftentimes this means we only love and invest in those who we know love us back, where we can trust them to care for us while we care for them. But there is also unrequited love, sacrificing for others who cannot repay those sacrifices, or who are unaware of them - whether caring for a child, or simply trying to bring happiness to someone who is unable to appreciate your deeds for any number of reasons, et cetera.

And of course there is a gray area between the two. I actually imagine the majority of relationships are actually lop-sided, with one party making greater personal sacrifices than the other, because love seems to be somewhat Socialist by nature: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". Certainly a child can't return the care they receive from a parent, but they do still give the parent love in other, less tangible forms. And among lovers and spouses, it seems obvious that no pairing is ever going to be perfectly equal in their various life capacities - yet people still love each other, even if they show it and appreciate it in different ways.

G. Verloren said...

Where things get complicated, in my mind, is when people try to tie their own personal desires into their conceptions of love. Because to be perfectly frank, all of us have desires - no matter how giving, generous, and loving we are.

Of course, it seems a natural jump to make. If we concern ourselves with the happiness of others, it makes sense to concern ourselves with our own happiness as well. And in fact, the selflessness of love cannot exist without the mediating force of selfish personal interest.

By way of analogy, a doctor cannot tend to patients if they do not protect their own health first. As much as they might wish to aid others, their desires are utterly in vain if they cannot first aid themselves.

Love is the same way. As much as we might wish to bring happiness to others, if we give of ourselves too greatly, we end up miserable ourselves, and consequently unable to better the lives of others. We cannot truly make others happy when we cannot maintain our own happiness first.

And yet, love isn't about us. It's about the other person. The fulfillment of our own needs and desires is simply a necessary evil on the path to fulfilling the needs and desires of others. And when we confuse our own selfish desires for the selflessness of actual love, that's when things go poorly.

Too many people seek out relationships for their own sakes - they want someone to fix their problems, not realizing that actual love is wanting to fix someone else's problems. In effect, many people are less interested in loving others, and more interested in having others love them.

But this ultimately is a toxic behavior - a selfish exploitation of others. And while often a person who is genuinely loved by another in spite of their selfishness, by dint of being loved, in time becomes able to grow as a person and transcend their own selfish desires in order to begin loving others, where this toxic tendency becomes a real problem is when two people both enter a relationship for selfish reasons. Sadly, this seems to be a prevailing trend among a large proportion of relationships.

pootrsox said...

Robert Heinlein had Jubal Harshaw explain that "Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own."