Monday, January 31, 2011

Fairy Tale Romance - The Way Forward?

Part 5 of 5
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
So how do we proceed? Probably the best way would be to scarp our whole system and start from scratch. But a tradition exists and cannot be overthrown in a day, and we must make the best of it.

 I am not sure our present system of courtship is ideal. We start entwining ourselves to the opposite sex at 14 and marry at 26. Perhaps we should not practice pairing and separating. Perhaps we should date only when we’re ready to marry. Couples that are together for years will break up because neither was ready to marry; they are torn asunder by circumstance. This rending of souls is destructive and painful; it may, at least in part, contributes to the loss of romance that we presently observe. Drawing close to another soul is a fearful thing, and we mustn’t do it but with the utmost caution and compassion.

But draw close we must! Some are truly called to lifelong chastity. But I don’t think there are many. For the rest of us, there is but one way: the dangerous way. We may travel down the road slowly or quickly; we may delay the journey for a time. However we do it, it is the road we must travel. We cannot love another person without vulnerability. There is no love without sacrifice, and the first thing that must be sacrificed is safety. Consider again CS Lewis’ words:
We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as a way in which they should break, so be it. What I know about love and believe about love and giving ones heart began in this.
The way forward is a dangerous jungle. And we have, by our failures, made it even more dangerous. There are many places where we can leave our travelling companion alone in the darkness of the jungle. We have many injuries from past failed expeditions. But though we limp, and though the danger is perhaps greater than it has ever been, we must brave the jungle if we are to reach El Dorado. We can splint broken limbs before we begin, and try to prepare ourselves for traps ahead. 

Men: Man up! Live in integrity and be true to your word, even commitments uttered while drunk on wine from Eros. Realize that you can skirt around the edge of the jungle all you want, keeping your options open. But with nothing ventured, nothing can be gained. It is only when you begin to give your heart to another that any real progress can be made. Forgive those women who abandoned you in the jungle, and then gird up your loins to go back in!

Women: bandage your wounds! Stop the hemorrhaging from fresh wounds, but do remember to clean out the old ones. Do not rub the mud of lies into your wounds! Remember that you are beautiful in the eyes of God! Forgive those men who made you feel otherwise and thus burn away the gangrene; you will need all of your emotional limbs for a successful expedition. Be very careful not to trust an unreliable partner, but be equally careful not to reject a reliable one; a trustworthy companion is necessary, and both errors will lead to failure.

Together, I hope that we can rekindle the flames of Romance! I pray that Eros would rise again to serve as a guide, leading men and women to Agape! Oh that Man would again be bold, and in time, would make trustworthy promises to Woman! Oh that Woman, the Crown of God’s creation, would again be strong in herself, able to draw Man into her sweet embrace! Oh that Man and Woman would experience the wonderful falling into place, that eucatastrophe, that we read about in the fairy tales!

1. 28/28 days; 2. 360/360 minutes; 3. 4/4 weeks

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fairy Tale Romance - Real Life

Part 4 of 5

Now we come to the heart of the matter. And while I might be very good at skipping across the theoretical, here in the grit of reality, my naiveté will likely become apparent. But I will write, even though I am not sure the following is true. I am attempting to build up a true idea like a tower. Perhaps what I build here will be torn down for errors that others find in it. But even then, I hope that it will give some hint at what a solid idea on this subject would be. But enough philosophizing! It is time for brass tacks!

I’ve recounted the story of Jacob and Rachel to several female friends, and asked them to interpret it in light of their own experiences. It seems that Genesis 29 is in the same category as Jonah and the fish: some sort of wonderful, miraculous event that perhaps happened, but not one that is practical. They fawn over Jacob’s romance, but then tell me stories of how they themselves have utterly rejected every guy who expressed love like his. What ought to be the beginning of a wonderful romance turns out to be the end of one.

Guys, especially “good” guys, apparently don’t know this. They have strong Jacob-ian feelings of love for women which compel them to make promises, give compliments and, in general, be romantic. Woe unto them! How do girls respond? With feelings put up to defend against another broken heart: “He just wants my body,” “He doesn’t know me,” “I have commitment issues,” “It just turns me off” (these are direct quotes from girls I’ve recently talked to on this subject). And it is the same with my male friends. They won’t let themselves fall for a girl because, “It’s too risky”; it’s much more prudent to, “Keep options open.” Men and women have both hardened their hearts, or probably more accurately, their hearts have become calloused from repeated injury. 

