Love in the Ruins – why service heals guilt

He registered a dizzy 7.6 mmv over Brodmann 32, the area of abstractive activity. Since that time I have learned that a reading over 6 generally means that a person has so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow, that he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman.

Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins, 1971

The more I think about love, the more I think about service and devotion. Here in the West, we have nothing left to believe in with any passion. In this piece, I briefly explore the meaning and origins of love, and I suggest that love be re-visioned or re-imagined so that it can include the world again as it once did in the distant past.

Throw it in the world-bin

It seems like only yesterday that I first learned of the terrifying prospect of a mass bleaching event of the world’s corals and the wholesale loss of species that would accompany such an event. This news is just another of the many awful consequences of our failure to love ourselves as human beings, as animals in the larger world. It’s difficult to find any one image to illustrate this, I’m sure you will have your own, but let this picture suffice for now.

A tide of destruction - flotsam
A tide of destruction

It’s not a dramatic picture, there is no overt terror, no screaming or blood. It shows a tiny part of the world, a fractional space between the Thames embankment at Battersea and a houseboat, and yet (to me at least) it shows vividly the absolute misery of our human condition. Here, mingled with the organic refuse – the branches and timber we might expect to see in a river – are discarded coffee cups, burger cartons, aerosols and a general swill of plastic waste. It says, ‘I don’t care, someone else can clean it up. I don’t even care much about myself.’

People do clean up the foreshore here, occasionally, in their free time. A day later and the flotsam is back, the toxic aggregate of what is described as ‘thoughtless behaviour’, against which we are urged, as if by our parents, to be ‘mindful’. But I see in this the consequence of two thousand years of dualist indoctrination. There is a barely acknowledged part of us that believes this earth is bad and that a better world awaits us. It doesn’t matter we are atheist, Buddhist or pagan: in the West we are Christianists whether we like it or not.

The origins of Romance

Saint Dominic presiding over an auto-da-fé, (Pedro Berruguete ca. 1495)
Saint Dominic presiding over an auto-da-fé, (Pedro Berruguete ca. 1495)

So let’s talk about love. But first religion – because love and religion are deeply linked. Most of the religious people of the world believe in salvation or transcendence from life on earth, with or without reincarnation. According to the Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson, our modern Western infatuation with romance sprang from chivalric love, the medieval courtly love in which a knight would project his feminine self, his anima, on to a woman. In his book We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, Johnson traces the origins of this behaviour to the 13th century cult of Catharism, the ‘Albigensian heresy’, in which the so-called Good Men eschewed the corruption of the Catholic Church and its priesthood.

Catharism was dualist, adherents believed that God created the spiritual realm but that all matter and flesh were creations of Satan. They believed that human spirits were trapped angels who would be eternally reincarnated until the spirit had achieved salvation. The similarity to Buddhism is striking: for more information, these pages delve further into the history and legacy of this extraordinary movement.1

Unable to reform the teaching of the Cathars, and terrified with their growing popularity, the established church began to exterminate them in the Albigensian Crusade that began in 1208. The leader of the crusade, Arnaud Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux, was responsible for the massacre at Béziers, and also infamous for the words “Kill them all. God will know his own”, a thought that has been unconsciously perpetuated in politics ever since. Subsequent to the crusade, an Inquisition was set up to find the remaining adherents and to torture and burn them. But Johnson contends that the sect was so popular that it went underground to emerge later as chivalric love.

To outsiders it looked like a new and elegant way to make love, to woo and flatter pretty damsels, but for the insider who knew the “code”, it was an allegorical practice of Catharist ideals.

Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, 1983

The need for transcendent experience

Courtly love - Codex Manesse
Courtly love – Codex Manesse

Johnson elaborates with his analysis of the story of Tristan and Iseult that I alluded to in my piece about depression. He suggests that men unconsciously project their spiritual feminine on to women just as the Cathars were doing eight hundred years ago. This prevents both men and women from relating as human beings. It splits men’s spirituality and sentences women to fail to live up to the projection.

It is perhaps surprising that there is still academic controversy over whether or not courtly love actually existed. To me, the question seems redundant given that we are still so enmeshed in the projection. How many of our relationships begin with a rose, followed shortly with by the sprinkling of rose petals, real or otherwise? A few short years later the roses are withered and the blissful feelings are replaced with anger and resentment. Johnson points out that the incomplete number is always three, ceaselessly searching for the fourth.

This is not just a male problem, a woman too can project her inner masculine, her animus, so that the man in the relationship never has a sense of being good enough. He can work 18 hour days, look after the children round the clock, never forget anniversaries. But he will never be able to do enough until the woman withdraws her projection. The power of these unconscious impulses is profound: Johnson argues that they spring from our need for religious experience, the transcendent, the numinous.

The Cathars, as with many other religious movements, wanted to perfect spirituality (their adepts were called parfaits/parfaites). They looked around at the corruption of the established church and reacted against it, seeking purity and simplicity. The shadow of such a reaction, the inevitable consequence, is fundamentalism and fanaticism.

