At “How the Light Gets In,” a festival of philosophy and music that took place in London in September 2018, I was a participant in a debate about love, life and being free. We were given the debate questions in advance, so I, an obsessive when it comes to preparing talks or classes or just about anything else, wrote out my responses. That means I can share them with you.
In this post, I’ll tell you my answer to the first question the debate participants were asked to address (in no more than three minutes): “Do we need lifelong love to achieve happiness?” The moderator made it clear that “love” meant romantic love. In the more detailed overview we were given in advance, the quest for romantic love was contrasted with independence; specifically, we were asked whether we might be happier embracing independence.
Here’s what I said:
I have three points to make.
First, to answer this question, I want to rescue love from the stifling, little box we’ve stuffed it into. Love is so much bigger than just romantic love. Love has a huge heart. It throws its arms around close friends, cherished relatives, maybe even spiritual figures. The love that lives in those relationships is sometimes made of sterner stuff than the flimsy romantic variety that can burn ravenously and then just fizzle.
Any of these many-splendored colors of love can contribute to a happy and fulfilling life.
Second, what happens if you accept my bigger, broader meaning of love? Do we need love in that sense to achieve happiness? That’s the view of life that says that nothing matters more than our relationships with other people. Maybe they don’t have to be romantic relationships, but they have to be some sort of close relationship.
What does that perspective do with people who put some sort of powerful passion at the center of their lives? Maybe it is a passion for social justice, or for scientific achievement, or for artistic creation, or anything else that matters so deeply that everything else – and everyone else – is secondary. I think those people can be very happy and deeply fulfilled. Their lives are full of meaning.
Third, love is not the opposite of independence. I have been single my entire life and I have lived alone ever since I finished graduate school back in the Stone Age. I have a lot of independence. And I also have a lot of love. The love I have in my life does not insist that I share a bed or spend time with in-laws or be dragged along as a plus-one at one dreary event after another. Now some of you may cherish having someone in your bed and someone you can count on to be there with you for the tedious social events of everyday life as well as the bigger, happier things. And that’s great. But you know what is also great? That we don’t all have to want the same things. That we can each go for the life that works best for us, that incorporates just the right mix of independence and interpersonal connection.