I often ask myself how is it that close relationships are one of the great causes of suffering in our Western world. Since the need for closeness and love is part of our nature and is essential even for our survival, how can it be, at the same time, so excruciating to relate to one another?
If every day quite ordinary people risk their lives to save perfect strangers, how come we can sometimes be so cruel and manipulative with the ones we say we love? This is one of the greatest paradoxes of human nature but one that can be understood once we recognise two conflicting forces within us: fear and love.
Let’s talk about love. We generally think there are all sorts of love. In fact, the feelings we have for our parents, our children, our spouses or our pets seem very different in nature. And yet, if we could boil them down to their basic common ground, we might find something quite similar to the Buddhist definition of love as being “the wish that others could be happy and have the causes of happiness”. No strings attached.
It might seem that simply wishing others to be happy isn’t much. It’s not entirely true. If we put this into practice and act accordingly, it changes our whole perspective and attitude. Wishing the welfare of others entails understanding their needs and wishes, giving them support and standing beside them. It means recognising their basic dignity, respecting their independence and giving them the freedom to follow their own way. Above all, it means that we really try not to hurt them.
Now, let’s talk about fear. Fear is the root of attachment and the ugly face of so-called love. It’s not out of love that we harm others with whom we are closely connected, it’s out of fear-attachment-hatred. We consider people as our property and expect the world from them. We fear to lose them, that they escape from us and live their lives independently.
We then treat them as objects of our own fulfilment, whether physical, emotional or other and may focus entirely on them. It may appear that they are at the centre of our concerns but, actually, since it has everything to do with our own satisfaction, it is a very self-centered interest.
Interestingly I came to notice that there is a mathematical quality in the way these two relate. The more we obsess about one person, the more indifferent we are to all others; and, conversely, the more we care about everyone, the less likely it is that we obsess about one single person.
Love and fear follow opposite roads but they are never separate. Unless and until our basic feeling of lack and frustration (what Buddha explained as Dukkha) disappears, love is almost inevitably mixed with fear in most relationships. We can only learn how to distinguish one from the other and choose love over fear, whenever possible. It’s always possible.