But every girl grows up believing in fairy tales. No matter how much social conditioning or porn or pessimism have ruined sexuality, little girls love stories of romance. Disney princesses still sell, no matter how non-PC gender roles are. Women still love Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice. They still, even as grown-ups, want to hear fairy tales of Twilight’s Edward. Yet I don’t know of any of my women peers who still want to hear professions of love or promises from men. Men must be doing enormous damage to so utterly displace this deep and universal hope in nearly every modern woman. And the men now are equally cautious. How many of them would ever make such professions? Women seem to have developed an urge to vomit or flee (usually both) when hearing them, so why bother? And even if it were romantic, such constriction of options would be dangerous.

I think one of the problems is that we still have the passion of Eros but we lack the integrity of Jacob. We are driven by our Eros to make promises, but then we don’t actually have to keep them. And so we break them, and with them, the heart of their object. In the West, we allow a category of relationship, “dating” or “boy/girlfriend,” to go with implicit promises that will almost certainly be broken. And so today, it seems that nearly every woman has been lied to, implicitly or explicitly, by a man, and vice-versa. There are a precious few survivors who, out of nerdiness, ugliness, or dumb luck, have made it through this onslaught. For everyone else, when another promise is made, instead of romantic excitement, it brings memories of pain, or reflexes to avoid the pain. A conviction builds, starting from our first high school sweetheart and gaining strength with every broken heart, that fairy tales are for children, after all. Marriage isn’t a wonderful thing for princes and princesses, but an increasingly irrelevant contract of convenience.

I think CS Lewis in the Four Loves exactly describes our predicament:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
We have locked away our still-beating heart in a black coffin. The passions of the living heart seep out of the coffin like a vapor and drive Twilight sales into the millions, while the thick lid prevents any real corporeal Romance in. Perhaps it is irony that Edward, the great romantic hero of our age, is dead. Mr. Darcy has been replaced with a pale, cold, lifeless, blood-sucking, sun-fearing creature of the night (with really sexy hair).

So we are left with a deep philosophical question: are the romantic fairy tales real? Certainly when we disbelieve in them, we make them unreal. But what if we really believed in them? What if this desire for men to promise ridiculous things a short time after meeting women, and women’s urge to believe them, are truly God-given? What if all that love-activated dopaminergic brain circuitry was for something (besides making drugs fun)? What if Thomas Aquinas was right when he said, “No natural desire is in vain”? Is that even a possible world?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Fairy Tale Romance - Neurobiology

Part 3 of 5
This is your brain on love. From PLoS.
This was supposed to be a four-part post, but I couldn’t resist including material from Monday’s lecture.

As it turns out, there is incredible similarity between opioids (like heroin) and being in love. They act on the same regions of the brain and cause similar physiologic effects. They both reduce the perception of pain in those who took them. The more in love a person is, the greater the effect. They have similar immediate effects: feelings of euphoria, well-being. They have similar withdrawal effects: compulsive thinking, anxiety.

We talked about the four C’s of addiction. Compulsion, Continuation despite harm, lack of Control in using the drug, Cravings. Isn’t this exactly romance? Doesn’t this describe a lover’s desire for his beloved? He must see her. And when he doesn’t see her, he has cravings for her. And it not only matches the addiction profile, but also the features of dependence. What happens if there is sudden removal of the beloved (that is, a breakup)? Lovesickness. GI upset, overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Severe physiological and psychological symptoms. As it turns out, it may be that symptoms are chemically identical to heroin withdrawal.

But, like usual, neurobiology tells us what we already know (it’s Poetry’s job to tell us what we don’t). We know that we feel good when we’re in love. We know it hurts to break up. What we didn’t know (at least what I didn’t know) was that this effect could be mimicked pharmacologically.

Does this mean romantic love isn’t real? Far from it! It means that romantic love is very real, and incredibly powerful, perhaps as powerful as the most addictive substance known to man! Far from ruining the fairy tales, we now (perhaps) know one more detail about them. But an added detail doesn’t ruin the picture. Understanding the physiology of muscle contraction of the knight’s triceps as he swings his sword does nothing to diminish his slaying of the dragon; it is an interesting, if irrelevant, detail. Knowing the names of the chemicals which are giving him an overwhelming urge guarantee permanency with his beloved is yet another interesting, if irrelevant, detail. This medical hypothesis is only another bit of color in the wonderful (and terrible) picture of Romance.  

