Existence is co-existence, so writes Abraham Heschel. Hermits living in caves do so in relation to others who don’t. It is their way of socially participating. All of us live with people, and if not around us, certainly within us. We think about people. We dream about people. We worry about people. We judge people. We admire people. We avoid people. We compare ourselves to people. We remember people. We miss people.
How many people we need or want in our lives, what kinds relationships we choose to have or not to have, and how close we wish to be with people naturally varies, depending on our temperaments and the life situations in which we find ourselves. Parent-child, grandparent-grandchild, teacher-student, intimate others, roommates, business partners, employer-employee, co-workers, colleagues, siblings, friends; one size does not fit all.
Society does its best to impose upon us an image of social success it wants us to believe, to literally buy into. More than we might like to admit, society’s social ideals can make us feel lonely, like we are not measuring up. Riding on an empty bus, at the lowest point in life, I remember looking up and seeing a billboard of a family, a young father and mother, two children, a boy and a girl, all of them white, blond haired, blue eyed, all gorgeous, physically fit, clearly well off, well dressed, out to dinner, all super happy, having a great time. There I was alone, fifty-something, Jewish, slightly overweight, out of shape, severely depressed, recently divorced, my job in jeopardy, my two now grown, Asian adopted kids struggling mightily to stay afloat in a world that had just collapsed under them for which I felt intensely guilty, staring at this picture of this perfectly happy family, feeling desolate and alone.
How important for us not to buy into society’s exclusive model of social success. Storge, or familial love, is but one form of love, and as wonderful as it can be, and as varied as it can be, not all of us grow up, or end up, loving all of our family members or being loved by all our family members. In fact, most of us don’t, most of us have at least one person in our families with whom we do not want to associate. We hate how they make their living, or their political views, or how they raise their kids, or their taste in art, or their personalities. Or they hate ours. Think about Genesis; Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Family life is not all peaches and cream.
The other form of love, besides familial love that society wants us to need, because it sells, is Eros. Modern cultures place enormous importance on romantic and sexual love as the key to happiness and the cure for loneliness. Just as in familial love, societies have biases as to what this should look like, what is acceptable and what is not. Fairy tales, romantic novels, Hollywood films, seductive advertising surrounds us with ideas and images of romantic, sexually charged love. If, for whatever reasons our lives don’t match up, it’s easy to end up feeling alone and lonely, like something is wrong with us, we don’t fit in. Growing up in America but having had the good fortune of spending a good bit of time living in Japan, I came to understand that the Japanese notion of love differs from the American. In Japan, almost no one uses the word love. They don’t end their letters signing love. They don’t tell people they love them. The word is not really in their vocabulary. Once I asked a friend of mine in Japan, “How do you tell someone to whom you are romantically attracted that you love them?” She said, “We don’t really have an expression for that. You tell someone you love them indirectly, according to the situation in which you find yourself. If you were going for a walk in the moonlight, you might look at the moon and say, “The moon seems especially full and glowing tonight, don’t you think?” Japanese marriages seem to value companionship over romance, which strikes me as less adolescent, more grown up.
Intimacy Through Distance
Fortunately, there are two other forms of love I value tremendously though, unfortunately, they seem undervalued by society because they don’t sell. If society did value them more, people would likely feel less alone and lonely.
As I write these words, we find ourselves in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic. Being a person who, at this time in my life, enjoys writing, I like spending time by myself. Being by myself feels different than being alone. By myself as in, by my side. It took me a long time, but I have come to enjoy my own company. Still, sometimes I feel the need to see people. Here in Japan, I will get on my $150 totally non-racing, nerdy upright shopping bike and ride around in my little neighborhood, Temma, or down to Yodo-gawa, (the river), where people walk their dogs, jog, play catch, fly kites. Riding on my bike, I can’t help smiling as I look at everyone with a warm feeling of love for them. Beholding them from afar, I enjoy seeing the endearing variations; a tiny little girl, maybe three years old, jet black hair, bangs cut straight across her forehead, in a purple dress just beginning to ride her tiny lime green two wheeled bicycle all by herself while a young, tall thin man who reminds me of a whippet, helmet, wrap around yellow sunglasses, skin tight slate grey jersey and shorts on the thinnest of bicycles, sitting on the thinnest of seats, weaves gracefully through slower moving, many of them older humans out for a bit of fresh air. Some women walk along with their friends under bright colored parasols wearing long gloves so as to keep their skin as fair as possible. I smile at lone men of all ages with their expert fishing gear, happy to be by themselves, fishing for fish I never see them catch, which does not seem to bother them in the least. Teenage girls, after school, in their dark blue school uniforms and bright white blouses, sit under a bridge sharing secrets.
Here we are, all together on the earth at the same time, all on the same wave, arising from the same ocean, some of us just beginning to appear, others of us standing strong and tall, others of us spreading out and slowing down, and still others slipping and sliding back from whence we came. But for now, in this moment, here we all are. One wave. Agape Love. An unflashy, quiet, peaceful, sunset kind of love. Intimacy through distance.
