Despite the trouble that emerges from the twisted, social and political worlds we have created, love, altruism and cooperation are relational tools that can cut through the ‘trouble’ — to do this they need constant sustenance, nurturing and development.
TOOLS FOR TROUBLED TIMES is a series of reflections and soulful practices for living and working in the world today. This one is the fourth in a series. You can find a longer version of this one, and the first three TOOLS pieces at https://medium.com/21stcenturysoul
“Maybe love is like rain. Sometimes gentle, sometimes torrential,
flooding, eroding, quiet, steady, filling the earth, collecting in hidden springs.
When it rains, when we love, new life grows”.
(Carol Gilligan, The Birth of Pleasure)
Sometimes I despair...
Sometimes — like many I suspect — I despair of humans and the way we get our ‘social self’ so desperately wrong at so many levels.
Too often our intimate relationships crumble into distress, hurt and hatred. Our ‘growing-up’ seems twisted with insecurity of attachment and belonging — even abuse. Our online relationships descend into bickering, passive aggression and trolling. Our political life is all but broken, as the shadows of our cultural fears emerge and degenerate into polarities, blame and discrimination. And our economic systems — the ways we have developed to exchange, trade and make our livelihoods — have created (and are still creating) swathes of poverty, exploitation and destruction in our social world and on this beautiful planet.
How are we to live with all this? The answer is that, all too often, we don’t — with any degree of depth or integrity. Our relational self seems too preoccupied with receiving validation and sustaining the ego, however destructive these processes turn out to be. Or maybe it’s just too much to take in and accept psychologically — we’ve reached a tipping point of despair, and so its easier to embrace denial?
And yet, we are social animals, and within our social, relational selves lie the heart of our humanity, the lifelong process we can call soul-making that gives us our ability to feel true joy:
“Soul-making is a theory (or a story) that…allows for the human self to be regarded and experienced with breadth:
- through the inherently social make-up of the human species — and the love, altruism and cooperation that represent the evolved best in all of us;
- through the inherently ecological embedding of the human species in the world we live in and share with the other-than-human;
- and through the original acorn of individuality in each of us that carries our potential and truth.
By working with these aspects of self and soul, we can craft a life for ourselves — and for the communities and ecosystems we are part of. This careful crafting makes each human life an unique piece of ‘art’ — that is, nevertheless, part of an enormous collection of art/life-forms that all add meaning and texture to our cultures and to our changing world”. (Steve Thorp, A Meditation for the Soul)
So, despite the trouble that emerges from the twisted, social and political worlds we have created, love, altruism and cooperation are relational tools that can cut through the ‘trouble’ — but to do this they need constant sustenance, nurturing and development.
Three years old and fiery
The love of a small child is a beautiful and unconditional thing — but it is immature and untempered! When my three-year old granddaughter hugs me, I know that the next minute she might tell me that she doesn’t like me, if I have upset her or don’t give her what she wants! She isn’t selfish, she’s just being honest with her emotions as much as a three-year-old can be. We all know this — and we know that (if she is lucky and well loved) her social self will develop, struggling through the angst of adolescence, to find authentic ways of being herself, with — and without — other people .
When we say that love is at the heart of things (good things and good ways of living), we understand that this love needs to be different as we grow. Love needs to be experienced and expressed close-in, but then the test of grown-up love is that it is able to become a ‘tool’ for collective living and empathy with others who are not close to us (as in part of our family and friendship groups) — and way out there, beyond those who look and think like us.
Of course, we all know that it’s not always easy to love ‘close in’ either! The Hollywood fantasy is of love found and happy-ever-after. The reality is that our inner lives, projections and vulnerabilities emerge in our interactions with our partners and families, and the ‘task’ (if task there is!) is to find our way through this labyrinth of swirling emotion, personal agendas and family constellations to reach a place where there can be some mutuality and recognition of soul in the ‘other’.
