Marriage equality: All you need is love… or is it?

All you need is love, all together now
All you need is love, everybody
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need – The Beatles – All You Need Is Love

I am immensely heartened by the legalisation of same-sex marriage across the United States of America by the Supreme Court ruling, and by popular referendum in Ireland. Even the Pitcairn Islands have legalised it, despite not having any gay couples living there. This makes the US the 23rd country to legalise it. Given the large number of people in same-sex relationships who want to get married, it seems like a very good idea, especially when it grants access to all kinds of other benefits (the ability to visit your spouse while they are dying in hospital, the ability to be named as their spouse on a death certificate, and so on). And we should celebrate our victories along the way. However, it does not mean that the struggle for equality is over.

All of the above is why I would urge you to support the LGBTQ Bill of Rights.

Love wins

I really the enjoyed the fact that my Facebook feed was full of rainbow profile pictures, as loads of friends, both straight and LGBTQIA, rainbowed up their profile pictures. Because they were celebrating with the LGBTQIA community, and they didn’t care if anyone else thought they might be gay. Could you have imagined that, twenty years ago? Ten years ago?

Same sex marriage has been a stunning success in so many places because it is not particularly complicated, and it is easy to get behind it. BECAUSE LOVE. Everyone can get behind it, everyone can understand it. Two people in love – awww, right? Obviously it is a bit more complicated than that, because marriage is all tangled up with property and legal status and all that kind of stuff – and until relatively recently, marriage was a massively patriarchal thing designed to ensure that a father (who owned the property) could be sure that his biological offspring would inherit his property, because he knew his wife had not had sex with anyone else.

However, it was the concept of romantic love that changed heterosexual marriage for the better. Before the rediscovery of romantic love, and the invention of chivalry, women were mere chattels who could be exchanged as part of a contract. That is why so many of Molière‘s plays champion marrying for love against marrying for the furtherance of parental property deals.

Chivalry, and the accompanying tradition of courtly love, schooled the uncouth knights of Europe in the art of behaving like somebody who actually read books and knew one end of a lute from the other. Prior to this, they had been too busy indiscriminately raping, pillaging, and looting their way across Europe and the Middle East, all in the name of Christendom, in an activity usually referred to as the Crusades.

In fact, it may have been contact with the Muslim world that started the tradition of courtly love, according to Wikipedia:

The notions of “love for love’s sake” and “exaltation of the beloved lady” have been traced back to Arabic literature of the 9th and 10th centuries. The notion of the “ennobling power” of love was developed in the early 11th century by the Persian psychologist andphilosopherIbn Sina (known as “Avicenna” in Europe), in his treatise Risala fi’l-Ishq (“Treatise on Love”). 

It took a good few centuries, and the subsequent introduction of the concept of companionate marriage, followed by the impact of feminism, but eventually heterosexual marriage started to be more equal. But it was the concepts of courtly and romantic love that started the process.

"Codex Manesse Bernger von Horheim" by Meister des Codex Manesse (Grundstockmaler) - http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg848/0351. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Codex_Manesse_Bernger_von_Horheim.jpg#/media/File:Codex_Manesse_Bernger_von_Horheim.jpg

Codex Manesse Bernger von Horheim” by Meister des Codex Manesse (Grundstockmaler) – Universität Heidelberg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The other day someone commented on Facebook that same-sex marriage is important because, “for some straight people, it is the only thing that makes them realise that queer people are human too”. I would argue that the concept of love (courtly and romantic) achieved the same thing for women.

Contrasted with the slow progress of equality in heterosexual marriage, the rise of same-sex marriage has been meteoric, and that in itself is quite an achievement – in England and Wales, homosexual activity between consenting adults over the age of 21 was legalised in 1967. It was not legal in Scotland until 1981, and in Northern Ireland, not until 1982. I was gobsmacked recently by an article by Colm Tóibin, in which he commented that some otherwise liberal people were unaware that same-sex relationships involve love:

I met a prominent Irish feminist, someone had been at the forefront of the women’s movement, and she too expressed surprise at the intensity of the relationship between the two men in the book. “They sound like straight people,” she said. I told her that that was because they were like straight people, that they wanted intimacy and love, they wanted each other, they wanted ease in their domestic and family lives. They also wanted their relationship to be publicly recognised. They wanted to move out of the shadows and into the light.

I am unsure of how anyone could be unaware of this, as it seems kind of obvious to me – but then I recall how, when I published a piece celebrating the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK in a magazine of which I was the editor, someone commented that “you already had one article about sex in that issue, did you really need another one?” I was appalled by the assumption that same-sex marriage is only about sex, and not about love and equal rights.

Progress is incremental

So, you think same-sex marriage is not enough? That we need polyamorous marriage, marriage that is not entangled with property rights, and an understanding that not everyone wants to get married? Well, yes, but let’s celebrate this milestone on the road to equality, because it’s all about love, and that is worth celebrating. Recently, it was the anniversary of Loving vs Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court case in which laws against people of different colours marrying were struck down. Someday, the idea that two people of the same sex were not allowed to marry will seem as bizarre as the idea that two people of different colours couldn’t marry. It was particularly apt that the couple bringing the case were called Mr and Mrs Loving.

