In the dead of winter, Valentine’s Day reminds us of the healing power of love in all of its many forms. Cut through the commercial dross of the manufactured holiday and you might be able to see acts of kindness in places you never thought to look. Avoid print and television news where stories of violence and crime predominate and see what’s happening where you spend your time every day. Take along a guidebook to orient yourself to the landscape of love and stroll the boulevards and back streets of familiar places looking for evidence that we have not forgotten how treat one another with care and respect.
With a copy of Erich Fromm’s 1956 book, “The Art of Loving” firmly in hand, I have been prowling the corridors of the hospital, looking into offices and conference rooms and scribbling in my traveler’s journal.
Fromm’s book was a natural choice for my guide since it literally fell off the shelf at my local recycling center as I was preparing for my journey. It is an old friend from my graduate school days in the late sixties and early seventies, an international best seller that seems to have been especially popular among psychology students. My outfitter for this trek urged caution and suggested that I reconsider my itinerary or at least use a different guidebook.
Valentine’s Day, after all, is a celebration of romantic love, and my quest for acts of kindness is a search for something quite different. I persisted, arguing that while Valentine, the fifth century martyr for whom the holiday is named, championed romantic love by performing marriages for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry, he also embodied love as a broader orientation and attitude toward life. It is said that during his imprisonment, Valentine healed the blind daughter of his jailer and that before he was martyred, he wrote her a farewell letter signed, “Your Valentine.”
This first Valentine card and the relationship that prompted it suggest that Valentine, like Fromm, treated love as a verb and not a noun. According to Fromm, love is not a state of being, something into which we fall, but rather a way of acting in the world to ease the pain of separation from nature that human consciousness brings.
There are many forms of love including erotic love, brotherly and sisterly love, the love of mothers and fathers for their children, and the love of God, but they all have one common aim. Love brings about a sense of unity with its object through relationships that see beneath the surface to the core of our beings. When we look at the surface, we see the differences that divide us. Beneath the surface, there is only our common humanity, what Harry Stack Sullivan referred to as the fact that, “We are all much more simply human than otherwise.”
Thus prepared, I began my explorations and found manifestations of love everywhere in the hospital. It was there in the visitors from a distant country bringing bags of food to a woman hospitalized far from home. She shared an orange with another woman with whom she has little in common and love sparked in the momentary connection they made.
A man tormented by guilt and suffering is convinced that he is either the devil or Jesus Christ and a compassionate nurse acknowledged his anguish. She reminded him over and over again that he is simply who he is, a good man who had a hard life. Now the rest of us take our lead from her. It happens there is a name for this way of responding. It is even an evidence-based intervention, but it is still a kind of love.
I saw a young man and woman who seemed to be spending all of their free time together. They could be a couple, though we discourage hospital romances, but there is no doubt that they are friends. Fromm sees friendship as a special case of brotherly or sisterly love founded on knowledge, care, responsibility and respect.
The other day in a relapse prevention group, participants discussed their life goals, and we soon found ourselves talking not about voices and delusions but about the interests and skills of the people in the room. When we discuss life’s challenges with a poet, a musician, and a computer programmer from the unique perspective that each brings to the table, the conversation takes on a different tone than it would if we put the emphasis on the symptoms of their mental illnesses.
In acknowledging one another’s strengths, participants go beneath surface appearances and, in the way of love, enlarge their knowledge and understanding of the other.
The poet Robert Frost was an eloquent spokesman for what Fromm called brotherly or sisterly love. Frost wrote about love as neighborliness of the kind we are seeing in the hospital. In his poem, “Bending Birches,” he recalled the way he used to climb birch trees and, hanging on to their tops, launch himself, feet first, to the ground. He wrote that when life is too hard, when he is “weary of considerations,” he would like to “get away from Earth awhile,” to bend birches the way he did as a boy. Away from earth but always to return because, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” Back from my journey, I can only agree.
Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.