What is so frightening is the extent to which we may idealize others when we have such trouble tolerating ourselves–because we have such trouble… I must have realized that Chloe was only human, with all the implications carried by the word, but could I not be forgiven for my desire to suspend such a thought? Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping we won’t find in another what we know is in ourselves, all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one and decide that everything within it will somehow be free of our faults. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through our union with the beloved hope to maintain (against the evidence of all self-knowledge) a precarious faith in our species.
From a talk he gave on love this summer, Alain de Botton here gives us permission to view our significant others as the small children they actually are. Relying on a searingly low anthropology, de Botton argues that pessimism is, in fact, the key to a successful relationship. He says, “Pessimism is often seen as the enemy of good things, and indeed it is in many ventures. But when you embark on the journey of love, pessimism, in fact, is the most generous and kindly emotion you can direct towards yourself and your partner.” One of the ways we do this, he figures, is to disentangle one another from the “adult” expectations we have for one another. (The entire 20 minute talk, below, is well worth the listen. This comes in the last couple minutes.)
The first thing we need to understand is: let’s stop treating our partners as if they were adults and let’s start treating them like small children. The reason this is so important is when a small child has done something wrong—let’s imagine you have a small child, you cook them dinner, they’re two years old, three years old, you have broccoli and some schnitzel and you put a plate down in front of them and they just swipe it off and go, “Ech!” and start screaming. Now, what do you do as a modern parent? You don’t hit them. You don’t go, “I’m so offended, I’ve had a hard day at work, and now this—you’re persecuting me!” You don’t say that. Instead, you go, “Maybe my poor child’s got a sore tooth, or maybe he’s a bit jealous of his sister being born, maybe that’s kind of weighing on him, maybe he’s a bit tired, that’s why he’s behaving like this.” In other words, we’re incredibly generous with our system of interpretation. We don’t do this with adults because we think, This person’s an adult. And, most adults look like adults, unfortunately. It would be so much more useful if we looked like children.
The thing about breaking something—like a broken arm—is that everyone can see it. “Oh, you’ve got a broken arm! I’m so sorry, let me open the door for you.” If you’ve got a broken bit of your soul, a broken bit of your psyche, everyone thinks your normal. But you want to say, “No, no, I’ve got this thing, it’s broken even though it doesn’t look broken.” We don’t look like children—but we are inside. And we’re so aware of how patronizing it is to be treated as if you are younger than you are, but we forget how generous, how kind, how truly loving it is to treat someone as if they are younger than they are. Because this is what it means to truly love someone: to be generous in one’s interpretation of another person.
We’ve all been there. You say something to a friend or family member or spouse that seems innocuous. “Have you seen my sunglasses?”. “I may have to postpone our lunch.” Or maybe you do something thoughtless but minor. You forget to return an email. You borrow a piece of clothing without asking. The response you get is vicious–way out of proportion with whatever you’ve said or done.
This happens with alarming frequency in relationships, especially romantic ones. Soon both parties have shifted into “combat mode” and the conflict has escalated to painful heights. Your action or comment has triggered something significant in the other party, what psychologists…
A few more quotes from Alain de Botton’s wonderful new book, The Course of Love, all taken from the penultimate chapter where he outlines what it might look like to be “Ready for Marriage”:
Pronouncing a lover “perfect” can only be a sign that we have failed to understand them. We can claim to have begun to know someone only when they have substantially disappointed us.
However, the problems aren’t theirs alone. Whomever we could meet would be radically imperfect: the stranger on the train, the old school acquaintance, the new friend online… Each of these, too, would be guaranteed to let…
Chalk it up to feeling a bit sentimental as my wife and I enter the final stretch of waiting for baby number three (most likely our last prenatal go-round). Or maybe it has to do with the increasing number of conversations I’ve been having with young couples perplexed by why anyone would ever want to reproduce, given the obvious insanity of the contemporary parenting treadmill and the (largely recreational) venting that occupies so much online real estate. Or perhaps it’s that I’m trying to think of something to say this Sunday about Naaman, the leper-warrior who, at the prophet Elisha’s behest, begrudgingly “went down and…
A few months after my wife and I got engaged, an older friend of hers pulled me aside and tried to do me a favor. He told me that if there was anything he wished he could have told his premarital self, it was that, no matter who you marry, they will be coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, culturally speaking. If he had known that up front, it might have spared him and his significant other considerable heartache.
