Love's Machine

Wednesday night, early fall, driving home in the dark, I had the full moon off to my left, above the trees along the road. It snowed a few days ago, and in the Rockies the days and nights after snow are often filled with spectacular sky. It was deep, charcoal dark, the sky that night, but the moon's light was passing through four horizontal swatches of cloud cover. It shone bright as a dim northern sun but colorless; the dark sky was a black and white photograph of a muted sunset. Moonbeams angled from places where the clouds were especially thin.

As I watched, the clouds moved east, drawn toward the moon, and the moon continued its almost visible ascent. The long cones of light gyred like slow spotlights, and the terrain and texture of the clouds shifted, as if the clouds were breathing restlessly in sleep. I snatched gulping glances of the living chiaroscuro as I drove east into the dark. On any other road, I might have stopped.

I noticed, after I'd been alone for about a year, that I didn't look at the sky any more. Even now, the sky doesn't interest me. There is nothing up there for me. Not that I avoid it, but I don't really look, studying the movement of the constellations and the moods of the moon, drinking the heady wines and fizzes of sunset. I notice things, still; but I don't look for them. That Wednesday evening, I noticed this sky and I wanted to stop and stare at it. Considering this forgotten impulse, I realized that what I really wanted was not that at all. I wanted to say to someone, sitting next to me in the car, "Look!", and have her look for me. Then I would not need to stop or see the sky myself.

That is the machinery of love, that empathic existence that neither consumes the beloved nor is consumed. It is not a reasoned thing, any more than tears make sense, however apparent the reason for them. That is how, with love, we live in others. If she had been there to see the sky, I wouldn't have needed to. I saw, in that time when we loved each other, with her marbled, turquoise eyes; she was in my hands like nutrient blood and stablizing bone. This is how two become one; sex is just a metaphor. It is how love leads us to choose another's welfare over our own. Her welfare was my own. As much as our child, our love is an extension of our self. To hurt her makes no more sense than hurting myself. "Without love," a wise man wrote, "I am nothing."

The impoverished dogmas of psychology cannot comprehend this; understanding requires a religious sensibility and a taste for paradox. To be an extension of someone else is not to lose one's autonomy in some co-dependent bog, but to grow: more hands, more eyes. And the paradox is that both lovers grow; it is not an agon in which one must possess the other, but a blending that creates something new and more complete than either of them, two things, their selves expanded. It is co-dependency like yin is shaped by yang. The water depends on the streambed to give it shape, and it creates the streambed. Mutual need drives love; if you need nothing, you are dead.

We have degenerated, our last few generations, into a species incapable of empathy. I don't mean sympathy, which is a sensitivity of the hardship endured by others, but the empathic ability to recognize ourself in the other. There is an essential difference between feeling sorry for someone and knowing how they feel. The first dissolves into degrading pity; the second forces us to face our mutability and common ground. The true sociopath does not perceive any congruence between his experience and that of others. The fact that acid burns him tells him nothing about how it might feel to someone else. The suffering of others is never his suffering. He is unique.

Americans have exalted the cult of the individual to the point that our herd/pack instincts are essentially dead, and with them the ability to form true interpersonal bonds. We are islands indeed, each to ourself. For adults together, it means the end of love. I worry about what it means for children, dependent as they are on their parents' ability to accept that the child's welfare is their own. Will we, like insects, begin to eat our young? For an answer, look at how we deprecate the future. I think perhaps we have begun already.

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