In the State of Affairs, Esther Perel writes:
In our secularized society, romantic love has become, as Jungian analyst Robert Johnson writes, “the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche. In our culture, it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy.” In our quest for the “soul mate,” we have conflated the spiritual and the relational, as if they are one and the same.
The perfection we long to experience in earthly love used to be sought only in the sanctuary of the divine. When we imbue our partner with godly attributes and we expect him or her to uplift us from the mundane to the sublime, we create, as Johnson puts it, an “unholy muddle of two holy loves” that cannot help but disappoint.
Not only do we have endless demands, but on top of it all we want to be happy. That was once reserved for the afterlife. We’ve brought heaven down to earth[...] It’s a tall order for a party of two.
- The State of Affairs, page 44
Perel’s work centers on infidelity. Her book delves into why affairs are universally condemned, yet still such a commonplace phenomenon. When we realize the absurdity of holding a single person responsible for what used to be handled by an entire religion, everything starts to make sense. We not only get an answer to the question of why infidelity seems almost inevitable; we also start to understand why shattering the illusion of love hurts so much.
The decline of religion as a “energy system” in secularized society means that all this energy is channeled elsewhere. Neil Gaiman plays on this theme in American Gods, where we watch gods, both old and new, battle for the allegiance, soul, and ultimately the life of a man. What throws this man into this struggle? He discovers that his wife has died in a car accident…that took place while she was having an affair with his best friend.
The old gods are the ones we know from museums and myths: Odin, Ēostre, Horus, the Queen of Sheba, to name a few. The new gods are the institutions which receive our scattered energy in the modern world: media, technology, the internet, capitalism, globalization, drugs. (There are even minor gods of automobiles and plastic surgery.)
Devoid of religion, we are constantly searching for divine providence in other people and other things. Look at the language that people use to describe how they feel religious union, romantic love, a perfectly executed piece of art, or a job truly well done: it’s all surprisingly similar. Exhilaration. Divine providence. Your heart bursts out of your chest. Everything makes sense all of a sudden. You feel alive again. You want to be your best self. You are at home. You are at peace. You are safe. You can be yourself, and that is enough, and beautiful, and perfect.
But this leads to the question: why is our default state one of not feeling sufficient on our own? In a 4 minute explanation of the Buddhist concept of Dharma, a friend chose to use the language of a being, torn from the universe, feeling afraid and alone, to describe where most of us are:
The non-violent religious traditions - Buddhism and Taoism, for example - tend to emphasize the fluid nature of boundaries and the healing power of being at one with the universe around us. Works that touch us profoundly tend to channel this theme of finding union with something whole, as opposed to desperately clutching after something partial. In Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests an antidote to loneliness, which is reminding yourself that you are never truly alone. Even if you are eating alone at home, you are connected to the farmer who grew your food, the truck driver who helped drive it to the city, the shopkeeper who placed it up for sale, the bees that pollinated the plants, and the sun that allowed the plants to grow. This goes on and on. To believe that you are ever alone is, after even a modicum of interrogation, simply incorrect.
Christopher Alexander is a compelling architect because he is actually a mathematician, and more importantly, a human being searching for the meaning behind order and beauty. As with humans, a good home is never alone - it exists in deep harmony with the people who dwell in it, the neighbours around it, and within the larger context of the city and the country it is in, the laws that govern it, and the surrounding culture and history. A home that plays harmoniously within all of these things is what Christopher Alexander calls poetry.
Most things that we find touching and beautiful are, in some sense, bearing witness to someone - perhaps ourselves, perhaps others - finding elusive union with the whole, if only for a moment. It gives us empathy when we see someone violently and desperately clutching to something partial - a person, a religious or political belief, a set of values for ordering the world, judgements about what kinds of behaviours are and aren’t ok. The pain that they are fighting is that desperate, empty feeling of being torn from the universe once more and tossed asunder into the terrifying chaos, just as they thought that they had found a branch to hold onto.
We all know this irrational rage and the enormous, crushing sense of loneliness that sits behind it. After all, they are only fighting to get back to the same wholeness that we are also seeking. The objective, next time we recognize it, is to look at it through not the eyes of judgement, or blame, or contempt - but eyes of empathy and deep understanding.