Co-passion: Gridlock at the Crossroads of Love
Many people wrote to say how much they liked last week’s article on romanticynicism-the merging of romanticism and cynicism-but the article left me wondering what I really meant by it. I said I’d prescribe romanticynicism to anyone, but the more I think about it the more it seems that romanticynicism is a question, not an answer. I guess I’m prescribing a question. This week I want to burrow a little deeper into it.
I said my temperament and circumstances incline me toward romanticynicism. I’m skeptical about anyone’s simple story of how they became who they are. Here then is only one possible version of how I became a romanticynic. My people are Jewish. “Build to last a hundred years, be ready to leave tomorrow,” resonates with Jewish history. I was lucky, born during a Jewish building boom. I grew up comfortable with room for abstraction. Intellectual curiosity was encouraged. Still, I was an anxious child. I channeled my anxiety into intellectual curiosity.
My parents died when they were each 59. My firstborn son is for the most part lost to me, on and off very hard drugs, in and out of trouble with the law, and fundamentally unstable. My fiancée of the past three years and the love of my life has a horrible, degenerative illness that caused her to call off our engagement last January. I myself have been lucky but, like any of us who reach mid-life, I’ve seen such grief at close range that I can’t help but notice that people and their contentments come and go. Their contentments with each other come and go too, which is one of the key reasons you can’t really love without also being able to let go.
I don’t constrain the sadness. I welcome a good cry. I also cultivate an economist’s appreciation of the dynamics, trade-offs, and consequences of various strategies for investing in life and relationships. The heartfelt grief and the analysis are both essential to romanticynicism and, for me, to a life worth living.
Here then is a bit more analysis of what it means to be romanticynical. For simplicity’s sake I’ll imagine a relationship between two people, though even that is far from simple. If you’ll pardon the syntactical intimacy, I’ll illustrate using “you” and “me,” since it frees us from gender and pronoun confusions. I’m not propositioning you.
This week I noticed that “compassion” is used either as a static noun (“The time is right for compassion”) or as the root for a uni-directional transitive verb (“I’m compassionate about your challenges”). But these two uses don’t begin to cover the full complexity of compassion’s nature. I think there ought to be a word like “co-passion” for two-way compassion, which is where the real-world complications set in. And really, it’s four-way compassion. We each have compassion for each other and for ourselves: I love you. You love me. I love me. You love you.
Any two of these alone would be relatively easy. For example, if I loved you and you loved me and that was all, then pure romantic love would be possible. We would give to each other selflessly. I love you and you love you would be a similarly simple love story. I’d give and you would take. With all four loves in play, trade-offs are built into the situation.
Loving yourself and someone else is sometimes easy and sometimes difficult. When we want the same things it’s win-win. When we want different things it’s win-lose.
Two people in love navigate a complex stream of subtle and not-so-subtle mutual and competitive pleasures. The competitive pleasures can be mild or severe, from having a slight preference for your partner’s second-choice movie one night to absolutely hating your partner’s conversational style.
Some competitive pleasures turn out to be false win-loses: You think one of you will have to sacrifice in order to make the other happy, but it turns out there’s an alternative that makes you both happy. But not all competitive pleasures can be converted into mutual pleasures. In real win-lose situations, sacrifice is required and the question is whose. It’s the give or take of relationship. Give-and-take is what dynamics are all about.
To handle the give-and-take while still claiming to be “in love,” we define love mercurially covering a spectrum from sacrificial acts to mild conceptual regard-from “I love you; take one of my kidneys” to “Well, of course I love your mother but no I’m not going to make an extra stop just to see her.”
Love’s full repertoire of interactivity therefore includes you sacrificing for me, me sacrificing for you, or us calibrating appropriate distance, giving each other more or less space (even while claiming to love each other). Where incompatibilities arise, two questions come to the fore:
1. Should we be united here?
2. If so, how should we distribute the sacrifices to make union possible?
Romance is an aspiration to harmonic unity, which means that where there’s disharmony that can’t be cured to the satisfaction of both parties, somebody has to make sacrifices. Romance answers yes to the question “Should we be united here?” But the second question still has two possible answers: You should sacrifice for me or I should sacrifice for you.
1. “I love you, and I’ll do anything you need me to in order to make this relationship work.”
2. “If you really love me as you should, you will do anything I need you to in order to make this relationship work.”
Cynicism is detachment-the absence of aspiration to harmonic unity or even the avoidance of harmonic unity. Cynicism answers “not necessarily” to the question “Should we be united here?” The second question again has two possible answers: I needn’t sacrifice for you, and you needn’t sacrifice for me.
3. “Our love is unnecessary, so if you don’t like what I am doing, I’m still not changing. You can just steer clear of me.”
4. “Our love is unnecessary, so if I’m not satisfied with what you are, that’s OK. I’ll distance myself from you.
Reading these four options, you may find some sound less generous than others. But generous to whom? If you’re dealing with four-way compassion-reciprocated love for each other and ourselves-then each of these states has its place in the repertoire. Each sacrifices some of the four loves so as to accommodate others. The last one, for example, accommodates your love for you and my love for me. What it says is that neither of us need sacrifice on this; let’s loosen our bond instead. This sometimes turns out to be the best bet. It is just a bet, but certainly a reasonable one that sometimes pays off, as anyone happily divorced can tell you.
A romanticynic realizes this. Romanticynicism is not a matter of shuttling between romance and cynicism depending on circumstances. That’s what predators do, exploiting romantic absolutes to get you to do what they want (“If you loved me, you’d . . . “) and cynical absolutes to deflect your requests for an accommodation (“Get over it. All’s fair in love and . . . “). No, what makes a romanticynic is an appreciation of the inherent tensions, the inescapability of give-and-take that in human emotional terms plays out through the currency of love in all its degrees, from intense bond to bland regard, from romance to cynicism, depending on what sacrifices a bond is worth, what sacrifices a bond would require, and who is willing to make those sacrifices.
Indeed, I suspect romanticynics are somewhat constrained in their potential to become predators. Because they see the potential value in all the configurations of give-and-take, it’s harder for them to make self-servingly one-sided arguments. They also make unsatisfactory prey. They know better than to buy one-sided arguments that they should sacrifice. They remain open to questions about where to draw the lines, how close to bond, and how to manage the incompatibilities a bond entails.
Romanticynics also know that sacrifice for unity is even an issue within one person. Sometimes loving yourself and someone else are incompatible, forcing you to sacrifice your bond or sacrifice a part of yourself, and neither solution seems sufficiently harmonious.
Romanticynics are sobered by recognition that they can simultaneously desire incompatible things. They don’t assume that they deserve internal harmony. This further limits their ability to become predator or prey. They don’t translate their dissatisfaction into an argument that it’s your fault and you necessarily owe them a sacrifice, nor will they readily buy an argument that if you’re dissatisfied with your options, they necessarily owe you something. The operative word here is “necessarily.” They’re open to the possibility but don’t make automatic assumptions about who needs to budge. They live their romanticynicism as a question and not an answer. I think this makes them more adaptive in the long run, and therefore safer partners in any venture from love to work and beyond.