What is life? A 21st century perspective
by David Goss
Chapter One - What is life? : Introduction.............................18/8/16
Chapter Two - What is life? : Romantic Love.......................10/09/16
Chapter Three - What is life? : Friendship and work................
Chapter Four - What is life? : Free will, fate and religion...........
Chapter Five - What is life? : Final reflections............................
What is life? : Romantic Love
Of all the subjects and topics which drove me to write this book, this is by far and away the most influential. I see love as the most dynamic experience of my existence. It is at the core of the most joyful and painful emotions that I have felt. It drives my thoughts in endless loops, vociferously feeding into my mood and behaviour. Trying to understand and work with the emotions of love remains one of my biggest challenges. When I speak of love in this chapter, I speak solely of ‘romantic love’, i.e., the bonding to a romantic partner. I will elaborate on different kinds of love in my chapters on friends and occupation, religion and life meaning. At this point, I will not attempt to define love as a whole, only in this particular romantic sense. I will leave a united holistic definition for discussion in the final chapter.
Chapter Two: Part I
The reason this topic is so forefront in my mind is that (at the time of writing of this book) I have spent the last year or so grieving a turbulent love experience. Even though it was a long distance (transatlantic) relationship and we only physically met after we had broken up, the feelings I held for this person, Felicity, were very strong. Though there were a multitude of circumstances and variables which led us to the end of the relationship, I have decided not to enter into those details in this space. The key point is that we officially broke up in June 2014 and yet even today, as I sit here writing in September 2015, she reverberates the strings of my heart.
Ending things with somebody I loved was not easy. My thoughts raced - ‘was it her, was it me, was I right, was I wrong, have I done the right thing, have I done the wrong thing’?! Despite my years of meditation and mindfulness practice, love kept knocking me out of my flow, time and time again. This experience has taught me a lot. As I worked through the process of loss, I began to appreciate just what a complex and powerful thing love can be and as a result, I was compelled to write the following reflections.
Chapter Two: Part II
What do I think of love?
I think love is the most incredible feeling I have experienced as a human – incredible in terms of positive and negative. The highs are high, the lows are low. I cannot help but laugh at the irony of me writing guidance on love. My experience is not the most thorough. So I can only write my views as I see them as applicable to myself. I think love can be defined as a certain level of attachment. With that attachment, comes a certain level of emotion. We need this attachment. It is what keeps us paired with our significant others and allows us to form the family unit, rear our offspring etc. There is so much that comes from being able to trust another like no other - to be able to share your world. I have read and heard people say that in effect, our partners become an extension of ourselves. I would agree that this can be true. In one sense we share all our hopes and dreams with our lover and they become somebody who we can make sense of those things with and through. However, in another sense, and probably the one that I align with more, we are individuals. We are all connected within this world, through energy, spirit, call it what you will. But sometimes we want our partner to be too much an extension of ourselves. We are in danger of projecting ourselves onto others and then we try and fix ourselves through our partner, sometimes by passively trying to fix them. We do not own another and yet in love, there is a danger that we begin to think the other person is in some way a possession of ours. There is a responsibility for each partner to realise the emotions of the other. So for me, I benefit from somebody who wants to be with me regularly, wants to share themselves with me and vice versa, wants me to share myself with them. I completely understand that some people are happy having more independence in a relationship, to the point of full blown independence were they do not see each other often, perhaps due to work. I am not here to say that every human should behave the same way in a relationship; love works when two people find a harmony in their way of being.
Is there such a thing as fate when it comes to love?
I do not know. I look upon this in very much the same way as free will. Can fate exist without free will - and vice versa? Possibly; perhaps we could have free will on this earth and there are certain times that designed choices are put in our path. I often thought ‘perhaps fate exists but we need to go and pursue the learning which can then make us realise our fate when the opportunity arises’. So for example in the aspect of love, this would mean that the right person is out there, but it is not until two people are in the right place for each other that they meet. And it is not until they are ready to make the meeting matter that it occurs. For example, if I come across ‘the one’, am I the right person to be able to talk to her in that moment…is she the right person to be open to listening to me if I approach - and vice versa. I shall expand more on fate and free will in chapter four. But in terms of romantic love my position is this. ‘The one’ might exist, there may be one true love and such a thing as fate, or there may not be. It feels like it is not possible to prove this either way. To believe that there is ‘the one’ would require me to believe that there is either a) a supreme being who organises things, decides who is for who etc., or b) nature has developed an incredible network underneath life, nature in itself is the supreme being and through time, a code of sorts has almost been written into human and animal kind (though it should be acknowledged that humans are technically animals as well). Is it more or less likely that fate exists for fish than for human beings? My answer remains the same, I do not know. I really feel like this is the only way I can approach life with the given information that I have. This is the influence of Buddhism. There is no right answer, we do not know. Or, to correct myself, there may be a right answer, but we do not know at this point.
