“All the most powerful emotions come from chaos – fear, anger, love – especially love.
Love is chaos itself…” – Kirsten Miller
As our modern times become ever-more chaotic, the fear of being alone becomes an increasingly prominent feature in our life. The moral certainties that once provided a sense of security have turned into lines drawn in the sand; constantly washed away by the waves of individualism, clearing a slate for us to write and rewrite our own narratives.
In The Normal Chaos of Love, Sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim explore how romantic love is both a bastion of uncertainty, and a place of refuge. Love itself has become increasingly chaotic in modern times with the loss of clear-cut courtship rituals. In this age of uncertainty we are primarily driven to find and hold onto romantic love out of a fear of loneliness in a world lacking communal bonds.
Modernity can be characterized by a series of communal eulogies. Nietzsche forecasted the death of God, the superiority of the church eroded, neighborhoods turned into sterile suburban refuges, and the nuclear family with its definite gender roles gave way to various unique household possibilities. With each of these dissolving institutions came increasing freedom. No longer dominated by the church, we were able to further scientific pursuits and critical thinking, and no longer confined to a narrow family model, we were able to form households that better fit with our individual needs and desires.
So what’s wrong with increased individual freedom and limitless pursuits? According to Durkheim, this causes individuals to replace the fulfillment of communal life with a pursuit for infinite wealth and success, producing the “constantly renewed torture” of an “inextinguishable thirst.” In addition to wealth and success, the pursuit of love is a major way us modern individuals seek fulfillment. According to Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim:
Some powerful force has pushed its way in and filled up the gap where, according to previous generations, God, country, class, politics or family were supposed to hold sway. I am what matters: I, and You as my assistant; and if not You then some other You.
Seeking love in the intensity of Eros should not be equated with fulfillment, states Beck:
That is its glowing side, the physical thrill…. How easily having one’s hopes fulfilled can turn into a chilly gaze! Were only a moment ago overwhelming urgency made a knotted tangle of two walking taboos, merging me and you, all boundaries gone, now we are staring at one another with critical eyes, rather like meat inspectors, or even butchers who see the sausages where others see cattle and pigs.
Released from traditional norms, our desire to seek fulfillment in an a love relationship grows, since “other social bonds seem too tenuous and unreliable.” As this desire grows with increasing individualization, its fulfillment is more difficult to attain amidst the ever-growing emphasis on the thrill of Eros. Expanding on Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim’s characterization of love as a means to peruse, a happy “life of one’s own” in our culture of “do-it-yourself lifestyles,” I want to emphasize the need to balance our Eros obsession with Agape. Eros is a love based on self-gaining conquest; agape is based on altruistic commitment. Regarding Eros, Social Psychologist, Erich Fromm states:
…the stranger is transformed into an “intimate” person, again the experience of falling in love is exhilarating and intense, and again it slowly becomes less and less intense, and ends in the wish for a new conquest, a new love – always with the illusion that the new love will be different from the earlier ones. These illusions are greatly helped by the deceptive character of sexual desire. Sexual desire aims at fusion – and is by no means only a physical appetite, the relief of a painful tension. But sexual desire can be stimulated by the anxiety of aloneness, by the wish to conquer or be conquered, by vanity, but the wish to hurt and even to destroy, as much as it can be stimulated by love.
He goes on, in The Art of Love, to state that humans are in search of a lost union with nature. We have developed large brains, giving us a high degree of self consciousness and awareness of our own mortality. This creates an existential need for meaning in our lives which was the source of religious life. In modern times, market capitalism took the place of religion as the central organizing force:
“Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit, considering his position and the situation on the personality market. He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from nature.”
Just like uncertain market forces, love has become a normal chaos. Dating apps give us powerful technological tools to market ourselves to potential partners. Hookup culture has been institutionalized and fire of eros burns bright. We are liberated from the shackles of tradition, able to peruse our unique passions in places forbidden by fading taboos. But In order to balance the potentially lonely price of this freedom, we need to remember Agape – a form of altruistic love that requires commitment and ongoing effort. Kahlil Gibran said, “work is love made visible;” but love is also work made visible.
Eros without agape is lustful, while agape without Eros is ascetic. Romantic love requires the fiery passion of Eros, but amidst the institutionalized chaos of contemporary life we must not lose sight of loyalty and commitment. When Eros and Agape come together, Self-fulfillment is a byproduct of self-giving; not in the form of submission or domination, but as equals who respect one another and genuinely care for each others well-being. This way, love can weather the darkest of life’s storms, giving refuge to those who seek solace amidst the chaos.
This post is dedicated to my loving fiancé who has encouraged me to pursue my passion in sociology through her infinite self-giving and never-ending support.
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