By Raja Rosenhagen
The topic of love seemed like an obvious choice. I just taught two classes on it over the summer—one for graduate level students,one as part of the summer semester offerings for our undergraduates. It was deeply rewarding to be with these students, to reflect with them on what love and friendship are (or should be), on how various kinds of love relate to our reasons, and on how the quality of our attention profoundly shapes our everyday ways of interacting with others. Many students took these reflections as invitations to self-examine, to apply the conceptual tools they had acquired throughout the course to their lives and ask: How doI relate to others? Can I live up to the various ideals we had tried to articulate? In what ways am I falling short, and why? Some students wrote to me afterwards and said that for them, the class had served as a safe space in which to reflect upon things that matter, on issues, moreover, that do come to the fore even more forcefully than otherwise now, i.e. in a time in which humans across the globe are going through a pandemic and are thus either confined to being with their loved ones a lot more than usual or are separated from or even at the risk of losing them.
Not every philosophy class is or must be an exercise of earnest self-examination. However, a class that stimulates one to reflect upon how to live well can be a source of personal growth, and serve to sow, one hopes, the seeds for a better society. That we need one is obvious to everyone who looks—and opportunities abound—at the suffering of the diseased, the poor, the marginalized, and all those who have nobody to lobby for them. Many of us prefer to look away or focus on issues we can manage, things we feel we can cope with. This can be healthy. After all, our capacity to look at the various kinds of suffering that our ways of life create or help sustain is limited. There may only be so much we can take, of the sadness, the anger, and the despair that looking outward empathetically must reveal, and of the emotional exhaustion that ensues.
But we must look somewhere. And even if we can’t, given the pandemic, go out, travel, and explore it, the world doesn’t halt at our doorstep. Numerous media outlets and social media platforms provide a permanent influx of news and entertainment that vie for our attention, approval, or emotional responses. Of course, the virtual world allows us to be selective. We can choose where we look and can easily look away if things get under our skins. But the satisfaction virtual escapism provides is short-lived. After hours of watching Netflix or chasing down various debates on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, most of us are left exhausted, left with a stale aftertaste, the feeling that real life is shallow, too complicated or burdensome, or with the nagging thought that a lot of precious time was just wasted. Even if after spending time on consuming various news items, one may well be in a better position to understand certain issues, through such consumption, nothing of substance changes. More distracted, more polarized, or overwhelmed, we find ourselves where we left as we begin to direct our selective gaze into the virtual outward. We remain saddled with the real pain around us, confronted with those who have legitimate demands on us, with urgent emails to respond to and many other tasks to complete. It is a change for the better that we vaguely imagine and strongly desire. But as we resurface from the virtual, we must concede that nothing has changed, nothing has been achieved.
Ultimately, trying to mask out the real world is futile. For the pain and suffering we try to escape, are anyway, not just out there. They live in our own homes and families (think of the uncle, cousin, or unresolved conflict that everyone knows but nobody talks about), in our relationships, in how we handle ourselves in them. So we cannot escape, or not for long. So where should we look? How can we deal? What must happen for things to become better?
Once we raise these questions and make time to be with them, we realize that the most powerful responses turn on love. Giving time and attention to others, Simone Weil thinks, is not just a way of showing empathy, it is a way to love. Iris Murdoch concurs, adding that love is a quality of attachment, that directing our attention at what is good and valuable in the world and in others is a source of tremendous energy, and that love, construed as just attention, enables us to act well.
So we can ask: whom or what do I love? Do I pay attention to it? Do I love what I pay attention to? How do I nourish my love, how can I refine it? What have I done today to expand it? Is there someone who needs my compassionate kindness? How is my neighbour, my grandmother, a friend that I haven’t heard from in a long time, how are things for the istrivala, the kachravala, or the shopkeeper of the corner store? What would happen if I asked them?
It is an old mistake to think that we cannot solve large or systemic societal problems by making small steps. Everyone can make small steps and many such steps jointly give rise to powerful movements. We must not think that believing this, and acting on it, is naïve, or that it can’t be that simple. Such a response-apart from being one of the biggest obstacles to change—is itself naïve. For how can it be reasonable to hope that things will change for the better while we do not? Surely, changing our ways by seeking to expand our ability to love nudges us out of our comfort zone. We may be afraid as such expansion it may seem to make us vulnerable. But it makes us stronger. It helps us turn into the best version of who we are. It serves to build community, to create structures of responsibility, compassion, and human connection, it implements life-affirming values and thus strengthens the various connections we form with those around us. This, I believe, is by far the best response to the pain we face. And it is available to us always. We need not wait. We can start today, and it barely costs anything. Love NOW!
Rosenhagen is the Associate Professor Philosophy and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashoka University. He specializes in Philosophy of Perception, Science, Mind, & Epistemology.
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