I do not see how believing in ‘the one’ can be an overall beneficial idea for living. To obtain a peace in life, to obtain a real sense of harmony, it feels useful for me to reduce the amount of emotional ruminating (over-thinking) that I do. I love philosophy, I love pondering such a discussion as love and fate, but as it stands, I see no evidence that we will get an answer to ‘the one’ in the foreseeable future. Now it may seem like to say ‘I do not know’ is sitting on the fence, is avoiding the question, but there is also a reason that taking this middle ground approach can be psychologically beneficial.
If I believe that ‘the one’ exists then there are four ways for me to look at the situation I experienced with Felicity. At this point, I must confirm that I foresee my experience as universal and though I use the name and example of Felicity, I look at this as a set of reflections which can apply to us all; however, I think it is useful for me to use my own real world example to ease illustration. The four ways that I can think of are;
1) Felicity was ‘the one’ and I have missed the opportunity to be with her
2) Felicity is ‘the one’ and we will end up together
3) Felicity is not ‘the one’ and I am yet to find ‘the one’
4) ‘The one’ exists but I may never find them
Let me provide an example of how each of these options would create pain for me. In option 1 I assume that Felicity is ‘the one’ and I have missed the opportunity. Clearly this would lead to me cursing my mistake of letting her go, becoming obsessed with trying to win her back and living in eternal pain because I believe that I have lost out on the opportunity to be with ‘the one’, i.e., I will never meet another as good as she was for me.
In option 2 she is ‘the one’ and we will end up together. The difficulty here is that if I believe this to be so, then I will constantly be putting my life on hold waiting/hoping for her return. I will miss out on opportunities in all walks of life (not just love, but potentially career, adventure etc.) because I would still hold a strong attachment to Felicity. It is possible that we could live with this option and just allow nature to take its course but if we were to do this, I do not think we are operating from a viewpoint that we believe a person is ‘the one’, we are operating more from the viewpoint of ‘time will tell’.
In option 3, I believe that Felicity is not ‘the one’ and I am yet to find ‘the one’. However, this means that I merely shift my attachment onto finding a perfect other. This option can be useful in terms of allowing us to move on after a break-up, i.e. “oh perhaps the one is out there”, but there is a danger that the whole process of attaching to a perceived ‘one’ will lead to an over eagerness and need to find somebody, for that somebody to feel perfectly right (which in itself can create worry and restlessness in our lives), and once that person is found the whole attachment cycle will start over again, i.e., we become afraid to lose ‘the one’ and may overly attach to the new person. Similar to option 3, if I undertake option 4 of strongly believing there is ‘a one’ and I go through life never finding my perception of ‘the one’, i.e., a premeditated idea of a perfect connection, then I pass up on other people, I pass up on life experiences and I may die alone in regret.
As such, I feel all four of these outcomes suggest that removing a belief in ‘the one’ is beneficial for mental well-being, and if you meet somebody who feels like the perfect match, well then that can just simply be a great thing, one could even call it luck, without it having to be labelled as destiny. However, the choice is yours. In a complete counter to my point above, feeling that somebody is ‘the one’ could strengthen a love bond and if two people can do this without becoming so overly attached that they become possessive, then this also seems like a good thing. This is exactly why my answer is that right now, I live my life with a sense of not knowing whether ‘the one’ exists or not. That way I do not become attached to the idea and hopefully I reduce the risk of experiencing any of the four outcomes listed above. But I am also not closed off to the idea and if I meet somebody who I feel completely connected to, then I can embrace them with my heart and mind.
