Thursday, July 12, 2012

Patience and Love

Here is another excerpt, taken from the end of a reflection on the relation between patience and love, which began with some reflections upon the meaning of the well-worn line that "love is patient." Hopefully, it's clear enough that this discussion isn't primarily about, as it were, "feelings" (or that way of talking about love, though the development of this sort of love may indeed lead to a change in one's feelings toward another person). I don't know to what extent this manages to avoid lapses into wishful thinking or comments welcome. UPDATE: it may help to look at the second of the comments to this post, in which I supply some further (rough) paragraphs that immediately precede the line of thought here in the post.

...To grow in patience for this colleague [who we deeply dislike, but will have to work with closely for a long time] might be understood as the movement away from the attitude that I am “stuck” with this person toward the attitude that I am here with this person and must share a significant part of my life with him (or her). When we are stuck with another person—when that is our primary orientation to the relationship—there will always be, at least in the back of our minds, the question of getting out, and so our attention, and thus our patience, will remain divided—or as above, conditional. Sartre’s, “Hell is other people,” captures the spirit of this attitude although he wants to stress, of course, that ultimately there is “No exit.” We are stuck. But it is one thing to remind us that we are social beings—that our lives are lives with others—and quite another thing to frame that point in terms of our being stuck, because that image practically begs for the interpretation that, since the ideal would be to get unstuck but we cannot do that, we can only “make the best of it.” Perhaps this is, in large part, due to Sartre’s view that love is an “impossible project” which contains “the seed of its own destruction,” because it desires both to possess and to know the other (the beloved), which are contradictory aims (because the first involves objectifying the other, while the second requires regarding the other as a subject who is independent of my will).

One way of avoiding (or escaping) Sartre’s hell is to envision love, as Weil suggests, as unpossessive, unimposing: “To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.”[1] Love, thus conceived, is not an attempt to possess the other, or to impose one’s will upon the other. Caring with love for another is not a matter of imposing one’s will; rather, it is the enactment of patient attention toward the other. Through the eyes of loving patience, we see our relationships with others who enter, by choice or chance, into our lives as part of the fabric of our own lives. To be at home with ourselves thus requires us to find a way to be at home with the others who are part of our lives. This is not to deny that we may begin with the thought that we are “stuck” with the other person—whether this is because we find ourselves the lone survivors of a shipwreck, stranded on a desert island, or because we have started a family together, and cannot take as a serious option the possibility of divorcing or otherwise leaving the other person.[2] In such cases, patience may begin as patience with the situation, as “making the best of it” (viz. enduring the other person), but if the best outcome is the one in which we come to find ourselves fully at home with the other person, then it seems we can only attain the best outcome if we can learn to love the other person. That is, if we think that we are “making the best of it” while refusing any attempt to learn (patiently) to love the other person, then there is a sense in which we are not truly making the best of it.

Learning to love the other thus presents itself as the ideal toward which we can (and perhaps ought to) strive, in our relationships with others. Progress toward this ideal is made by way of patience—not merely as endurance and fortitude, tolerance of the other’s disagreeable traits, but as attention to who this person is, and what has made this person that way. Such loving attention is prior to, and makes possible, effective loving action, since effective action requires knowledge of the other. An obvious obstacle to such attention is egoism, self-absorption, which seeks to impose its own will on the other, its own vision of how or what the other person should be. Genuine attention to the actual other militates against this imposition of oneself, and enables one to recognize, and accept, that since the other person is a separate reality, there is no guarantee that one’s own efforts at loving attention and care will bring about positive changes in the one we love. The ideal of “unconditional love” does not even depend upon the expectation of such changes, and we have not only the examples of parents who lovingly care for their afflicted children and grown children who lovingly care for their declining parents (afflicted with diseases such as Alzheimer’s), but also the examples of saintly people, like the nun Raimond Gaita describes in A Common Humanity, who visited and treated with a pure and non-condescending love the most afflicted and abandoned patients at the psychiatric hospital he worked at as a teen. Such examples, and others, show that love is capable of spanning what otherwise seems like vast and unbridgeable distances and that, as Gaita stresses, love can illuminate the humanity of an individual in ways that philosophical concepts and theories cannot. That was the effect of the nun’s loving attention to the patients upon him. For similar reasons, Iris Murdoch suggests that the basic reason why love—and the patient attention that characterizes it—is a virtue is because love has the power to attune us to reality, to disclose truth to us.[3] In impatience, we fall short of perfect love, or simply refuse to love, and in doing so, we turn away from the reality of others (and of whatever else in the world can be loved) and retreat into ourselves and the imaginary world of our own wishes or fantasies or consolations...