We also haven’t addressed how these feelings begin. The ancients have as realistic an explanation as we do presently: his heart is pierced with a powerful magic arrow by Cupid/Eros. Perhaps cupid uses dopamanurgic arrows. And we should take heed, lest we rely too much on this powerful magic. A relationship cannot be sustained only on this heroin-like phase. The high will diminish as tolerance builds. But this is exactly what we already knew; there is a honeymoon phase on new love. It lasts for a while, but not forever.

In the previous post, I recounted poetic descriptions from Genesis, Disney and Sex and the City, all describing some deep yearning for romance. This bit of scientific evidence simply confirms their observations. These feelings are real and deep, deeper than we can ignore. Courting customs vary from age to age; neurobiology does not. Scientists have now joined the ranks of poets in describing this same strange phenomenon. Genesis suggests that Romance was not a medieval invention. Neurobiology suggests that Romance was not a ancient invention, either. This feature has been with our race from the beginning; Fairy Tale Romance, it seems, was an invention of God.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Fairy Tale Romance - Stories

Part 2 of 5
Cupid, or as he is called in Greek, Eros. This one also lives in
London (it's a great place for sculpture!)
I’ve been reading through Genesis and this week I rediscovered a truly beautiful story: the romance of Jacob and Rachel. Here’s the semi-abridged version from the ESV:
Genesis 29:9 While he [Jacob] was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father's sheep, for she was a shepherdess. …Then Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud.13 As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister's son, he ran to meet him and embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, 14 and Laban said to him, "Surely you are my bone and my flesh!" And he stayed with him a month. 15 Then Laban said to Jacob, "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?" 16 Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. 18 Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, "I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel." 19 Laban said, "It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me." 20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
The story gets better, and there’re lots of lessons to be drawn, but the one I want to focus on is the last verse. But the big idea is that this guy, Jacob, sees a beautiful woman, falls in love with her, and within a month of first meeting, commits to work for her sake for seven years. It’s a beautiful story. Jacob loved Rachel (Hebrew: אָהַב – Ahab, as in, “Thou shalt [ahab] the Lord thy God” and “[Ahab] thy neighbor as thyself.”). And he sacrificed incredibly for her, seven entire years. Then he gets cheated by Laban later, and is willing to work an additional seven years for her.

The incredible feature of this story is the strength of his commitment contrasted to the shortness of their acquaintance. This isn’t two years of dating before he ‘pops the question.’ It’s one month. And it’s not a six month engagement, it’s seven years. The cost to him wasn’t an expensive ring, but seven years of labor. Think about that in modern terms. Seven years of average wages today would be on the order of half a million dollars. He promises Laban all that within only one month of meeting Rachel. What on earth could drive a man so crazy as to make such a commitment? Woman, it would seem.

As a more contemporary caricature of this relationship, consider the following dialogue from Disney’s “Enchanted” between the princess Giselle and the New Yorker Robert:
Robert: So, what's the deal with this prince of yours? How long you been together?
Giselle: [wistfully] Oh, about a day.
Robert: You mean it feels like a day because you're so in love.
Giselle: No, it's been a day.
Robert: You're kidding me. A day? One day?
Giselle: Yes.
[wistful again]
Giselle: And tomorrow it will be two days.
Robert: You're joking.
Giselle: No. I'm not.
Robert: Yeah, you are.
Giselle: But I'm not.
Robert: You're gonna marry somebody after a day? Because you fell in love with him?
Giselle: Yes.
Giselle: Yes!
The princess has such a love for the prince after simply meeting him. She has given her heart to him, and he to her. And they are very serious about getting married and staying married (there is no divorce in Fairy Land, after all). And the prince/princess marriage still wears the clothing of the medievals. And at its center is a very strange idea to us moderns: making ridiculously brash and often silly promises, and then giving one’s life rather than violating them. This is the “Happily Ever After” stereotype. But what can possess a man to make such a brash promise to a woman? What god or spirit can so possess him? Eros is his name. CS Lewis’ work, “The Four Loves” gives a wonderful description of Eros:
To be in love is both to intend and to promise lifelong fidelity. Love makes vows unasked; can’t be deterred from making them. “I will be ever true,” are almost the first words he utters. Not hypocritically but sincerely…And yet Eros is in a sense right to make this promise. The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory…Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (toward one person) by loving our neighbour as ourselves…It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival…Eros is driven to promise what Eros of himself cannot perform.
The early promises seem to be a characteristic part of this romantic love; it was the Eros of Jacob drove him to make what we would call a very hasty promise for Rachel. Lewis describes such love in a more positive light than I think we would. In Eros, Lewis argues, we have tasted true love, Agape. We are driven to behave selflessly, sacrificing our will for the sake of our beloved through promise. In Lewis’ account, this seems to be a good thing, but only when it acts as the spark to light the everlasting Agape.

