Review: The Art of Loving

The Art of Loving
The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

I read this book a couple months back, but I’ve been letting it simmer and slowly collecting my thoughts. I didn’t want to just be done with it– I wanted to grapple with Fromm’s arguments in the context of my everyday experience. His opinions often seem convincing at first glance, but to what extent do they really hold up? His work has it’s faults (like a bunch of weird homophobic statements in this one…), but I’ve been intrigued by Fromm’s social psychology since I first encountered The Sane Society a few years ago.

Fromm argues that popular, romantic conceptions of love are often very flawed. He critiques the widespread notion that love is an emotion to be felt or an end state to arrive at. For Fromm, love is a creative capacity. It’s built on choices and actions we perform everyday. It is behavior that is characterized by care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. We don’t just find “the right person” and magically end up in a state of love– we must learn how to love.

Fromm points out the dangers of conceptualizing love as something to “fall” into. It takes away the agency we all have to be loving and obscures what loving behavior is comprised of. It makes love into a thing that one either possesses or lacks, an emotion that must be acquired by way of popularity– by having the right personality, clothes, and lifestyle that is attractive to an equally popular mate. What I like best about this critique is Fromm’s attention to the social context. He was, of course, a sociologist and that background allowed him to pay special attention to the influence of social structure and economic relations in individual psychology. Fromm’s critique of love in Western society shows that our most private emotions and intimate relationships are profoundly shaped by modern consumer society. The larger forces that we tend to think of as structural do in fact shape how we see ourselves, others, and how we go about loving one another in our everyday lives. This is such an important point– one that has been developed further by sociologists like Arlie Russell Hochschild (The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling), Miliann Kang (The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work), and Eva Illouz (Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism), to name a few.

Fromm also argues that one must be an independent, whole person in order to love well, to love in a healthy way. In a section on love between parent and child, he slogs through a bunch of Freudian psychology, making some good points and some not so good points. What’s valuable here though is that love can sometimes go awry. Considering the ideal types of motherly and fatherly love for child, we can see how a child often starts off completely connected, undifferentiated from the mother figure. As the child grows, the mother’s unconditional love is contrasted by the father’s conditional love– to receive love from the father, the child must live up to the father’s expectations and wants, they must be good enough. And if they are, only then do they receive father’s love. These motherly and fatherly types of love are limiting when they recur in romantic relationships between adults. To put it simply, we can’t be children if we want to learn the art of loving. Only independent adults can master the skills of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge that are required. This is important and radical– only through independence can we come into contact with each other and bridge that often painful gap between ourselves and others, addressing that very human longing for connection.

Overall, love is a decidedly social phenomenon. It is embedded in the structure of society, in how people are loved as they grow up, and in the options available for fulfilling the need for human connection. This book can be especially valuable today, as we try to navigate through a world where hate seems to be constantly on the rise. Fromm helps us remember that the relationships we tend to see as existing between just two people or within a family are actually part of a much larger social context– this is an important reminder.

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Review: A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t

A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt--And Why They Shouldn't
A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t by William B. Irvine

Honestly, I picked up this book for advice on handling those moments of being verbally knocked down and walked over (which seem to be happening all too often in my life recently– thank you, food service work!). The first part of the book is mostly just entertaining– amusing historical examples of people who knew how to sling some nasty comebacks at the drop of a hat. Most interesting to me though is Irvine’s discussion of the social uses of insults, how they establish or reinforce hierarchies, but also help us bond with each other through good-natured teasing.

I can’t help but think about this dual nature of insults in relation to microagressions. An insult can be interpreted differently by those involved, and the insulter might think they are doing nothing more than harmless teasing, making a joke that might even draw people together. In this way, the insulter doesn’t have to face the implications of their words and how those words might reinforce systems of oppression. Then, this dynamic makes the person who has been insulted doubt themselves and the validity of their interpretation. Derald Wing Sue talks about the pain of this doubt in Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (which should be required reading for every human). The psychological and emotional strain of seemingly small, everyday slights can profoundly shape a person’s experience, and ultimately, their life chances. This is also part of the everyday, lived experience that contributes to a sense of double consciousness.

Irvine breaks down the many possible responses one can give when insulted, outlining the pros and cons of each approach. Ultimately, he takes cues from the Stoics, who sought a sort of inner equanimity that could not be swayed by insults (or praise). While reading this book, I had a strange sense of coming across this argument before. And yes, as it turns out, I was actually remembering another book by Irvine I had read several years ago, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

I see so much overlap here with Buddhism. One of the major goals of my own practice is to become mindful of (and able to deal with) the pull of sense perceptions. The mind is like grass blowing in the wind, pulled whatever direction perceptions and emotions take it. If we become solid, like the unmoving log, we are not thrown around so easily and suffering is lessened. The same principle is true of maintaining both inner and outer composure when insulted. The takeaway: when in doubt, just say “Thanks!” and move on with your day. Useful advice indeed.

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