Like much of what people tell you before you get married (or have kids), his words were both 100% true…
Building on last week’s Fargo post, some food for thought from pages 119-120 of writer-philosopher-‘religious atheist’ Alain de Botton’s provocative How to Think More About Sex (other brave portions of which we excerpted here):
“In a perfect world, all couples would be visited by a psychotherapist on a weekly basis, without even having to put themselves forward for the service. The session would simply be a regular feature of a good, ordinary life, as the Friday evening meal is for Jews, and would offer some of the same cathartic function as this ritual. Above all, neither party would be made to feel by society that he or she was crazy for having therapy–which is currently the main reason people neglect to see therapists and therefore slowly go crazy.
This ideal therapist would take a history of a relationship, explore its current tensions and try to serve as a catalyst for the sort of change that the couple themselves were too weak, busy or confused to bring about on their own. She would remind her clients that every exchange, however minor, had meaning and could set off a chain of recriminations and resentments that would prevent them from wanting to have sex. She would teach them to treat the complicated business of being in a relationship with extraordinary care. She would ask them both to arrive at every session with a list of issues that had arisen during the previous week, and insist that they each listen to the other’s complaints compassionately, without resorting to angry self-justification or injured self-pity… She would review their individual psychological histories and endeavor to help make the couple aware of some of the ways in which, because of their particular pasts, they might both be likely to distort or misread reality. And when arguments did flare up, she would urge each of them to see the other as being wounded and sad rather than malicious or spiteful.
This therapist would belong to a new kind of priesthood, designed for an age that no longer believes in religious forgiveness and understanding in the afterlife but that is still very much in need of those same qualities in the here and now.”
“What would Alain de Botton do?” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show, Season 4
In a passage eerily reminiscent of Paul Zahl’s Panopticon, emerging Mbird-favorite Alain de Botton speaks about death and the counterintuitively comforting perspective sometimes offers on life and our ‘status anxiety‘. Turns out we’re all anxious about downward mobility of some sort, and the ultimate equalizer, the inevitable rock-bottom, can speak to this:
“Whatever other differences there may be between them, Christian and secular concepts overlap substantially on the subject of what is meaningful in life when viewed from the perspective of death. There is a strikingly similar positive emphasis on love,…
When it comes to articulating religious insights in secular terms, no one does it better than philosopher Alain de Botton, AKA he of Religion for Atheists fame. We’ve written about his rather Bultmannian genius before, but none of that prepared me for the TED talk he gave in 2009 about notions of success (and failure). Whereas elsewhere he mines Christian wisdom more generally, here he goes straight for law and grace, albeit in their aggressively lower-cased forms. The conclusion may naturally be a little fuzzy/abrupt–be sure to listen to the Q&A–the diagnosis is absolutely stunning. If you’re at all like me, you’ll be hooked from the first sentence, ht JD:
Speaking of de Botton, much to his credit, when asked by The New Statesman to select his favorite book of 2012, he went with the following:
This year, I was touched by Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. As a non-Christian, indeed a committed atheist, I was worried about how I’d feel about this book but it pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians. A number of Christian writers have over the past decade tried to write books defending their faith against the onslaughts of the new atheists – but they’ve generally failed. Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.
I can’t pass up the opportunity to link to Alan Jacobs’ rave review of the same liked-it-so-much-we-invited-the-author-to-speak-book, which just went live on the Books & Culture website.
Spoiler alert: There’s a knee-slapping section toward the end of PZ’s Panopticon: An Off-The-Wall Guide to World Religion in which the author ranks “religions that are not called religions.” He gives us a tongue-in-cheek US News and World Report-styled guide to which of them (Sex, Power, Ideology, etc) will serve a person best, which has the longest shelf-life and the most return. I don’t want to give away too much, but I will tell you the one that comes in last and therefore qualifies as the most consistently disappointing object of worship: Things, or Possessions. Unlike, say, family, “these get…