[1] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge, 2002 [1952]), p. 65.
[2] Cf. Christopher Cowley, "Learning to Love," Philosophical Topics 38.1 (2010). [Cowley discusses not learning to love another person, but rather learning to love a situation of permanent adversity.]
[3] See Murdoch's The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 2001 [1971]).


  1. I like this, but I'm having a slightly difficult time getting a feel for what you're talking about. It isn't feelings, as you say, but what is it? In the case of the colleague you don't like, why talk about love? I get along with all my colleagues, and like most of them, but I wouldn't say that I love any of them. Christians talk about love in these cases, I suppose, because they are told they should love their neighbors, which isn't always easy. But otherwise talk of love seems a bit out of place here. (Maybe I just need to go back and pay more attention to the rest of the work of which this is a part.)

    The case of the married couple who feel stuck with each other seems a better fit for talk about love, but then I want to know why they don't love each other anymore, and why is divorce out of the question? This example might need to be developed a little more, even if only a very little.

    Patience seems to be something like a bridge between endurance and love. When you feel stuck with someone it's as if they are an object that cannot be changed or empathized with. There is something sort of impenetrable about them--there is no getting through to them, you just have to put up with them. There's a kind of emotional quarantine, a sealing off. So the first step to improving on this kind of relationship is taking a different attitude. This person is not a black box or closed book, not an object. With some effort I might understand them, if only imperfectly. It seems to me that this is where patience comes in. The work of trying to understand takes patience, and perhaps is patience. It might be sympathetic and kind to be patient, but, as I say, I'm not sure that I would call it loving. That might be because I associate love with feelings though, so perhaps I'm just failing to see your point there.

  2. Thanks, Duncan. I understand the thought that talk of love might seem out of place in the first example. In an attempt to answer (which takes you up on supplying some further context), here are some of the paragraphs that immediately precede what I posted above:

    ...patience may take the form of learning to tolerate the person we dislike, and we might also associate fortitude with this kind of situation. We grit our teeth and bear the adversity of having to live or work with this other person in order to achieve some other end we value. Perhaps this is enough to make sense of temporary relationships—the obnoxious college roommate assigned to us, or the acerbic colleague who has been assigned to a three-week project with us—precisely because we know that the relationship we must forge with this other person has a foreordained end.

    In such cases, the patience we muster will only incidentally be directed at the person with whom we have been thrust into an uncomfortable relationship. Here, patience takes the form: I must be patient with person P so that I can achieve aim A. It is the aim that gives us reason to be patient, and my patience with P only lasts for as long as A remains unrealized but still hoped for. It would be perfectly compatible with such conditional patience, once we have achieved A, for us to say to the other person, “I despise you and hope never to see you again.” Indeed, we might think that thought without voicing it, but even thinking it would seem to show that whatever patience we had or gained, in attaining A, was not patience for that person. Our patience was only for A.

    To grow in patience for the person—and not merely for the sake of some other goal—involves, I suggest, learning to love (or respect) that person. The need for such growth is evident in the fact that many of our relationships are simply not like the ones described above—or at least not healthily conceived as like them. Suppose we anticipate staying at the same job for a long time; perhaps we expect to be at it until we retire. Again we find ourselves stationed alongside a difficult colleague, with whom we will have to work closely on regular occasions. Seeking simply to “make the best of it” might turn out to be, in such a situation, trying to make the best of our whole career. And it becomes hard to see how we could ever be very content in our work, let alone love our job, if a great deal of our time is spent merely making the best of it.

    Here, it might be said that I am simply identifying a different sort of external condition—being truly content with, or loving, one’s job—which calls for a more indefinite commitment to patience with the other person because the external condition itself is “indefinite” in the sense that it is not a goal that is attained at the end of some chain of actions: if I am to love my work, I must learn to be patient with this colleague. But if, as I have imagined the case, a considerable amount of my work involves working with this other person, then it seems unclear how I could come to love my work without, in some sense, coming to love (or respect, if you prefer) my colleague. This needn’t imply anything about whether I like my colleague, or various habits or characteristics of that person; again, the love at stake here is not bound up essentially with feeling or taste, although if we are committed to loving a person we may try to find things about that person to like. (That itself would be an exercise in patient attention.)


