The other day I came across a book, a volume not new but as perfect for today as gourmet Godivas and glittery greetings. It seemed appropriate on Valentine's Day to pass along some thoughts both old and and new to me.
In "The Road Less Traveled, A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth," (Simon and Schuster) Dr. M. Scott Peck spends a hundred pages in an examination of love that simply leaves one reeling as he quietly but forcefully takes apart the myths.
He begins with proper deference. "Love is too large, too deep ever to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of words . . . . I begin with the certain knowledge that the attempt will be in some ways inadequate," says Peck, a psychiatrist. "I appreciated the attempt because misconceptions (that naturally grow in the face of love's mystery) are what causes the suffering in our lives."
Peck leapfrogs over the traditional notions of love to arrive boldly at a single definition: Love is "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."
Now I've heard some pretty fancy explanations of love in my time, but none that defined it in terms of its end effect.
Sensing our discomfort, Peck has the good sense to begin by telling us what love is not. It is neither dependency nor sacrifice of self. Genuine love implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom. It is a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is still present.
Love implies effort. Since it requires the extension of self, love is always either work or courage "directed toward the nurture of our own or another's spiritual growth." Love requires, then, the work of attention--careful listening that is almost foreign to Westerners, for example. The idea here is paying attention to the growth of the loved one just as in self-love we attend to our own growth.
To Peck, love involves risks as well, the risk of loss, the risk of commitment, the risk of confrontation.
It was about here that I began to feel straitjacketed. Is all this puritanial rigidity excluding spontaneity? Peck insists that only in discipline can genuine love lead to substantial joy in life. In other words, another path may produce rare moments of ecstatic joy, but they will be fleeting and elusive.
So much of what Peck said is old, yet it is so central to the equality women fought for in the feminist movement. The battle then was to avoid the trap of earlier generations of women when women, no matter how hard they worked, were considered by the society as extensions of men. Peck's idea is that the distinction between one's self and the other is always maintained in genuine love. Each person has a totally separate identity, an individuality that the other respects and encourages.
Now the ideal concept of marriage is that of a cooperative effort in which both parties put forth the time, care and energy to nurture themselves and each other on their individual journeys toward his or her own maximuum spiritual growth. But it's an ideal still far afield for too many women and men.
And for those of us brought up to believe that self-love was somehow in quite bad taste, Peck's and others' idea of loving one's self as the bedrock of genuine love of others requires constant attention to put the idea into practice.
At any rate, my design in sharing all this is not to so define love that all of the happiness and mystery be removed from this special day. But if you think of Peck's ideas forming a map that can point us in new directions that avoid old distortions, the possiblities exist for some of Valentine's delights every day.