So we have a dilemma. We have these ideas floating about in the human imagination, behaviors demonstrated by some of the earliest of our patriarchs, exciting us as children and tantalizing us still as adults. And then we have real life, where these things don’t happen like that. Sex and the City’s Carrie, reading to a little girl, finishes a bedtime story, “’Cinderella and the prince lived happily ever after.’ You know that this is just a fairy tale, right? Things don’t always happen like this in real life. I just think you should know that.” The human dilemma is in the child’s response: an enthusiastic “Again!”

We have these nice ideas, and then we have reality. What happens when they collide? Is romance something we’re ought to desire, something built into us, or is it a fiction to be dispensed of like Santa Claus, a pleasant lie of childhood and nothing more?

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fairy Tale Romance - Introduction

Part 1 of 5
Two Lovers in Hyde Park in London. Boy do they love each other!
Why do we tell Fairy Tales? And especially, why do we tell romantic Fairy Tales? JRR Tolkien gives us part of the answer in one of his essays:

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect [of joy] in a serious tale of Faerie. In such stories, when the sudden turn comes, we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.

This is what he would describe as a ‘eucatastrophe.’ Tolkien argued that this was the unifying theme of Fairy Tales, and what he in his own tale, sought to achieve. Tolkien’s idea was this eucatastrophe lets us get a glimpse at true Reality, the Christian idea of all things coming together for good in the end. But what about one particular kind of fairy tale: what about the Fairy Tale Romance? What is a Fairy Tale Romance? Does the idea still linger in our hearts? And if we knew what it was, would we have any reason to believe in it after we have become grown-ups?

These will be the questions I’ll wrestle with in this series of posts. The second will explore several opinions on romantic love. The third will discuss what we’ve done modernly to the concept. In the fourth, I’ll give some recommendations; but I’m hesitant to post these because I’m not sure I’m right. Nevertheless, I will so that I can be critiqued. It very well may be that I’m wrong in all four posts. This should rustle some feathers, and I hope that the rustling will teach you something, and that you will also teach me.

1. 21/21 days; 2. 270/270 minutes; 3. 3/3 weeks

Monday, January 17, 2011

Shabbat Shalom

After a wonderful lunch with churchmates, I decided to go to campus. Years ago, I had committed to obey (as best I could) the Sabbath (or at least the Christian variant), and so I’ve worked hard to not work hard on Sunday.

It is an incredible feeling. There is lots to do. But none of it can be done on Sunday, and so, for a brief window, I have complete freedom and no responsibility. No nagging, “You should be…”s; no guilt; no fear. Sunday is a fortress, with high walls between it and the catch-up work of Saturday, and the renewed stresses of Monday.

I made it to campus and parked. I walked around, pondering what I would, near the medical school. After a while, my feet were a bit tired, so I rested on a bench. The sun was warm, and I laid back, deep in thought and meditation. Then I realized that my thoughts were drifting away; I was tired.

I grabbed a sleeping pad from my car (Be Prepared is the motto of a Boy Scout, after all) and laid down on it in the grass, the warm afternoon sun shining down on me. It was winter, so it was not so harsh or vertical that I needed shade. Under this warmth, I drifted away into the long-lost land of sleep. I woke up refreshed. I can’t remember the last time I have taken a nap.

I decided to make my way over to Lagunita, a one-time lake with a beautiful trail along the edge of it. Perhaps I could enjoy the sunset from there. I drove to that side of campus, and on the way, noticed a beautiful field, shaded by several old trees. I love trees, especially very old trees, and the sight of these trees over the grasses struck me. I found a place to park and walked through the field of grass, tall and fresh with the recent rains. I wondered at the overlapping shadow of the blades of grass on each other and the orange hue that was falling over them. As I walked, I smiled broadly. The beauty was like water, and I drank it up with a great thirst. If anyone had seen me, they might of though me mad, for as I walked, I laughed out loud. What else could one do before such joy?