One of the important moments throughout the whole process of the post Felicity break-up pain, was realising that I am human. I attended counselling sessions as part of my training as a psychologist. My time in therapy was spent on making sense of my individual existence, general human existence, and working through things about Felicity. There was a moment amidst the back and forth cycles of processing when it dawned on me that even though I was aware I was grieving the loss of Felicity, I was not actually allowing myself to grieve. I had heard this type of phrase before, “allowing yourself to grieve”. I initially thought of it as meaning that we allow ourselves to feel the emotion of a loss, but I had felt the emotion of loss for so long since the breakup that I did not really see this as an issue. What I realised was that I was not accepting the loss. When the pain in the heart hit, when the little things that reminded me of her struck and I got lost in thoughts again, my cognitive side tried to think its way out of the grief pain. It was always in a battle with the underlying sense that felt breaking up was the right decision. It was only as I realised I am human - that I will feel pain as a result of loss and that it is an inevitability of love and life - that I began to bring real acceptance to the situation. Over the past few months I have increased my meditation and I have focused on seeing the pain, seeing the feeling and just watching it. Not thinking about it, not trying to escape it - just accepting it. It is only once I accepted that the pain is a human response and one I must experience, that I was able to reduce the cycle of pain. The key thing is that this pain does not go quickly. The heartbreak over Felicity has been with me for eighteen months because I have been circulating it. Sigmund Freud often talked about ego objects (Freud, 1923/1961). When we love somebody, they are an ego object, the object of our desire. To reduce the pain of losing this ego object we need to find a new place to focus our desire, a place in which our desire is wanted and is reciprocated. However, one thing I noticed was that when I met somebody after Felicity, somebody who I did feel something for, I was still caught up with Felicity (possibly that she was ‘the one’ and I experienced option 2 discussed above); this played a role in the demise of that new potential relationship. So I think I needed time to grieve and accept the loss of Felicity before being able to redirect my love to another person (ego object). The problem arose in that Felicity was able to redirect her desire to a new partner before me and if anything, this further increased my grieving for her. As such, the heartbreak cycle increased. It was only once I made an interjection and began to accept the loss via acceptance of the heartbreak feeling and reducing my thinking about her, that I could begin to move forward. Granted, a space between our communication helped with this process, but the key point is this:
Heartbreak is a normal process, it does not really indicate whether a right or wrong decision has been made, it is a human reaction to the end of a love bond that has been neurologically formed between people and it is wise to give it time and space to exist as an emotion, there is no need to fight it, there is no need to try and think your way out of it, just watch it. It can be good to process the pain and loss consciously, i.e., through talking with friends, family, therapists etc., or alternatively, writing in a journal. But at the end of the day, sometimes we have to accept the pain and if we do this fully, the pain will begin to dissipate, even if this may take some time.
What is heartbreak?
I speak of this topic from more of a philosophical sense. Scientifically, there is plenty of discussion on heartbreak and I have included some of this information in my own reflections, but I approach this question from a more phenomenological viewpoint.
I would suggest that heartbreak is a collation of anger, anxiety and jealousy. Physiologically, I feel anxiety in the chest area and anger within my stomach. Sometimes the two feed each other and it is hard to distinguish whether I am angry or anxious. Jealousy can feed into both anxiety and anger. In fact, I would say that jealousy is a descriptive term, like heartbreak, whereas anxiety and anger are root/core affects (feelings). I am going to borrow from Jaak Panksepp (see Panksepp, 2005; Panksepp & Biven, 2012) and label this root anxiety of heartbreak as SEPARATION DISTRESS (SD) - an emotion which occurs when we feel a combination of anxiety and anger over losing/feeling separation from a loved one. SD is required to form strong attachments with another. It can be a positive thing in that in an adaptive sense, it tells us that we should be concerned that our connection with our loved one may be under threat. The complication occurs when earlier life events develop things like trust issues, creating maladaptive processes within us, which allows SD to creep in and rule in situations where it is not necessarily required. It is such a narrow line to walk, to decide whether our SD is warranted.
