This year’s biological pathology is nearly over; its social pathology (loneliness) is far from over. To heal the latter issue, we could all benefit from reading the authors I recommend below.
We could also learn from our dogs (bear with me…).
While hiking with friends in the Blue Ridge Mountains last week, they asked what my favorite books of the Covid-19 era were. One such favorite — a 1956 philosophy treatise by Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving — caused knowing (but loving 😉) laughter.
Aside from affection (hopefully), my friends’ laughter reflects a stubborn misconception: that philosophy is impractical. In reality, philosophy is the most practical subject there is.
Exhibit A? The connection between Fromm’s abstract musings and scientist Ximena Vengoechea’s practical suggestions in another great Covid-19 read, Listen Like You Mean It.
How to Re-Connect: Listen Like You Mean It, So That You Can Love Like You Mean It
As I wrote in 2012 when arguing that we should teach philosophy in high schools, philosophers like Fromm teach us how to accomplish the most practical thing that any human being can learn: How to live. As a synonym for connection and an essential element of any well-lived life, love could not be a more relevant topic during this rather lonely year. Earth, especially the Earth of the past year, is a place filled with souls yearning for connection yet united largely by a sense of … disconnection.
The problem is simple: Connection takes work. As Fromm writes, “love isn’t something natural,” but “requires discipline, concentration , patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism.”
In other words, loving isn’t a feeling. It’s a practice, an art — one that, like listening, can be refined and improved.
While hiking, I was reading the aforementioned Listen Like You Mean It . Unlike Fromm’s work, Vengoechea’s suggestions on reconnecting in a disconnected world are backed by recent science. Like Fromm, she suggests that becoming more connected entails nothing more complex than healing your hierarchy of values, which means becoming curious about others — caring about them, or (duh) loving them.
In other words, to become a more connected human being (i.e., to learn the “art of love”), take a page from Vengoechea’s title: Listen — to the world, to others, to your deepest thoughts within your deepest soul— “like you mean it.”
Healing Your Hierarchy of Values
Unfortunately, we no longer care enough about connection to be fully present. The result is that we no longer listen mindfully, “like we mean it.” Yet by reclaiming a healthier sense of connection’s value, we can reclaim what Vengoechea calls the lost “art of true connection,” and what Fromm calls “the art of loving.” We can remember what it means to be human.
Given how important it is to cultivate love and connection — to listen like we mean it — the fact that we don’t “listen like we mean it” suggests that something is fundamentally wrong with our hierarchy of values. As Fromm writes:
[H]ere lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn [how to connect]: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.
Again, consider what the title of Vengoechea’s book suggests — that most of us, most of the time, aren’t listening. We’re anticipating. We’re projecting. We’re worrying. And so on. As Vengoechea writes:
For many of us, listening is simply something we do on autopilot. We hear just enough of what someone says to get our work done, maintain friendships, and be polite with our neighbors.
Like bad lovers, bad listeners are paying insufficient attention to their relationships. Why? They undervalue them. Since we all desire love, however — because so many of us are lonely and isolated and disconnected, because “happiness is only real when shared” — our tendency to take relationships for granted and to be anything but mindful about connection comes at a great cost. After all, you can’t connect to anything if you don’t pay attention to it. As Lady Bird’s teenage philosopher-protagonist wisely mused:
Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing — love and attention?
They are indeed the same thing. Fromm’s philosophy and Vengoechea’s science suggest that reconnecting — becoming a better friend, sibling, spouse, or … human being — comes down to turning off the “autopilot,” thereby paying more attention to others, to the external world, and even to our thoughts.
Failing to listen, to connect, to love, is simply too costly. It means that we miss opportunities to dive deeper — to “make connections that will last the long haul, and to discover who people truly are at their core.”
From Philosophers & Scientists to … my Dog
Lady Bird was right: “[T]hey are the same thing — love and attention[.]” Given how much attention I pay to my graceful dog, Grace — whose grace has gotten me through this year more than any book — I think it’s pretty obvious that I love her.
It’s also clear that she — unlike humans — doesn’t need a book to know what’s truly valuable. She knows what she loves — treats, belly rubs, long walks, even longer naps — and, as a natural consequence, she pays attention to those things. She doesn’t need to cultivate “the art of love,” because she is love. A soft, furry, and fairly goofy bundle of love.
To reconnect to the world, act naturally. Act like Grace — with a natural grace that will enable you to pay attention to what you love.
Once you identify your loves — the things that are truly valuable, like the beautiful dog in the picture that ends these musings — you won’t even have to listen like you mean it. Because you will mean it. (Indeed, as Grace knows, love does not only create meaning. Love is meaning.)
Perhaps you, unlike the humans Fromm and Vengoechea describe, possess a healthy hierarchy of values. If you lack such sanity, however, never fear. There’s hope, if only you stop pursuing the things that you think will make you happy and instead take a page from philosophy and science and my dog and, yes, common-sense: Follow your heart. Do what you love. Become curious — not about yourself, but about the surrounding world.