But it doesn’t stop there. The pull of sexual desire plays hard in the intimate realm and can make love seem, on the one hand, one-dimensionally about who we fancy, and on the other, all-consumingly complex and often very messy, as desire and caring entwine and play out around each other.
However, the ‘grown-up’ love inherent in a group or a wider community is something that we learn (or do not learn) in different contexts from those of our intimate relationships, and this can take us into a different ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ experience of our social world. And even as our intimate relationships crumble and change, the promise of deeper human connection can often lead us into a deeper experience of community and love in the wider sphere.
Of course, as we have seen unfolding for decades, the socialisation of intimacy and desire is not separate from the collective culture of groups and communities; nor is it separate from the economic and political relationships of power and colonisation; and nor is it separate from ecological connection (or lack of it) and exploitation.
Love and Utopia
The way we love, therefore, emerges from all these connections, contexts and (as Nora Bateson might say) frameworks within frameworks. Love can be small and lovely — my relationship with my small, gentle and fiery granddaughter — and it can infuse whole movements and communities. Love (ferocious love!) is at the heart of Extinction Rebellion and its vision. Love is in the hearts of the land defenders (indigenous communities and their allies) throughout the world. Love has been at the heart of the most powerful social and political movements of our times — and love will be at the heart of the human cultures we craft and imagine into the future.
However, real love needs hard work and sticking with. If we are not sufficiently resilient in ourselves and in our connections, then love becomes one-sided and conditional. When we ‘other’ a person or a group who we disagree with or who becomes ‘hated’ by us, then the ferocity of love becomes a fire that can consume ‘us’ and ‘them’ alike.
So, these will be the lessons we all need to learn and the questions we need to ask, as the conflicts in our world heat up:
How can we be angry — with love? How can we protest and rebel — with love? How can we be attacked and vilified, and sustain love? How can we hate what someone stands for or does, and still sustain love? How can we love close in and far out, and keep a clear eye on what needs to be done?
A world built on love is a utopia — in the best sense of the word — and we have to hope that it is possible to move towards a better sort of future. I find my inspiration for this in the imaginations of poets and writers who are committed to asking the big questions and challenging the accepted cultural realities that are often taken for granted. Others will draw on other wisdoms and practices but, wherever our inspiration comes from, the task of soul-making and utopia-building is to inquire with incisive perception whether the ways things are, are the ways things ought to be:
“ ‘Why are thing as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?’ To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken” (Ursula LeGuin, No Time To Spare)
If we answer these questions with love, as Ursula LeGuin does, we can then ask the questions that need to be asked (also with love!) in more detail about the world we live in and the ways in which the intimate connects with the wider contexts and economic and political frameworks.
Marge Piercy does this in her 2016 introduction (40 years after its first publication) to her classic book, Woman of the Edge of Time:
“I am always interested in who controls the technology in any given society at a particular time. Who decides that trolley and passenger trains are obsolete, but that cars are all-important and our cities must be built around them as if they were the primary inhabitants? Who chooses which technology is explored? Who sets the rules for what is dangerous and what is acceptable risk?…For whose benefits are options explored? Who decides what is done and whom it is done to?….
I am also very interested in the socialized and interpersonal mechanisms of a society. How is conflict dealt with? Again, who gets to decide, and upon whose head and back are those decisions visited? How does that society deal with loneliness and alienation? How does it deal with getting born, growing up and learning, having sex, making babies, becoming sick and healing, dying and being disposed of? How do we deal with our collective memories — our history — that we are constantly reshaping?”
My answer to all these How questions?: With Love.
But this love has to be of a developed, mutual, sustained and ferocious kind! It must be strong and big enough to carry polarities: of anger and gentleness, firmness and vulnerability, desire and mutuality, opposition and acceptance, rebellion and inclusion, defiance and understanding. And it must farsighted enough to recognise the mechanisms that shape the ways we all love — close in and far out — in our societies in this troubled time and place in human history.