The benefit of anger is that at its core it raises adrenaline, it raises the fight system which may be required to protect our life and/or the life of another (notably our family). The difficulty for me here is that there are so many instances when anger is present; how do I focus in on anger in relation to our wish to uncover what romantic love is? Jealousy is a necessary part of a relationship of love. We occasionally see how a partner is somewhat comforted when their lover gets jealous. It is seen as a sign of caring for them. There is an extreme and vindictive sense of somebody trying to make a partner jealous and I am not advocating this, I am talking about a healthy sense of jealousy, one where we feel secure in our relationship and where we do not want to possess our partner, but where we still love them so much that the thought of another obtaining them pains us. Again, I think this is where it is about people connecting in their being. There will be some people who will intentionally make a partner jealous. They may flirt with other people for fun, for their job, due to insecurity etc., and the other person is not wrong to be jealous. What the couple may wish to discuss is whether this is healthy for both of them or if it is destructive to either of them.
Can love exist without jealousy? If people are not jealous, are they not in love?
I would say that love cannot exist without jealousy; it is too intrinsic to a healthy attachment. This may sound strange, that jealousy can be healthy, but I think it is so. Love is about being able to trust and believe in your partner, to the point where you can accept this natural jealousy as a human feeling, necessary for a strong connection. If jealousy reaches a point where it dominates a person, causes them suffering, they may benefit from working on it within themselves, perhaps with a therapist or talking to their partner; they can then decide whether the jealousy is overly related to their own attachment history and something they can work on further within themselves, or alternatively, if it is something that is rational, given their partner’s actions, and they must decide whether the relationship is right. If somebody loves another, respecting the existence of jealousy and not intentionally putting their partner through the pain of it seems fair. Sometimes a person may not be aware they are making their partner jealous and it can be important for couples to talk about this, learning and developing their understanding of each other throughout their relationship.
Returning to anger…
In terms of anger, primitively, it can also serve a purpose in love. If we do not get angry when under threat then we may not be able to ward off physical approaches of violence, either to us, our partner, or our family. But, just like jealousy and separation distress, it can get out of hand. The fact that we can get angry about other things outside of romantic love suggests that it is created for other reasons than protection, or is it? In effect, if somebody upsets us and we get angry, it is because we feel threatened. Whether it is in a meeting, on public transport, or if somebody wrongs us as a friend - we tend to get angry because we feel threat. Even if it is not a literal physical threat, it could be a social threat, which still relates back to survival. If somebody makes fun of us for wearing colourful trousers then we may get angry. But we are angry because they are attacking our sense of self, our identity. The same thing may occur if our boss makes us angry because they disrespect us, they are attacking our identity as a worker and employee (add in the potential parental authority nature of this situation and they may be attacking our identity as a child as well). So in each of these occasions our sense of self is under threat, which in effect, means our self and our survival is under threat. As such, it would seem that anger is also a name for an increase in our self-defence system, as our lives feel directly or indirectly under threat. If we become angry because somebody we love is threatened, then in some sense it is still our self that we protect because we want to protect an object which forms part of who we are, be it our partner, our genetic offspring, our family, or our friends etc.
The challenge with anger arises when past experiences lead us to over-reacting; feeling like our sense of self is under attack when really it is not. This is the place where one can undertake individual reflection and processing. By generating an awareness of this anger process and understanding what and why certain things may trigger our emotions, we may be able to bring a greater sense of reflection and less reaction in moments of challenge, allowing us to generate an increased sense of peace and compassion within our lives, something which I feel is of benefit for our well-being.
This leads to a slight diversion; are human beings innately altruistic or is every action for the self?
I would suggest that at a core level, every action is for the benefit of our self; however, this does not remove altruism from our being. We choose how altruistic we are; if we perform a kind action for somebody then we have decided to be kind to that person. So in an extreme example of somebody attacking a parent’s child, a big part of the parent’s action is to protect the child because deep down, it would hurt the parent so much and would reduce their chance for immortality through losing the seed of their child (see further discussion in Part III), but, some parents do not protect their children, some parents even beat their children. Therefore, people who choose to protect their child still make an altruistic decision to do so that others humans do not, even if it is in some way self-beneficial. This sense of self-beneficial yet still loving altruism extends to all aspects of life. As for the people who beat their children, who abandon them, and people who are not altruistic in many other aspects of life, I would say that this is the result of psychological issues, i.e., biological factors and experiences of their past flood them with emotions and experiences which mean that their world view, behaviours and neural connections have been misshaped out of what would appear an evolutionary best fit. This is where counselling and psychotherapy can be of use, helping people to make sense of what is happening in their internal and external lives.
