“The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice.
If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one — my intuition, the essence of the mastery of any art.
But, aside from learning the theory and practice, there is a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art — the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art. This holds true for music, for medicine, for carpentry — and for love. And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.” Erich Fromm
I read this quote on this Valentine’s morning and it resonated with me down to my marrow. If there is a simple way to explain the way I live my life, it is that I am attempting to master the Art of Love. There is nothing more important to me than loving well.
Before I had an intellectual understanding of love, I was a child motivated by love and empathy for others. I believe I was so easily attracted to the Christian faith because the idea of a God of Love made sense to my heart. Whether truth or myth, the life, death and resurrection story of Jesus is a love story, one of the greatest love stories in existence. No other religious mythology has the same depth of love and sacrifice as the story of Jesus. I am still mesmerized by the idea of a love that big.
When I was a sophomore in high-school, a senior friend introduced me to Leo Buscaglia. Buscaglia was the first university professor to teach a class on love – an unofficial class that brought 100 students a semester despite being offered for no credit. Written in 1972, Love was ahead of its time for the newly emerging self-development genre. I swallowed his first book whole and then got my hands on every other book of his that I could through our local library. Despite the crazy and dysfunctional love I received at home, I knew there was something different possible. A love that was healthier, based in something other than narcissism, need, and brokenness. Buscaglia provided the first visions of healthy love for me. Another important volume was Personhood: The Art of Being Human. I had my first taste of understanding myself and the people around me and I was hooked. Buscaglia’s writing is inclusive and he championed our connectedness. He watered the seed buried deep inside me that would some day blossom into my passion for creating radically inclusive communities.
Soon after discovering Buscaglia, my Aunt Vickie (actually my mom’s best friend since high school) gave me The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck. It still makes my heart soar that she recognized something in me that inspired her to share the book with a 16 year old. Peck’s book focuses on love as a spiritual practice, combining the social science of emerging personal psychology with the idea that everyone has a religion of some sort (our religion being our beliefs about the universe and our place in it, whether those beliefs are based in science, atheism, or a specific religion like Christianity). There is a chapter in the book called “The Evolution of Consciousness,” a topic I became obsessed with in my 20s. Even as a teenager I understood that in order to be good at loving I had to intentionally grow my awareness of myself as a human and my impact on the people around me.
Just before my 20th birthday my mom gave me the book Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest by Christina Baldwin and I knew I found my best form of therapy (going to therapists that accepted state sponsored health insurance did not help me, I needed someone to engage with me on the journey, not just listen). I started utilizing journals as a tool for writing myself to sanity. I also wrote in a sort of conversation with God so that I would not feel so alone in the darkness that surrounded me as I scrabbled up the mountain out of mental illness. Baldwin’s book explores four major spiritual practices: love, forgiveness, trust, and acceptance.
There are threads weaving through all three of these books that form the foundation of my psycho-spiritual journey to sanity and wholeness. Love, living by one’s values, conscious evolution, inclusive spirituality, and building community – these are the themes that shape the arc of my life story. And really, everything else in that list is motivated by the first, by love. I desire to become more conscious and sane so that I love with greater mastery. I am motivated toward inclusive spirituality and radical community building by my immense love for others, especially marginalized people considered unlovable by society.
Soon after my introduction to a world where I could learn to love better, my faith opened to other spiritual mythologies and practices. I became aware of the idea of the God Between Us and relationship as spiritual practice. I began hungering to experience the Divine through and with a Beloved Human. Whether they shared the spiritual journey with me or not, my lovers became my teachers. I would intentionally learn from each relationship, going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of my past traumas. I had to understand how growing up in a home ruled by mental illness taught me really fucked up lessons about relating. Although my mother loved me as well as she knew how, and showed up as a loving mother in her ways, the reality is that emotional violence was my first language of relationship. I experienced more bullying, control, criticism, neglect, and other forms of emotional violence than I did positive moments of love and validation. Most of the memories of childhood and adolescence that stick with me are ones that wounded me – the destructive fights between my mom and my step-dad when they were high on both alcohol and crank, the constant criticism and humiliations, and the day my mother told me I owed her for mothering me and should give up my dream of going to college across the state because she needed my financial support (the welfare I received for my son). This is what I knew of love when I came into the adult world. This is why I was/am driven to be a healthy mother to my own children, so that they would grow up with love as their dominant language of relationship rather than violence.
Twenty years later, my teachers in love are innumerable. I’ve had more than 70 lovers – from one night stands to an 8 year marriage. I’ve had at least 30 sexual and romantic relationships that lasted a few months or more. Several more relationships lived in the grey area between friendship and lover, which taught me about the complexity of chemistry, the art of flirtation, and the beauty of having intimate friends I could kiss and cuddle on a regular basis whether or not I had a partner. I’ve had relationships in which we consciously explored polyamory and/or power dynamics, which took my spiritual practice and conscious evolution into more intense realms than monogamous vanilla relationship did.
Today, my relationship with Eros is the first in which both of us are actively committed to mastering the art of love. He also chose to learn and practice the art of love, long before he met me. Our journeys toward learning the art of love have wonderful similarities and significant differences. We expand our awareness and evolve differently. It’s all good as long as we keep moving forward together .Each time our relationship demands more of us – more love, more consciousness, more intention, more healing – we both show up at the table to work it out and grow together.
By Erich Fromm’s observation we are rare. I hope that’s not true, but the popularity of Trump and his hateful rhetoric concerns me. I know many other people who are learning and practicing the art of love in their ways. I know many who are trying to encourage and support others in the art of loving well. I believe those who work for social justice are practicing the art of love. I believe those who actively work to love their families and friends better are practicing the art of love. I hope there are enough of us to turn the trajectory of our national culture towards love rather than hate this year. Our best chance is being as visible as possible with our practice of love and extend it towards The Other – anyone and everyone who is different from us and challenges us to find understanding and/or acceptance. Our best chance is practicing the art of love big and loud and imperfectly. That’s what practice is for, to see where we are imperfect so that we can work to improve in those areas.
It is love that motivates me to write here, to document and share what I learn on the journey. This is one of my love practices. I know I don’t have many readers right now and that’s ok. I am blogging out of love for myself. I am giving myself the space to find my voice again. I am drilling down to the roots of what I want and need to say about this being human and the art of love.