“A drop of love is more than an ocean of knowledge.”
~ Blaise Pascal
Over the years, I have encountered some clients who are already in a steady relationship but are ‘unsure’ if it’s the right move to make the next level of commitment, such as moving in or marriage.
They do not know because their way of “knowing” is not what is needed to make this kind of decision.
This way of “knowing” is our cognitive comfort zone. Limited by the constraints of our rationality, we are extremely risk-averse. Our physical and emotional vulnerability leads us to protections that reduce our risk exposure or mitigate the impact of hazards when they occur.
This is a very natural process. After all, fear is the most primeval of all our emotions, and during evolution, we learned how to deal with the sources of fear. Rationality prompts us to build up islets of certainty in the ocean of future uncertainty. Insurance, diversification, hedging, small steps, reducing exposure, minimizing potential impacts, sticking to what is familiar, and even procrastination are among the strategies that are supposed to keep us safe.
Many of these strategies prove extremely useful in many aspects of life. Financial decisions should be taken with a minimum diversion from rationality. The same holds for scientific processes, accounting, statistics, engineering and all aspects of the universe subject to our referential knowledge – knowledge “of” something, something we can refer to.
But relations between humans are not subject to such a simple, rational calculus. When we interact with others, different mechanisms interfere.
Some of these mechanisms operate at the purely somatic level – for example, activating the chemical (hormonal) and affecting the nervous system.
But another, more elusive level also operates in the spiritual realm. It is the core of human relations, the intricate interplay of attraction and repulsion, intuition, intimacy, trust, respect and the disturbing moments when we feel betrayed by our acquired relational wisdom.
This problem would be familiar to the Western philosophical tradition. The greatest medieval philosopher – Thomas Aquinas – is considered the father of the system that successfully bridged the spiritual realm with rationality. Curiously, many of these insights were later amputated by the Enlightenment’s materialists and by many a ritualistic revivalist.
In the Thomist system, we are endowed with the power of reason to decide what seems good to us, but we also have the free will to select what we seek (goal) and how we go about it (pathway). Aquinas recognizes the simple truth – we all want to be happy but are unsure what will make us happy.
He is famous for enumerating all the false traps of happiness – wealth, power, honors, fame, and bodily pleasures. None of them fully satisfy. By elimination, the philosopher concludes that happiness is the reward of works of virtue – acquired behavioral patterns that make us flourish.
By combining revelation and reason, Aquinas knows that we need both to “know” and to “do”. Our intellect operates in the realm of knowledge. But we act according to our will. Unlike your beagle pet, which finds a squirrel in the park an irresistible object of his desire, our human free will is a question of choice. And what we choose is the means to an end.
This ultimate end is always the same – we want to be happy. We exercise our free will by selecting this or that pathway.
By choosing a certain pathway repeatedly, we develop habits. When the feedback from the environment reinforces our actions, the habits are automated.
This may present a challenge for the couples I mentioned in the beginning. Certain defensive habits develop if a young adult goes through one disappointing relationship after another. Prudence is a virtue, but too much prudence is not. Hedging this relationship “just in case” because something better could come in future objectifies our partner and reduces the level of intimacy that we can achieve together.
A similar mechanism operates in the case of professional job-hoppers, who never really commit to what they are doing now, always looking for potential alternatives. Too much prudence destroys the potential for value creation. Just think of an investment account that is safely put fully in cash. There is no return from such an “investment”. Aquinas appropriately labels this eternally non-committal attitude as a “vice of deficiency”.
Since it’s a vice rather than a virtue, it is a form of behavior that makes us unhappy. Yet often, we pursue this course of action repeatedly. This is because our desires affect how we see things, and we are not always the best judges to determine what makes us flourish as human beings – including in relations with other human beings.
And here’s the crux. Overcoming the habit (vice) of deficiency is a decision. We have the free will to decide. Our view of what can make us happy must be informed by an insight into what we are as living humans living among other humans. Attainment of this relational wisdom cannot be achieved through mere reason. We cannot break out of the protective’ vice of deficiency’ by using our reason, imprisoned in the rut of our embedded habits.
It is, therefore, not something that can be captured by our cognitive faculties alone. Instead, it is a spiritual practice. And the decision to love is precisely such a practice. As G.K. Chesterton famously said: Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
Human beings are like Rome.
So let us step down a level and use an example. Imagine you are in a relationship, and something your partner did irks you. When people act in a way that you find undesirable, you may be tempted to judge them and withdraw your love. That habit is emotionally automated and could even be “logically” understood. But this reaction betrays a profound misunderstanding of human nature. When your partner feels judged, criticized, or despised, s/he will become defensive.
By withholding love and hoping the other person suffers, you deny yourself the feeling of love. And you are the first to suffer.
The next time you find yourself pointing fingers at their bad behavior or ’imperfection’, turn your attention inward and identify each emotion you are feeling at the moment. Become more interested in what’s happening in you, including all those uncomfortable sensations in your body. This will heal your insecurities and help you find peace within yourself first.
Then, you could apply the “Rome” metaphor and treat any conflict as an invitation to expand your Trust and your capacity to love. You will no longer approach the relationship by objectifying the other person and asking: “How can this person meet my needs?” but rather from the perspective of “What can I give?”
When you do this, real intimacy arises from being open and willing to receive the partner on all four Aspects of Being – emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual. You open the channel by sharing your thoughts verbally and at levels of emotion, body, and spirituality. You meet the other person exactly as they are, without an urge to change anything immediately.
This form of love is enabled by a shift – from thinking “rationally” that we are separate entities to recognizing that we are interconnected. This is an effort of spiritual intelligence to unlearn our separate existences. You hold the space for another person to be different, offering safety and a chance to rise. In other words, you hold a higher possibility for this person’s form to be updated in that moment. If you do this, it is more likely that they will step up to a better version of themselves. You can discuss your differences only once you have established a sense of connectedness. Otherwise, the debate will continue to separate you.
You can never “cause” someone to love you, or “constraint”, “force”, “or persuade”. No rational argument can prevail here. By contrast, if you decide to please someone, it is because it is pleasant for you, not as a ploy to “attract” someone’s love. You are neither possessive or servile nor attempt to control the other.
This kind of love is not an emotion, and it is certainly not “blind”.
Quite the contrary, it is clearly discernible. It is also unconditional. You are empowered because you offer love, and it reflects back onto you. This way, you feel more loving. Instead of trying to manipulate them, you are simply there, receiving and reflecting the other person in your mind, emotion, body, and spirit. It is the single most critical relational skill but also the most neglected, as most of us want to be loved and heard “the way we are”.
The “vice of deficiency” prevents us from getting there by reifying the other person. But humans are not objects, and human development is an ongoing process.
As Blaise Pascal once said, “A drop of love is more than an ocean of knowledge.” The awareness of this truth is a step towards living one’s life meaningfully.
Humans are like Rome the Eternal. Cherish it as if it was to disappear tomorrow. So don’t hedge against it, hoping that a better option is just around the corner, landing “from Russia with love”.
We all know how that ends.
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