Established Catholic doctrine was that God created everything, including the earth, but the Church was forced to accommodate some of the most popular Cathar beliefs, for example to create orders that looked as poor as the Cathars they helped to exterminate (the Dominicans and Franciscans). However, duality has been bound up in Christianity from its origins. Here’s an example from the Gospel of John:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.

John 2:15–17

And another from the Gospel of James:

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.

James 3:13-18

For many years we in the UK have writhed under the rule of various vile political elites that have been busy dismantling the welfare state that took such courage and determination to build. The opposition to these policies feels ‘corrective’, a flip-flop reversal. I have this myself, a wave of anger bordering on hatred that feels fanatical.

To avoid the obsessive it might be useful just to say ‘no’. James Hillman reminds us of the Hindu meditation neti, neti, meaning ‘not this, not that’, and the Christian concept of kenosis, Christ’s emptying out of his divine power, his unity with God, in order to be on the earth as a man. Above all else, we need to say ‘no’ to the acts that continue to create inequality, that ravage the earth. Here’s Hillman writing about politics in the United States over twenty years ago, since when everything has indeed got worse:

Kenosis puts the emptiness in a new light. It values the emptiness. It says “empty protest” is a via negativa, a non-positivist way of entering the political arena. You take your outrage seriously, but you don’t force yourself to have answers. Trust your nose. You know what stinks. Don’t try to replace the helpless frustration you feel, the powerless victimization, by working out a rational answer. The answers will come, to you, to others, but don’t fill in the emptiness of the protest with positive suggestions before their time. First, protest! I don’t know what should be done about most of the political dilemmas, but my gut (my soul, my heart, my skin, my eyes) sinks, creeps, crawls, weeps, cringes, shakes. It’s wrong, simply wrong, what’s going on here.

We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse, James Hillman and Michael Ventura, 1993

Service as a way to love the world

Our failure to attend to our actions has brought us to this place: the end times (whether of twenty or a hundred years is scarcely important except to the very greedy). The rest of us try to forget or become angry with each other. Finding and apportioning blame becomes the defence against guilt and grief. The terrible pain of keeping one’s eyes open to the destruction that we have wrought in the world cannot, and should not, be masked in positivism.

Dualism in Christianity has altered our thinking (the same can be said of Islam), and this binary behaviour became far worse in the seventeenth century with the mind-body dualism of René Descartes. We are now thoroughly split, our bodies machines, our heads computers (I wrote something about this here). We project our desire for religious transcendence on to our human relationships. These are the death agonies of our own destruction. But this can change.

Perhaps Hillman’s kenosis leaves the vacuum of the emptiness unaddressed, and my suggestion for something to fill that void is service. Service to the earth and service to each other. Service is about community; about the neighbour you don’t know; about asking yourself what will really help your partner. That might be doing the shopping or it might be about space or silence. It might even be leaving your current relationship. Service is about protecting endangered species; it is taking responsibility for pollution; building new homes on brownfield sites; stopping your car before the crossing, not halfway into it.

Service satisfies the need to feel of value, the need for transcendent expression, but it does not seek to give answers. To be of service is to stay out of depression (see Jung’s letter about this here). I can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that most of the people I worked with as a therapist expressed a wish to be of service, but were unable to carry this out because of external conditions. The politics of austerity create only despair and greed.

For having been born elsewhere.
For having been born elsewhere, (Francisco Goya ca. 1814-1823)

As always, there is something hidden that needs to be made conscious. The psychoanalyst Robert D. Stolorow has something valuable to say here, and I quote:

In some accommodative patterns, serving or performing becomes a way of substituting for a missing sense of inherent value and thereby maintaining a connection with a viewing other.

Robert D. Stolorow

There is a root in ‘service’ that means slavery. To be of service is not to be a slave, nor is it to seek to address feelings of inferiority. Feeling enslaved makes service impossible, therefore it is imperative that we are able to acknowledge shame and loosen its grip on our hearts. As Stolorow writes in a spirited defence of the piece I linked to above:

True repentance belongs to guilt, not to shame. Repenting out of shame is inauthentic repentance. To repent for being vulnerable, for example, is absurd. We should be much more alarmed by people who are guiltless than by those who are shameless.

Robert D. Stolorow

Whether shame is public or private, it crushes the spirit that is needed to create change. To feel guilty is to recognise a mistake, to own it, to acknowledge one’s inherent imperfection without being annihilated. It is so difficult to see: I struggle enormously with my own guilt, yet when I heard one of my visitors2 express guilt, my heart opened like a door of leaves. In an article about trauma and empathy Stolorow has this to say:

A new form of human solidarity would also become possible rooted not in shared resurrective grandiosity but in shared recognition and respect for our common human finiteness. If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light.

Robert D. Stolorow

Perhaps I could offer an alternative version that avoids the duality.

A new form of solidarity (that includes the human and the other than human) would become possible rooted not in projected shame and religious feeling, but in an understanding and praxis of service that acknowledges our shared vulnerability. If we can help one another, perhaps we will, at last, be able to love the colours of the night.