Updated: Apr 6, 2022
(This and the next three posts are from a three-part email series about the workings of love. I rarely post emails to my website, but if you would like to receive future emails, click here to subscribe).
He looked like Justin Timberlake, which wasn’t really the appeal. The appeal was that he defied my early impression—gym rat chatting protein powders with our co-workers—and revealed himself to be…well, a bit of an outsider. Like me. Intelligence flashed through his flirtatious comments, and when bits of his past revealed themselves (a young marriage, his wife recently leaving, his cross-country move for a new beginning), I stumbled over words of empathy. But he smiled, as if ensconced in some private interpretation of life that was inaccessible to me. His self-knowing fascinated. So when he invited me on a night hike, I agreed.
Neither of us had cars. So we rode our bikes to the foothills, ditching them in the bushes to start carving our own trail. We talked as we hiked, the night air between. We didn’t stop talking. Not while we built a fire, or hours later, when the sun began to rise over the distant city. Until he kissed me. And we biked back to my apartment, where we talked until we fell asleep. The pattern evolved into a relationship: kissing, talking, biking. “No labels,” I said, because I knew I wasn't supposed to date a "less-active" Mormon.
After our shifts, we’d sit in my living room and talk late into the night. Always in darkness, as darkness seemed to suit the talking best. I don’t remember the details of those conversations, just that the words prowled around big thoughts and unnamed feelings. Even banal observations led to deeper language and thicker silences. One night when he said he had to leave, I flipped on the lights and he shielded his eyes. “Do you ever feel…” he started. Then he paused. “Do you forget what I look like, when the lights are off? Do you feel strange when we see each other’s faces again?”
I must have smiled, but I knew what he meant. The face is a profanation of the other’s depth. We think we know a person, but we know only the beginnings of the person, the bare structure of their personhood. To know a person, in the dark, beyond and before faces, is to know the essence of a person. The communion of the depths takes us to places where light is an offense.
I didn’t love my Justin Timberlake lookalike, in our easy categories of love. The romantic relationship lasted only a few months, although we remained friends. But that which passed between us on those nights of conversation was nothing if not the workings of love— the depth of our being-together was a de-objectification of the other. We saw past personas and lookalikes, to the inner silence that flames through lives.
Objectification: a word used often in conversations about the female body. Women are routinely sexually objectified— in movies, advertisements, music. But objectification is not confined to one gender. To be human in a techno-centric, mechanistic, materialist world is to live in a constant flow of objectifying gazes. Modern societies see only the outer shell of the world, rejecting the primal knowing that meaning lies beneath the person, the encounter, the concept.
Taking selfies, we objectify our inner mood into a dull externalization (we are rarely satisfied with pictures because rarely can they capture our inner sense of self, our desire-to-be-seen-as). Walking down the street, a hundred gazes objectify the self by their insistent naming: female, male, fat, thin, rich, poor, confident, weak (rare is the gaze that can land without probing, without projecting). Logging into any social media platform, we are guided by the invisible hand of the all-knowing algorithm— it knows (and nudges) our personality traits and preferences.
Let’s not be radical. Or rather, let’s radicalize this idea to its core, so we can climb back into the inevitability of lived reality. Speech, too, is an objectification of reality, a taming of time and space and emotion into culturally-conditioned formulae. More primordially, time and space form the first rung of our perceptual objectification. What is time if not an objectification of flow into before, now, after? What is space if not the boundary-maker (thus, the creator) of objects?
The goal is not to end objectification. But to let objects become transparent time and again, to let ourselves be led out of the prison of appearances into the wide skies of reality. Then no signifier is sufficient: Why do you love your spouse? Or your child? Or your best friend? Oh, you’ll offer reasons. Their sense of humor, their resilience, their loyalty. But you’ll know those reasons are beside the point, or rather, an abstraction of the point. The point is the essence of the person, the essence that you know because you first let the work of love move between you, restoring the object of your love to something other than object, something like being.
In a world of objects and things, love humanizes. Love is the only humanizing force. And how febrile this love would be if it were confined only to romantic or familial love. Humanizing love may be found in a brief exchange with a stranger, words that window the inner life without easy reduction to labels, stereotypes. It may be found in an animal that offers nonjudgmental presence in a silent gaze. It may be found in nature, insofar as we let nature call us to the silence that links all living.
Difference in identities, personalities, moral traits, histories: these are precious, and should not be abandoned or homogenized. The key is to wear your own traits lightly, and to see others as more than their identities. In the words of Macbeth, “We are poor players [actors] who strut and fret their hour upon the stage.” Actors yes, because so little of who we pretend to be is more than circumstance or biology. But we can play our parts with pathos, with performance so convincing that the artifice is a carrier of real truth.
Practice allowing the person before you to be something other than what you think them to be. Practice the passive gaze that lets reality unfold without the need to label or control. Practice careful, quiet, curious listening. The world, once opened by love, is transformed by that very gaze.
In our next email, we will talk more about how love transforms objects into icons, and how to de-objectify reality, so meaning can move through your life freely.
Until next week,