Love, altruism, cooperation
Stepping beyond the expectations of how we do things is hard. It asks us to go against the flow, to imagine different ways of being human and to stay courageous. It requires us to Recognise And Tell The Truth (as Extinction Rebellion might say), and to Stay With Hope — even though all around us things seem as if they are crumbling. And, Marge Piercy tells us, it requires us to stay hungry: “Utopia is born of the hunger for something better, but it relies on hope as the engine for imagining such a future”.
This hunger and hope is, in turn, born from the deeper, developed, complex grown-up emotion that is the true maturation of the close-in love that my three-year old granddaugher gives and receives as a child.
So, what is its phenomenology; what does it look like in the world — this hopeful, hungry, grown-up love? Well, first it looks like a community that puts love right up there in its vision — and doesn’t hesitate to use the word! And then it looks a lot like a community where the qualities of altruism and cooperation are there in practice — not just as temporary acts of kindness, or coming together in a crisis, but as sustained, embedded qualities of living.
This sounds simple, but might be anything-but. We are not in a world where sustained altruism and cooperation are seen as norms. And we are, rightly, suspicious of engineered human utopias that start as noble ideas and degenerate into in-fighting, autocracy and worse. Politically, and psychologically, any twenty-first century ‘utopia’ must balance the twin virtues of freedom and belonging — and we must always be wary of the shadows of both of these.
We can, of course, start close in and practice altruism and cooperation in the here-and-now. That might be simple, after all! And even if it is not sustained for every minute of every day, we can practice altruism and cooperation so that they start to become natural to us. Which, of course, they are — it’s just that we forget sometimes and get lost in the cultural morass of competition, consumption and capitalism to the extent that it seems like it’s the only way.
It’s worth saying again. Altruism and cooperation are natural human qualities, and they are essential ingredients of the deep and grown-up love I’ve been writing about in this piece. We know that nature also has brutality in it, and human nature has conscious and unconscious cruelty in it (born of both cultural and psychological shadows), but love and connection are natural too and, we might argue, truer versions will emerge naturally as the social (and ecological) conditions realign.
A final reflection
Love will not be enough to make change if it stays small and close-in — it needs to be grown-up and developed so that it is elegant and carries deep empathy beyond the borders of our homes and nations. Likewise altruism won’t work if it is parochial and once-in-a-while — it needs to be a state of mind and a way of being sustained through life. And co-operation won’t work unless it grows to become solidarity — with those who are already suffering the effects of climate breakdown, for example, as well as those, closer-in, who we may imagine will suffer in the future.
This is not to criticise or blame those of us whose love, altruism and cooperation is not big enough right now (that’s going to be all of us, right?), but it is an invitation to grow these tools for troubled times into the future.
More love is going to be necessary — essential — for us to survive and thrive.
I started this piece with despair, and will end with it. Psychotherapist, Susie Orbach, writing in the Extinction Rebellion Handbook, This is Not a Drill, states that it is not our knowledge of what faces us that is lacking, nor even our political analysis. (“We have superb political analysis”): “What is missing is how to hold the feelings we fall into denying”.
She adds: “Sorrow is hard to bear. With sorrow comes grief and loss. Not easy feelings. Nor is guilt, nor fury, nor despair”. And, I might add, “so is Love hard to bear”, especially when mixed and mingled with such a potent brew! Orbach concludes: “We need to accept our own feelings of grief and fear and we need to provoke conversations that touch the heart of others”.
And that, at this level of recognition and response, is what love is. It’s what keeps us grounded and close-in to those who are dearest to us, and is the force that takes us into a place where we can have to courage, resilience and solidarity to touch the hearts of others with our words and actions.
Steve Thorp: is a teacher, coach and writer working with deep wellbeing, ecology and soul-making in St Davids, Pembrokeshire. If you’d like to work with him, please get in touch to discuss possibilities at firstname.lastname@example.org.