love. week twenty six.
city. new york city
Every object in the world exists in two ways.
Primarily, it exists as a self-contained, self-dependent, self-referential ‘self’. A rock. A tree. A person. It contains itself within itself. Within the swirling chaos of the universe, it valiantly fights to maintain its own integrity and structure. And while some selves are more successful than others, all selves must eventually pass away and dissolve back into the fabric of the universe from whence they came.
However, every self is also a member of a larger system. No self stands completely alone. It relies on other selves to maintain its existence, and taken together, all of these selves form a larger whole, a larger self.
Take a human. It holds a stable structure, a combination of homeostatic biochemical processes and psychological continuity, and is an ends in itself. A human is a complete system, a closed circuit. A human is a self.
On the other hand, though, a human is also a member of a species, in which every human plays a rather minor role in propagating the overall species.
Alternatively, you can zoom back into the ‘person’ and notice that it too contains its own systems. A heart is a system. A cell within the heart is a system. A mitochondria within a cell within a heart is also a system. Each of these systems is once again both a single, self-contained object as well as a productive (or not so productive) member of a still larger object.
(I leave the question open as to whether there is an ultimate inter-galactic object which encompasses all other objects, and conversely whether there’s a final sub-atomic object that does not contain any other objects. Thinking about either of these options makes my head spin, so I will leave that to you.)
When an object is viewed in terms of its membership within a larger community, we call this love. It is our ability to view ourselves as members of larger ecosystems that allows us to form countries, families, religions, cultures, and so on.
When an object is viewed as its own self-contained self, we call this freedom. It is our ability to view ourselves as individuals that allows us to be creative, ambitious, thoughtful, and decisive.
But here is where paradoxes begin to present themselves.
Firstly, if every system (like a body) is itself a member of a larger system (like a community), and then that larger system is itself part of an even larger system (like a city), then everything must be both loving and free at the same time. In fact, our successive attempts to balance love and freedom is perhaps the tale of civilization itself. Perhaps they admit of no final reconciliation.
At a certain point, the decision whether to identify as this or that system, or this or that self, becomes a bit ridiculous. The point, rather, is to make the decision and then come to terms with the challenges and opportunities that it presents. You can also try to never decide, but this probably leads to an unhealthy situation in which neither the individual nor the system are being cared for. Of course, you could take turns, sometimes viewing yourself as an individual and other times as a member of some greater system, which is probably the unconscious experience of nearly all people.
Secondly, what is good for the individual is also good for the system. And what is good for the system is also good for the individual. Take your heart for example. The heart needs the whole body just as much as the whole body needs the heart. One cannot exist without the other. A strong system needs strong individuals, and strong individuals need a strong system. (Using my terms, love needs freedom just as much as freedom needs love.) Perhaps, then, the entire question of ‘balancing’ love and freedom is silly. They don’t need to be balanced, they already always exist as mutually supportive and necessary conditions. In other words, just as there can be no serious competition between the heart and the body, there can be no serious competition between the person and the community. They live and die together.
Which leads me to my last point. There is nothing that can be resolved through love or freedom individually. There is no final answer. Let’s be more more specific: most people are faced with only two options. To either identify as a ‘self’ or as a ‘member of a group’. I am either the goal of my existence, or I am a means to something larger. This is what I’ve been calling the choice between freedom and love. However, each path holds its own rewards as well as its own burdens. Every parent understands this.
The path of love promotes my community, thereby relieving a layer of individual responsibility and conflict, but in the process a layer of freedom was removed as well. I am no longer free to do as I wish, now I must consider the benefit of my community as well. I must sacrifice my self for my community.
The path of freedom promotes individuality, thereby relieving a layer of coercion and dependency, but in the process a layer of love was removed as well. I am no longer supported by those around me, now I must fend for myself. I have put myself in conflict with my community.
Certainly, hardly anyone ever tries to venture down a single road. An entirely free or loving civilization would imply the destruction of both the individual and the community. What we are learning to do however, is to blend our two perspectives, both individually and collectively, into an overall structure which can support ever greater freedom and love. Healthy love promotes individual freedom, and healthy freedom promotes communal love.
Everything both is and is not. Instead of trying to choose between the two (as if that were even possible), I can just enjoy being present for the continuous unfolding of each of my selves— as an individual person, human specimen, citizen, son, employee, neighbor, consciousness, material, friend, god, life, energy, partner, and hundreds of others— as they gradually emerge into being and then eventually sink back down into a thousand oblivions. I mean, I feel like that’s gta be the greatest show on earth.
“Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves?”
― Friedrich Nietzsche