We are moved by people who exhibit strong agape love for people they don’t know, nurses and doctors on the front line during this pandemic. Love for the stranger. Irrational acts of kindness arise in all of us now and again. Something as simple as opening a door for someone who’s carrying a heavy package or offering to help a person lost in an unknown city figure out where they are and how to get to where they want to go. In Japan I’ve had people walk with me for blocks, going out of their way, just to make sure I get to where I want to go. Or, donating to a charity we like every year; Doctors Without Borders, Black Lives Matter, Amnesty International, The Heifer Foundation. We don’t have to do it, but we just do it. Feeding a stray cat. We can be in good company with others without knowing them at all, without ever speaking to them. Nothing flashy, just this gentle affection spreading out like a sunset over all of us.
One other form of loving, also underrated, but wonderful for me and for so many others is Philia. We find ourselves attracted to someone, not romantically, but in another way entirely. It’s as if we find someone who belongs not to our genetic family but to our spiritual family. A kindred spirit. These relationships can take many forms. Mentor/apprentice relations can feel this way, as if meeting a spiritual mother or father who will guide us and pass an inheritance onto us making us part of a lineage, a lineage not genetic in nature, but spiritual. Or, from the perspective of the mentor, meeting a student who we feel really understands us, understands what we care most about and who possesses the gifts necessary to take our work and the work of our teachers before us, forward to futures generations, people we may never meet that nonetheless we already love. Our minds and hearts will one day meet through the oral and written passing on of knowledge.
Likewise, sometimes the mentors we meet may no longer be alive, and yet there they are writing to us, confiding in us, inspiring us. A composer, novelist, painter, a poet, scientist, political leader, philosopher or theologian from long ago who speaks to us from another time, another culture, perhaps in another language, who knows what we care most about, who can express better than we can what we find most beautiful and true. We have never met them though we feel we know them. We live with them. We’re grateful to them. We love them.
But these relationships do not have to be intellectual relationships, or should I say, not only based upon intellectual ideas. I had an Aikido partner with whom I loved practicing. Working out with him, being moved by him, thrown by him was exhilarating. People we connect with via a shared love for something else; birdwatching, bicycling, baseball, baking, Bach, etc. Philia is an affirming love. We feel understood, included, connected with one another through what we love.
The More Than Human World
Most of the time when we think about these four kinds of love, we think about them being different kinds of love people feel toward other people, a love of family, sexual/romantic love toward a partner, love for humankind, or love toward a person who loves what we love. People loving people. But isn’t it enormously limiting to share our love only with people? Could not Storge and Agape love be extended beyond humankind? Why not include the animal kingdom of which we are a part? And why not include all plant life. Humans adore particular kinds of animals, plants and vegetation: horses, dogs, cats, fish, birds. Jane Goodall’s love of primates. Orchids, roses, wildflowers, bonsai. Pondarosa Pines, Aspens, Bamboo, Sakura, Weeping Willows, Giant Sequoia.
Once, I was giving a workshop in Kyoto when suddenly we all began to hear pattering and thumbing above us. All of us were a bit startled and perplexed except for one calm man who said, “They do this. They always find me.” He was a primatologist and about twenty snow monkeys had found him. Is this not Philia, brotherly love? Was not this primatologist and his dear friends kindred spirts?
Once, walking down to a lake for a swim on a hot summer day, I found my daughter, yes, the horse lover who was now about nine years old, standing waist deep in the lake motionless. “Is anything wrong,” I asked. She said’ “Shhhh…Dad, I’m petting the fish.”
Even Eros, once de-localized, can extend far beyond the human realm. Our sexual energies when allowed to spread throughout our entire body and when directed, not toward a particular human other, but toward the entire natural world-as-our-lover converts our sexuality into sensuality. The warm touch of the sun upon our shoulders, the perfumed scent of lilac, rose, and lavender, a soft bed of green grass against our backs, the wind stroking its fingers through our hair, the taste of a tart, juicy apple just plucked from the tree exploding in our mouths.
As our senses awaken, we begin to actually feel that the world is physically touching us all day long and all night long, which it is! We are never not being touched, not being supported, not being held. It is up to us to register it, to enjoy it, to be grateful for it, to experience it as nurturing, loving contact.
Why not let our capacity to love, whether it be Storge, Agape, Philia, or Eros overflow into, what David Abrams calls, “the more than human world” of animals and insects and trees, rocks and mountains and stars, sun and wind and sky? “But how could the less than human world love us in return in the ways we feel we truly need? I need someone with whom I can talk, someone who will listen to me.” Yes, for sure, we need humans in our lives. But is it true that the more than human world does not and cannot love us? Is it true that the more than human world cannot speak to us, converse, communicate, express itself to us?
First there was not the word. First there was a world without words. Is it still possible for us to get even a glimmer of that world?