Today we celebrate, tomorrow the struggle goes on.

Spirituality – let the buyer beware

At its best, “spirituality” (whatever that term actually means) is a spur to greater compassion, engagement with social justice, and trying to make the world a better place. This used to be called mysticism, which actually meant something and sought to wrestle and engage with the wider tradition in which it was situated. Many times, organised religion sought to crush the mystics, with their call to genuine compassion, and their speaking truth to power, and their direct engagement with the divine other (or others).

At its worst, “spirituality” is a mess of cultural appropriation, exploitation of the vulnerable, silencing of dissent, sweeping justified anger under the carpet, and offering a pabulum of spurious advice, airy-fairy sayings, and consumer offerings of easily-digested “wisdom” and manufactured artefacts to make you feel “spiritual” and get in touch with your inner wossnames. Many ‘spiritual directors’, ‘life coaches’, and other self-styled spiritual leaders – most of whom are not even qualified therapists – prey on the vulnerable to make them feel that they cannot have self-worth without succumbing to a rigorous programme of self-help, self-examination, and generally beating themselves up for not being spiritual enough. They keep their ‘followers’ as perpetual neophytes, never empowering them to lead the group themselves.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him

Every time I have an encounter with someone who has an interest in spirituality, and also possesses power over others, I find that they want to silence my anger at injustice because it is “not spiritual” to be angry. I find myself bruised and diminished by their criticism of my way of being in the world. Any engagement with the intellectual or theological or historical context of an issue is also silenced by these people, because that is “not spiritual” either. These people are so convincing with their “peaceful” mien and unfurrowed brows, untroubled by actual social injustice or the suffering of others. These are the type of people who silence those who complain of racism, sexism, and homophobia, claiming that they are “obsessed” with race, gender, and sexuality.

Some of them do engage with the suffering of others, but in my view, they only exacerbate it by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the sufferer, convincing them that they must “work on themselves” and buy whatever the latest self-help book, video, course, life-coaching, etc happens to be. Some of them even say that the first step to being more spiritual or loving or whatever is to accept oneself. The natural response of many people to this is to feel guilty for not loving themselves. However, the lack of self-love and self-esteem that many people suffer from is caused by alienation from other people, from nature, and from life. It will not be solved by increased introspection, but by going out and doing what you love. If you are an introvert, that might be different from what extroverts love to do, and that is just fine. The first step to accepting yourself is to stop worrying about yourself so much.

The blame for social ills is constantly shifted from the collective to the individual in many contexts. Instead of preventing bullying in the workplace, employers hire stress and time-management consultants to ‘fix’ individuals who haven’t ‘adapted’ to the workplace.  The same applies to dieting, where the fact that it is difficult to avoid eating fattening food, and difficult to get enough exercise to burn it off, is laid squarely at the door of the overweight individual, and hardly anyone bothers to look for social or societal factors that  might contribute to obesity.

Whenever you see a self-help book, or a person who sets themselves up as an authority on spiritual matters, ask yourself what qualifies them to be such an authority. I am not saying their life has to be totally organised (whose life is not subject to misfortune and the vagaries of circumstance?) – but rather, how do they respond to disaster? Do they curl up in a welter of self-pity, or do they actually get out and do something, perhaps getting involved with trying to right the social injustice that caused their misfortune (if applicable)? As the wonderful saying has it, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. Anyone claiming to be a Buddha is not a Buddha. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. Indeed, it was Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha himself, who said that if the things he said did not make sense to his hearers, they should ignore him:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Subjecting advice to scrutiny and reflection about whether it applies to your own life is of course a principle that you should apply to anything that I write as well. Nothing is exempt from this principle. My perspective is also limited to my own experience, as is that of every other writer.

Do without doing, and everything gets done

If all the money and energy that was expended on trying to become more spiritual was expended on trying to make the world a better place for everyone, think how much better the world would be. I am not saying that people should not indulge themselves in a bit of pampering like a massage and a bath with some nice candles and a bit of tinkly music, but do it unashamedly because it makes you feel good, not because you think you ought to, or because you think it will make you a more spiritual person.

As the great Viktor Frankl once said:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Personally, I derive more benefit from going for a nice walk in the woods, or going on a demonstration about a social justice issue, or having a nice evening with friends, than I ever have from any attempt to “be more spiritual”. I am not a naturally introspective person in any case. You can derive a great amount of self-worth and connecting with others by going to take part in conservation work, or feeding the homeless, or helping animals, or doing something creative – you don’t need to sit about worrying about whether you are spiritual enough. I also derived a great deal of benefit from being a trades union caseworker, because I learnt to speak truth to power, but I became a caseworker because it was the thing in front of me that needed doing, and I knew it was the right thing to do, not because I particularly hoped to gain anything from it.

