I previously written a number of columns on love but I have not mentioned a small book I read in my early twenties—and the first book I ever gave to my wife—Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. It begins:
Is love an art? Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one “falls into” if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise, while undoubtedly the majority of people today believe it is the latter.
Fromm thought that we often misunderstand love for a variety of reasons. First, we see the problem of love as one of being loved rather than one of loving. We try to be richer, more popular, or more attractive instead of learning to love. Second, we think of love in terms of finding an object to love, rather than of a faculty to cultivate. We think it is easy to love, but hard to find someone to love, when in fact the opposite is true. (This relates to our earlier discussion about the commodification of love.) Finally, we don’t discriminate between “falling” in love and what Fromm calls “standing” in love. If two previously isolated people suddenly discover each other it is exhilarating. But such feelings don’t last. Real love involves standing in love; it is an art we learn after years of arduous toil, just as we would learn any other art or skill. Real love is not something we fall into, it is something we learn how to do.
In the end, though loving is difficult to learn and practice, it is most worthwhile, and more important than money, fame or power. For the mystery of existence reveals itself, if it ever does, through our relationships with nature, productive work and, most of all, through our relationships with other people. Thus to experience the depths of life, we should cultivate the art of loving in its many varieties.