A “Dynamic Interaction”: How We Learn (and Unlearn) the Language of Love
From developmental psychology to Timothy Leary, a reframing of love as deliberate mastery rather than magical thinking.
By Maria Popova
Love might be one of the most quintessential capacities of the human condition. And yet, for all our poetic contemplation, psycho-scientific dissection, and anthropological exploration of it, we greatly underestimate the extent to which this baseline capacity — much like those for language, motion, and creativity — is a dynamic ability to be mastered and cultivated rather than a static state to be passively beheld. Despite what we know about the value of “deliberate practice” in attaining excellence in any endeavor, the necessary toil of mastery, and the psychology of what it takes to acquire new habits, we remain gobsmackingly naive about the practice of love, approaching it instead with the magical-thinking expectation that we’re born excellent at it.
That disconnect is precisely what Leo Buscaglia considers in one of the most stimulating chapters in Love: What Life Is All About (public library) — that slim and potent volume based on his 1969 course at the University of Southern California, which also gave us Buscaglia on education, conformity, and how labels limit us.
Citing famous cases, both folkloric and factual, of human children raised by animals outside civilization, Buscaglia notes that just like we “learn” to be human, we also learn to love. He points to the research of various psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, and educators, who have indicated that love is a “learned response, a learned emotion,” and laments a fundamental cultural disconnect:
Most of us continue to behave as though love is not learned but lies dormant in each human being and simply awaits some mystical age of awareness to emerge in full bloom. Many wait for this age forever. We seem to refuse to face the obvious fact that most of us spend our lives trying to find love, trying to live in it, and dying without ever truly discovering it.
And yet, Buscaglia argues, this dreary destiny is self-made and thus avoidable through the choices we make, in how much of ourselves we invest in learning love. He observes a startling paradox that bespeaks how we, as a culture, cripple ourselves in the journey to love — if one wanted to learn about cars, one would “without question study about automobiles”; if one wanted to become a gourmet cook, one would “certainly study the art of cooking, perhaps even attend a cooking class.” But when it comes to love, Buscaglia points out, we expect the skill of it will magically bestow itself upon us. “No mechanic or cook,” he writes, “would ever believe that by ‘willing’ the knowledge in his field, he’d ever become an expert in it.”
Love is a learned, emotional reaction. It is a response to a learned group of stimuli and behaviors. Like all learned behavior, it is [affected] by the interaction of the learner with his environment, the person’s learning ability, and the type and strength of the reinforcers present; that is, which people respond, how they respond and to what degree they respond, to his expressed love.
Love is a dynamic interaction, lived every second of our lives, all of our lives.
Buscaglia puts the premise poetically yet unambiguously in seven postulates:
One cannot give what he does not possess. To give love you must possess love.
One cannot teach what he does not understand. To teach love you must comprehend love.
One cannot know what he does not study. To study love you must live in love.
One cannot appreciate what he does not recognize. To recognize love you must be receptive to love.
One cannot have doubt about that which he wishes to trust. To trust love you must be convinced of love.
One cannot admit what he does not yield to. To yield to love you must be vulnerable to love.
One cannot love what he does not dedicate himself to. To dedicate yourself to love you must be forever growing in love.
This growth, Buscaglia argues, is a process both active and interactive:
Love is an emotion, that is true. But it is also a “response” to an emotion and, therefore, an “active” expression of what is felt. Love is not learned by osmosis. It is actually acted out and acted upon.
The process begins in childhood, as we absorb the picture of the world we are fed and emulate the psychoemotional tools we observe — something psychiatric trio Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explored with remarkable dimension decades later in their excellent A General Theory of Love. Buscaglia writes:
In order to exist at some level of comfort, [the child] must accept what is offered, often without questions. In fact, he has few questions for he has little knowledge and nothing to compare it to. He is spoon-fed his world, handed the tools to meet its requirements and the symbols with which to organize it. He is even taught what things are significant, what sounds to listen for and what they mean, and what is valueless. In other words, he is taught to be a particular type of human lover. To be loved in return, he need but listen, see and respond as others do. It is a simple matter but the cost to his individuality is great.