The other day, I saw a brilliant and hilarious video by J P Sears, How to be ultra-spiritual, which sends up the “spiritualler-than-thou” types (as I call them): the people who speak ultra-softly and go about dispensing unsolicited “wisdom”. It is a merciless send-up of the “ultra-spiritual”, and a critique that needed to be out there.

And then I saw a post by a “life-coach” giving women contradictory advice about how to be irresistible to men, where one of the pieces of advice was a blatant piece of slut-shaming. Fortunately, a bunch of people had posted hilarious comments on the piece, sending it up mercilessly.

I vividly remember my first encounter with a “life-coach” and I remember thinking it was a load of pretentious tosh and quite possibly a sugar-coated version of “how to be a capitalist bastard and succeed in the rat-race”.

I feel much the same about most so-called “self-help” books, which again locate the source of suffering in the individual, and fail to offer any remedy that we might all undertake as a society. There are a few excellent exceptions, such as Families and how to survive them by Robin Skinner and John Cleese, Taking care by David Smail, and Women who run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (brilliantly satirised by Women who run with the Poodles, however).

This is why I have been trying to eliminate any talk of “spirituality” from my speech and writing, and instead talk about embodiment, and connecting with the body. This too might become problematic if we assume that there is only one right way to be embodied, but at least it is more earthy, and takes actual physical and emotional needs into account and makes a connection between them. Writers on embodiment that I have seen do actually seem to engage with the world around them.

Spirituality as a commodity

Nevertheless, it strikes me that the elephant in the room, and what really ails us, is the commodification and marketisation of everything – also known as capitalism. Value is no longer seen as intrinsic to an experience or a thing, but only as a marketable commodity. “Spirituality” has become yet another marketable commodity – a thing that should be our birth-right, that should be as natural as breathing, has been packaged and marketed back to us as something that can only be mediated by experts.

They say “the best things in life are free” and actually, it’s true. Having a consensual hug or a massage with someone you love, or a stimulating conversation with a friend, or a lovely walk in the woods, or some other experience of shared beauty, is much more effective than hours of “spirituality”-related activities.

One of the things that has made me a more empathetic person, and possibly a nicer person to be around, is reading novels, because novels teach you about the nuances of feeling and allow you to empathise with someone else’s pain in a safe space (the privacy of your own mind) before going out and practising compassion in the real world. The trick is to make the connection between the character in the novel and real people, of course.

Look outwards, not inwards

Many people have emphasised the idea that you need to love something greater than yourself, and/or other than yourself, in order to find happiness. Of course, many people who aspire to be spiritual do love God, or Nature, or something beyond themselves; but then they spend a lot of time worrying about how to be more spiritual, and fall back into introspection and self-doubt.

Viktor Frankl explains that the only way to find meaning and peace is to look beyond the self:

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

So, all this relentless self-examination is actually counter-productive. The Muslims say that “Allah is closer to me than my jugular vein”; Buddhists say that enlightenment is only a heartbeat away. The great mystery of life is always available, always present, always pouring itself into reality at every moment, waiting to be experienced and enjoyed.

For me, the central mystery of my religion is love. The word religion comes from the Latin word, religio, to reconnect. Love is about connection, connecting fully and deeply with another human being. There are many types of love involving different types and depths of connection (eros, filia, storge, and agape are some that have been named).

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Our culture has also sought to commodify love, and reduce it only to romantic love, but it is much broader and deeper than that. In Hebrew, one of the words for love is Ahava, meaning ‘I will give’. The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) contains an extended meditation on the meaning of Ahava in the story told in the Book of Ruth. Another is Chesed, meaning steadfast love, loving-kindness. This term is often translated into Greek as eleos. Eleos is the personification of compassion in Greek mythology. Her Roman counterpart was Clementia. Ancient paganism had thought about love, compassion, and forgiveness, and these were among the virtues they cultivated.

Photo of Robert Indiana's 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. "Ahava" by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928 - Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Robert Indiana’s 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. “Ahava” by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

All the best writing seeks to broaden our humanity by encouraging us to connect, to have compassion, to love (both ourselves and others). If we cannot be compassionate to ourselves, how can we have compassion for others?

Love is a fierce and joyful thing

Love does not mean complete negation of the self. I am a human being with needs and desires, and I deserve love and compassion as much as the next person. Transcending the ego is not the same thing as erasing or negating the ego. All that happens is that one becomes aware of a reality beyond the ego, and seeks to connect with that greater reality.

Love is not a mealy-mouthed, weak thing that allows others to walk all over one. Love is a fierce and joyful thing that seeks the greatest well-being for all – bearing in mind that another person’s well-being may look quite different from yours. As many sages have said, “love thy neighbour as thyself” – in other words, love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.

Buddhism talks about ‘foolish compassion’ – the type of compassion that fails to involve the mind as well as the heart, to try and assess what would really help the suffering other. Love is not afraid to speak truth to power, or to tell the schlemiel that he is a fool.

Love is out on the front line telling the world that Black lives matter, standing up for the rights of LGBT people, indigenous peoples, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the marginalised. Love may be gentle and kind, but it is also fierce and joyous, and angry and sad, and embracing diversity.