“What is love? Answer the question through the story of your life,” asks Krista Tippett in Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.
Tippett describes how her own views on love were shaped by her divorce, causing her to question the way that we elevate romantic love above other forms:
“When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion—to follow those love songs and those movies. After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be.
This is… a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.
And here is another, deeper carelessness, which I am absolving in a spirit of adventure: I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved. In this, I am a prism of my world. I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.”
This lack of imagination, says Tippett, is endemic in our culture:
“Love is the superstar virtue of virtues, and the most watered down word in the English language. I love this weather. I love your dress. And what we’ve done with the word, we’ve done with this thing—this possibility, this essential bond, this act. We’ve made it private, contained it in family, when its audacity is in its potential to cross tribal lines. We’ve fetishized it as romance, when its true measure is a quality of sustained, practical care. We’ve lived it as a feeling, when it is a way of being…
The sliver of love’s potential that the Greeks separated out as eros is where we load so much of our desire, center so much of our imagination about delight and despair, define so much of our sense of completion. There is the love the Greeks called filia—the love of friendship. There is the love they called agape—love as embodied compassion, expressions of kindness that might be given to a neighbor or a stranger. The Metta of the root Buddhist Pali tongue, “lovingkindness,” carries the nuance of benevolent, active interest in others known and unknown, and its cultivation begins with compassion towards oneself.”
Tippett recounts a conversation with Eve Ensler, the American playwright best known for her play The Vagina Monologues, who came to a similar realisation about the nature of love after being diagnosed with cancer:
“You wrote how, in that extreme moment, the loves that we tend to focus on—love with a capital L, the romantic love, the marriages, the lovers—didn’t really come through for you, didn’t feel very substantial. And yet you realized that did not amount to the equation we would often make—that you don’t have love in your life. You realized you were surrounded by love, that you were held by love, and that you’d had too small an imagination about that word, that thing.
Romantic love, absolutely. Our notion of love—it just seems a very unevolved and very unenlightened notion. That it’s this one person who you will meet.
The One. And, by the way, I’ve yet to meet anybody who has that experience in that way. Yes, there are people who have good marriages that have lasted long. But I don’t think you will talk to anybody who will tell you this is the panacea and this is the only person whom I’ve ever loved who fulfilled me. Of course not. And I feel so excited now in my life, now that my notion of love has been dispelled, that old notion. Though it still haunts you and lingers. How do we get rid of so much of that stuff? It’s in your cells. You just gotta keep purging. But since I recovered from cancer, I feel so joyful. To be sitting here occupying this space with you. This summer, I had my friends and we were in Italy and we were dancing and we were swimming and we were talking and we were having amazing evenings. And every moment of that was so dear to me and precious. We find our fulfillment where we choose to find our fulfillment. And if you’re told you can only find it here and you don’t look at where it is, which is your life, you keep thinking it’s coming. Oh, it’ll be here one day. I’ll get the big love. Well, you have the big love. It’s already here.
You talk about “the daily, subtle simple gathering of kindnesses.” It was that love you felt. It was also the love you felt from women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were praying for you.
Absolutely. I had one of those bad nights where I was thinking about all my past lovers and husbands and the failure of love in my life, with a capital L. I just didn’t get it, and my own intimacy issues, and blah, blah, blah, blah. And then I suddenly realized, okay, how many beautiful people had shown up for me? Marie Cecil, who was cooking me eggs at five in the morning to settle my stomach when I was in chemo. Or my granddaughter, who packed my bags when I went to see my mother for the last time. Or my sister who was there every minute on the couch with me, putting washcloths on my forehead. And it was just this moment of, “Oh, my God, my life is so rich.” There is the love. The paradise is here. Paradise is right in front of us. In capitalism what is engineered is longing, engineered longing and desire in us for what can be in the future. It’s always about the next product, the next big thing…
Come on. What if we actually were content with our lives? What if we actually knew this was paradise?”
“To walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier,” says Tippett, who goes on to suggest how we might do this.