I sat down under the spreading oak tree and admired the field. It was beautiful! A chill ran down my spine all the way down my legs. I took a deep breath. Another chill came. My heart was filled with gratitude toward the Creator, this great Artist. My heart was heavy, a strange feeling that had never before come with gratitude (by the way, I’m not quite sure how, neurologically, we can feel a ‘heavy heart,’ though we all have). I have felt my heart heavy with sadness or guilt, but never with gratitude. The field was serene, and I heard nothing but the occasional light rustle of a falling leaf. My hands felt the rugged bark of the tree, and I picked up handfuls of dirt just to know its feel.

Leaving the tree, I looked back at the scene, the same perspective as before but now an hour later; the shadows were changed, the brightness reduced, and every color warmed. A chorus of birds began to sing behind me. Each thing, from the blade of grass to the great oak, was made for Beauty. Old Oak was made to sing worship to his creator in a deep, slow baritone; Madam Bird in her sweet tweet, tweet. The thought of it overwhelmed me. My heart was full of beauty and gratitude. With this final stroke, it overflowed and I cried.

Oh Lord! Why have you loved me so? Why have you given me eyes to see such wonders, fingers to feel the simple beauty? Why have you so flooded the earth with such wonders? Am I a billionaire that I can afford admission to such a scene? Have I done some great deed to be rewarded with such treasure as the Birdsong or the Canticle of the Oak?

Thank you for raining beauty upon all the earth, that any open vessel might catch it. Thank you, Abba, for loving me.

1. 14/14 days; 2. 180/180 minutes; 3. 2/2 weeks

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Year's Resolution

It's that time of year again. The time to make promises that make you feel good about yourself for a while, the kind that get you to buy gym memberships that will never be used and diet cookbooks that will never get read.

New Years Resolutions raise many interesting issues. Why do we make them? And why do we continue making them even in the face of near universal failure?

I think it's because we seek perfection, and the New Year makes us think about ways that we are not perfect. We are creatures that desire to be something we are not. And we think that if we're really, really sure about the kind of creatures we want to be for one day (Jan 1), then we can make ourselves into them. If we want to be a fit, healthy-eating, on-time, family-oriented, non-procrastinating person, then all we have to do is declare we will be such on January the First, and, come January the Second, that is what we shall be.

It's rather audacious. But we, alone in the Cosmos, are unsatisfied with what we are. And we fail and fail again at self-improvement, yet we try and try again. Like some persistent tank engine, we continue to tell ourselves "I think I can" when all evidence would support the assertion, "I can't."

We, as a culture, are so bad at self-improvement, that we often assert that it cannot be done at all. For example, in LA, a company is very effectively marketing bariatric surgery with the following: "Diets Fail! Lap Band Works!" People compare willpower to fuel in a car, and when you use it up, you can't do anything. And so people don't try, and the prophecy fulfills itself.

But we, as a race, have produced some pretty incredible will-ers. The Desert Fathers would go without food and water for long periods of time; Francis of Assisi went without clothing for periods; monks would wade waist deep into the North Sea and pray for hours in the freezing waters; Johnathan Edwards (the theologian) would study so intensely that he would miss multiple meals. I'm sure other traditions have similar characters. It's not that people can't do it, it's just that Americans can't. And I'm as guilty as any other. I don't exercise like I should. I don't spend time with God. And I want that to change.

One 'trick' that people used to use that we don't anymore is peer pressure. At least we don't often use it for good things. We rarely ask friends and strangers to hold us accountable for our actions (in economic terms, few of us are "complex hyperbolic discounters"). So I will enlist you, my invisible audience, to aid me with my self-improvement. I commit to three goals, all very tangible and objective, and I will post my progress on these three goals in the postscript of my blog every week. That way I have no excuse. If I screw up, you see it. A few rules: I can't get more than 100% in a period (no storing up), Week 1 is 1/3-1/9, I can't do make-ups, and I can't lie ;).

I have three resolutions:

Resolution the First: spend 30 minutes with God every day.
Resolution the Second: exercise 90 minutes per week.
Resolution the Third: write at least one blog entry per week.

1. 7/7 days; 2. 90/90 minutes; 3. 1/1 weeks