In “You Have to Be Two to Start: Rational Thoughts About Love” Ernst Von Glasersfeld makes an interesting observation which is that in order to experience love, “you have to be two.” That is, what is one has to construct an other – become two – and then be in relationship with that other in order to know love.
This relates to George Spencer-Brown’s notion – supported by his weird but rigorous algebra – that the universe is capable of seeing itself, but in order to do so must cleave itself into a part that sees and a part that is seen. It distinguishes itself from itself.
But Spencer-Brown points out that since the universe is not actually distinct from itself, any division is always partial and thus, in its partiality, is false to itself. It hints at oneness, but is never actual oneness.
That is, so long as we are experiencing self and other, we might catch glimpses or intimations of oneness, and these hints might be comforting or orgasmic or exhilarating, but they are never actual oneness, no matter how intense or apparently persuasive.
Von Glasersfeld’s analysis makes clear that love is not a mystical union wherein two separate parts become one such that the separate parts are no longer separately identifiable. Rather, it is a common-sense art two (or more) separate parts practice out of a shared desire to see and share with the other.
We are self and other precisely because what is one – what distinguished by us as self and other – desires love. In this sense, the appearance of separation is the literal form of desire.
As von Glasersfeld understands it, insisting that love be “mystical” or “spiritual” can actually impede our experience of it.
I have reached the conclusion that there is a widespread illusion that makes the continued existence of love impossible. As long as children are brought up to believe that love just happens like a magic spell which comes from outside and creates and perpetuates itself, then it cannot function. Love – as Ovid pointed out long ago – is an art. It has to be constantly created and requires persistent vigilance, care, and thoughtfulness.
Given the appearance of self and other, we must become responsible unto the implicit – the apparently embodied – desire for love.
In this sense, a “mystic” is really someone who has learned that unity is our shared fundament and then does the hard work of sharing that learning and practicing it with others (broadly defined so as to include sunflowers, pine trees, oceans and stars et cetera) each of whom could be our very own self. Thus, as von Glasersfeld points out, to be loving always includes an ethical responsibility unto the other.
The partner is always what we experience of him or her. We have abstracted him or her from our own experiences and therefore he or she is our construction and not, for example, a thing in itself which exists independently from us.
Everyone and everything that we encounter is a distinction that we – ourselves distinctions – make. To be “mystical” is to perceive in a sustainable ongoing way the underlying unity inhering in our apparently disparate experiences.
I suggest that the sustainability of this insight necessarily makes us radical peace activists. When we perceive love as the fundament, then we also see clearly how so many of the models and systems used to instantiate and maintain justice, equity and peace and so forth are broken and dysfunctional and so must be discarded and replaced.
This is true when it comes to caged children at the southern border of the United States, hungry women and men living without shelter, and reliance on non-local and corporate food producers to eat.
Thus we contemplate and study oneness but we are also seeking to bring love forth in the actual apparent circumstances of our living. To paraphrase Henri Nouwen, a mystic who is not making the world a better place has only learned half the lesson, and the radical peace activist who is not aware of her unity with all life has likewise only learned half the lesson.
Learning half the lesson does not mean that we cannot be happy but it does mean that deep joy and inner peace, and a world free of hatred and fear, remain ideals that are only occasionally sampled, rather than sustainable mainstays of our shared living.
Jesus was a revolutionary who did not become an extremist since he did not offer an ideology, but himself. He was also a mystic who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel. In this sense, he also remains for men and women of the nuclear age the way to liberation and freedom (Nouwen Seeds of Hope 220).
I do not suggest these are easy lessons to learn, nor hold myself out as an exemplary student. The way is arduous, if less so than we were taught. It takes attention; it takes commitment.
Like you, I work not from a sense of superiority or spiritual excellence, but from a sense of duty and humility in which learning is ongoing. The return of love unto love is cyclical. We are never going to “graduate;” we are not travelers who will one day arrive at a place called Heaven. There is nobody who “wakes up” or becomes “enlightened.”
More and more I see the work of love as akin to gardening and homesteading, wherein we work cooperatively with one another and with the earth to bring forth sustenance in the form of a cycle which nurtures body, plant and earth as one.
We might identify with one aspect of the cycle more than another – we might even appear to be one aspect of the cycle (gardener rather than plant, say) – but what matters is the attention and devotion we give to our ongoing experience of the cycle. Plants and soil are attentive, too. If we aren’t noticing this, then we aren’t noticing love in its fullness.
So here – where I live and study and act – we trade and barter for seeds. We compost as much as possible and return it to our gardens and the gardens of our neighbors. We grow mostly what feeds us (kale, potatoes, squash, beans) but also some of what delight us (decorative gourds, miniature pumpkins). We put food up and trade and barter and potlach with other local farmers and homesteaders. We do most (not all but most) of our shopping at cooperatives in which we are members.
It is not enough – it is not nearly enough – yet it makes us happy, relates us creatively to our little patch of earth and the women, men and other creatures with whom we temporarily dwell. It builds soil for those who come after us; it minimizes our dependence on corporations and other entities we do not respect. But still.
It makes sense to us to live this way, however imperfectly. It feels coherent. It is a way of perceiving the other and our selves and our shared world in ways that maximize shared healing, wellness, happiness and so forth. It emphasizes cooperation, coordination and communication.
Nouwen wrote that we are human not because we can think but because of our potential to love, which love is a poor reflection of the greater love that created us.
I am speaking about a love between us that transcends all thoughts and feelings precisely because it is rooted in God’s first love, a love that precedes all human loves . . . when we trust that the God of love has already given the peace we are searching for, we will see this peace breaking through the broken soil of our human condition and we will be able to let it grow fast and even heal the economic and political maladies of our time (Seeds of Hope 260, 267).
Nouwen’s God is Spencer-Brown’s Universe and von Glasersfeld’s One-which-makes-itself-two. The distinctions in language are not essential; the experience to which they point does matter, because it can helpfully point us in the direction of an ever-deepening, ever-encompassing, ever-self-seeding love.
We are unto each other like soil and blossoms, like sun and rain, harvest and pantry. May our shared grace and Thanksgiving be bountiful!