Arts and Culture

Love Unites and Distinguishes

by Father Robert Lauder

IN HIS BOOK, Personalism (University of Notre Dame: Notre Dame, translated by Philip Mairet, 1952, $2.25, pp. 132) Emmanuel Mounier, whose philosophical vision greatly influenced Dorothy Day, stresses that love is creative of distinction. Some poetry and love songs can give the impression that lovers lose their identities in one another. Statements such as “I lose myself in you” or “I love you so much that I have become you” are misleading. In a union of love, persons do not lose their identity, but rather they become more themselves or deepen their identities.

The experience of loving and being loved makes a person more himself or herself. As far as I can figure out, this deepening, rather than loss of identity, only happens in a union of love. It does not happen in other unions. For example, if I have two jars — one filled with water and the other filled with wine — and I pour a large amount of water into the jar that contains the wine, eventually the wine will be gone. All that will be left will be water. The wine will have been subsumed by the water. In loving and being loved, the lover and beloved do not lose their identity in each other, but rather each creates the other. Each reaches a deeper level of his or her personhood.

New Level of Freedom

There is no surer way of growing as a person than being in a deep love relationship. Mounier writes, “Real love is creative of distinction; it is a gratitude and a will towards another because he is other than oneself” (p. 23). What I am emphasizing is the “otherness” of the other. Imagine a man and woman on their wedding day. Each is very much in love with the other. Imagine that their love relationship deepened over the next 25 years. On their 25th anniversary, if each has not changed, then something went wrong. The change will not be that each has become the other; the change will be that each has reached a new level of personal freedom and autonomy. Each will have created the other.

I don’t think that we can ever exaggerate the importance and the power of love. If someone were to ask me what love could not accomplish, I would respond, “I don’t know. Love is so powerful that it has conquered death. I cannot say what love cannot accomplish. If love can conquer death, then maybe it can accomplish anything.”

In praising the power of love, Mounier writes the following:

“The communion of love, liberating him who responds to it, also liberates and reassures him who offers it. Love is the surest certainty that man knows; the one irrefutable, existential cogito: I love, therefore I am; therefore being is, and life has value (is worth the pain of living). Love does not reassure me simply as a state of being in which I find myself, for it gives me to someone else. (Jean-Paul) Sartre has spoken of the eye of another as something that transfixes one, that curdles the blood; and of the presence of someone else as a trespass upon one, a deprivation or a bondage. What we speak of here is no less disturbing; it shakes me out of my self-assurance, my habits, my egocentric torpor; communication, even when hostile, is the thing that most surely reveals me to myself” (p. 23).

I don’t believe that Mounier’s statements are extreme or exaggerations. Loving does reveal the lover to himself or herself. The deepest meaning of being and certainly the deepest meaning of human existence is revealed through loving and being loved. Everyone is called to be a lover; everyone is called to be a self-gift. No matter what a person’s vocation is, to be a human person is to be called to be a self-gift. I try to be a self-gift as a priest-professor, someone else tries to be a self-gift as a married person or a parent and someone else as a single person.

One of the reasons that I like parts of Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophy is that the atheistic Frenchman saw that if there is no God then, human existence is absurd.

In several of my philosophy classes at St. John’s University, I teach Sartre’s philosophy because I find that it makes clear to the students what the implications of an atheistic position are. It also, by contrast, can make the implications of belief in God more clear. In the selection from Mounier that I have quoted, he is pointing out that both the atheistic and theistic views of reality are challenging: One challenges us to recognize absurdity, and the other challenges us to respond to an invitation to love.

Life is either a terrible burden that ultimately is unintelligible, or it is a gift.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.