Buscaglia applies Timothy Leary’s notion of developmental “imprinting” — the idea that a child’s acquisition of language and words serves as a “freezing of external awareness” — to love:
[According to Leary] each time a parent or society teaches a child a new symbol he is given both an intellectual and an emotional content for the symbol. The content is limited by the attitudes and feelings of his parents and society. This process begins too early for the child to have much to say about what words will mean for him. Once “frozen,” the attitudes and feelings toward the object or person to which the words refer become very stable, in many cases irreversible. Through words, then, the child is given not only content but attitude. His attitudes of love are so formed. A sort of map is set up, Leary continues, which is static and upon which all subsequent learning of attitudes and awareness take place. The child’s “map” will be determined by how closely the symbols resemble the facts and how they are taken in, assimilated, analyzed and reinforced through experience. The important language for establishing behavior, relationships, action, attitudes, empathy, responsibility of love, trust, caring, joy, response — the language of love, in other words, will thus be set.
The formal education system, Buscaglia argues, only compounds the problem with its propensity for “‘feeding in’ rather than a ‘leading out,'” coercing the child to accept the ideas of love as defined by his or her teachers. Buscaglia laments the distorted, backwards model of love instilled in us by culture and commerce since childhood:
Neither the love of self — what educators call self-respect — nor love of others — responsibility and love for his fellow man — can ever be taught in our present educational system. Teachers are too busy “managing” to be “creating.” As Albert Einstein said, “It is nothing short of a miracle that instruction today has not strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. For this delicate little plant lies mostly in need of freedom without which it will fall into rack and ruin and die without fail.”
So the individual, now fully grown, leaves our schools confused, lonely, alienated, lost, angry, but with a mind full of isolated, meaningless facts which together are laughingly called an education. He knows neither who he is, where he is or how he got there. He has no concept of where he’s going, how to arrive there nor what he’ll do when he gets there. He has no idea what he has, what he wants, nor how to develop it. In essence, he’s a type of robot — old before his time, living in the past, confused by the present, frightened by the future, much like the teachers who made him.
Nowhere along the way has he been directly exposed to love as a learned phenomenon. What he has learned of love he has come upon indirectly, by chance or by trial and error. His greatest exposure and often his only teaching has been through the commercial mass media which has always exploited love for its own ends.
You are assured that love means running together through a meadow, lighting two cigarettes in the dark or applying a deodorant daily. You are given the idea that love just “happens,” and usually at first sight. You don’t have to work at love — love requires no teacher — you just fall into love — if you follow the right rules, and play the “game” correctly.
The result of this, Buscaglia argues, is a singular and pervasive psychoemotional crippling. And yet there is hope — active, dynamic, elastic hope for mastering this all-important skill that is learned like any other:
Most of us never learn to love at all. We play at love, imitate lovers, treat love as a game. Is it any wonder so many of us are dying of loneliness, feel anxious and unfulfilled, even in seemingly close relationships, and are always looking elsewhere for something more which we feel must certainly be there? “Is that all there is?” the song asks.
There is something else. It’s simply this — the limitless potential of love within each person eager to be recognized, waiting to be developed, learning to grow.
It’s never too late to learn anything for which you have a potential. If you want to learn to love, then you must start the process of finding out what it is, what qualities make up a loving person and how these are developed. Each person has the potential for love. But potential is never realized without work. This does not mean pain. Love, especially, is learned best in wonder, in joy, in peace, in living.
Love: What Life Is All About is a glorious read in its entirety — a dimensional synthesis of the insights Buscaglia and his students arrived at over the three years he taught his USC course on love, prompted by the tragic and discombobulating suicide of one of his brightest students. Buscaglia goes on to explore, in a fashion both philosophical and practically useful yet not the least bit self-helpy, such facets of love as its biological basis, its deterrents, its agelessness, and its relationship with personal responsibility. Complement it with these essential reads on the psychology of love and some timeless wisdom on it by Susan Sontag, Vincent van Gogh, and Albert Camus.
Vintage postcards courtesy of the New York Public Library archives
Published June 30, 2014