Chapter Two: Part III
Returning back to our discussion on what is love…what is the feeling of joy?
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the feeling of joy that comes with love. No doubt my previous relationship experience will influence me to write aplenty about the pain of love. But it would be destructive of me to say that love only offers pain, this is certainly not true. Love is often associated with a feeling of joy and positive passion. However, in the same sense that the feeling of pain and heartbreak can be accepted as human emotion, best responded to with non-judgemental attention, so too does this apply to joy.
It is no doubt a glorious moment and feeling if we find somebody special. It is incredible to have somebody who we can share our experiences with, who makes us feel happy to be alive, gives us energy for the day and supports us when we are down. The challenge I have as I write this is that I have no experience of love as it moves into that next gear - i.e., longer term, marriage, children etc. - so I cannot write on these experiences with a sense of true understanding. Perhaps I can save these for when I reflect back on things at age 60 (hopefully). However, I feel that something I can write about in this moment is that I harbour a deep wish for these things. I am an independent person, but, I wish for that special other; despite all of the scientific spin I can put on it, or how I can reduce it to the sense of seeking an organism to reproduce and carry my genes with, I see love as so much more than this. And this is human nature. We have created this poetic description of love. Movies, books, television, they all paint a picture of love in a certain way and whilst it could be argued that it is in fact these mediums that have created the concept of love, is it not humans who created the mediums themselves? Even before the days of television, the great plays and stories of Shakespeare and so many others were often built around the notion and power of love.
So the question has to be asked, is true love a real thing or a socially constructed, human concept?
It would seem that this question requires an investigation of different entities.
Is love separate from the want to reproduce?
Yes, it has to be. There are people who do not want children and yet are still in love…or, could it be argued that deep down underneath, they still want children and that there are some psychological factors which are altering their desire for children? I think this may be possible, however, that still does not work for me. If we look at people who lose a child or who decide to adopt, or who cannot have biological children together (perhaps due to their sexuality or reproductive system), can we say that they are not in love, no. Therefore, I would have to think that at least some aspect of love sits outside the evolutionary drive to reproduce. The next possible input is social bonding.
We can acknowledge that part of love is created from the want to find a mate for reproduction, but there is another part of love outside of this. I would suggest that love is also an extreme form of friendship. People often refer to their partner as their best friend. If you think of a partner beyond the intimacy and child rearing context, they are also somebody who you may socialise with, attend events with, talk things through with, lend money to and from. They are an extreme friend and as such, I would suggest that romantic love is a form of extreme friendship. What does this mean, if anything? Is this new information? One way this is applicable is merely as a realisation of just what a lover truly is, what a huge part they play in our lives as a best friend, mate, and intimate other.
The notion of jealousy also supports the idea of love being both a biological drive for procreation and a form of extreme friendship. From the procreation angle, if we find somebody we want to transmit our genes and have a child with then we will want them to stay with us to develop a healthy child as it grows, hence, it makes sense that we form a strong love attachment. When a child leaves home and we will no longer have children, then it is perhaps the friendship side of love which is the main driver.
Just like the heartbreak of losing a partner, we can experience jealousy and anxiety in friendship; perhaps we may fear that a friend no longer likes us, or that they have replaced us with new friends. Therefore, if love is indeed an extreme form of friendship, it would make sense that we feel an extreme form of jealousy when that friendship is threatened - something which does seem to occur for a large amount of people when they feel their relationship is under threat. Overall, I would say that love can exist without either one of these properties of extreme friendship and children, but each one can also have a strengthening input.
At this point I have suggested that romantic love is a connection created as part of the process of seeking somebody to have children with, both for the continuation of the species and also potentially to seek immortality (i.e., we live on through our children). But I have also suggested that romantic love involves having a best friend, connecting with somebody to share life experiences with, to have at one’s side for company, activities and companionship. At the end of the chapter I began entering into a discussion of the phrase ‘true love’; the question remains as to whether romantic and ‘true’ love is at basis, an extreme form of attachment, or is it something beyond this? Prior to answering this, I would first like to extend the discussion of friendship.