    Does that help, or only make things more obscure?

  3. Thanks, that helps. Would it be fair to say that what you're calling love is respectful, patient attention (or attentive patience)? It feels as though there might still be some spelling out, or fleshing out, to be done here, but I think you've got something. I can't think of a good way to name what you're talking about that doesn't sound religious, which is interesting, but also slightly troublesome. Because there doesn't seem to be anything obviously religious about what you're saying. Some kind of openness or humility seems to be involved too: respect/love is incompatible with too much confidence that one's negative assessment of, or reaction to, the person is correct or justified. Or so it seems to me.

  4. I'm glad it seems interesting if troublesome. No doubt, the trouble has to do with working from Weil and reading Murdoch as I was writing all of this. Though maybe there are some answers to be found in Murdoch (who seems to have been in the same kind of boat, beliefwise, as I find myself). She speaks in the last part of The Sovereignty of Good of a "non-esoteric mysticism," which is an idea that I seem to like even though it is really not that "helpful." And indeed, her book ends with the suggestion that the humble person is perhaps most capable of becoming the good person, and I plan to write about humility in connection with patience, too. Indeed, this will be the final section of the chapter from which this stuff on love (and the previous post on justice) will be a part.

    I think Murdoch provides a good example of how one can get pretty far with virtue concepts that have their historical home in traditional religion without signing up for the views about the existence of God in "the traditional sense" (which as she wonderfully says, is perhaps the only sense there is). I'm pretty much forced to try to do that since patience is that kind of virtue concept. The challenge is to make it work (and re-reading Murdoch renews my hope that this can be done, and honestly so). So, it's all going to seem, I guess, "religious," and maybe if the whole project works, then either that will turn out to be ok (and I'm not particularly interested in being anti-religious or in catering only to a secular audience) or it won't really be religious (but only seem to be), and that will show that even without religion, patience remains a robust and central virtue in the moral life.

    I hope some of that makes sense. I'm sort of in an odd mood today. Maybe I should have asked what you mean by "religious"?

  5. Yes, that does make sense. What I meant by 'religious' was just that the use of 'love' here sounds Christian, as I mentioned, and that when I try to think of other words to use all I can think of is something like 'loving-kindness', which comes from another religious tradition. It's understandable that if you draw on Weil and Murdoch you might end up sounding Christian or mystical, but I think maybe what's happening is that you are exploring an area, or areas, that have been overlooked by secular philosophers, so there's a religious feel to it, even if there is no specifically religious content. That seems like a very worthwhile kind of project.

  6. nietzsche makes a remark on 'learning to love' in the gay science (§334). it's not extremely closely connected there with the thought of loving the other in the sense under discussion here, but it does inflect the suspicion he casts on love (agapic, neighborly, selfless, romantic, sexual, truth-seeking, or otherwise) throughout the book back in the direction of being something like a task or an accomplishment, a fruit of experience and self-control (self-creation) and self-knowledge. might be one place to look for a more stark 'non-religious' contrast.

  7. j: thanks for the reminder. (That passage caught my attention while teaching recently, but I didn't think of it as I was working on the above.)

    Duncan: thanks. I hope I can do the project justice.

  8. I'm puzzled:
    Does love (patience) allow us to cross otherwise unbridgable gulfs? Is it, as you say, "capable of spanning what otherwise seems like vast and unbridgeable distances"? Or does it alternatively allow us to live with the gulfs, to "consent to distance" as Simone Weil says? - Does it allow us to solve a riddle, or to accept a riddle? (I'm not sure if this is the same question, but it seems to me at least related.) Or maybe there is no difference between these two alternatives in this case?

  9. Reshef: Ok, good question(s). Maybe there's no one answer here. But perhaps we can specify two gaps--between self and other, and between love and indifference (or hate, or confusion about how love could be possible in this case). On the second "gap": perhaps the gap to be "bridged" is the gap created by one's own resistance. Learning to love (consenting to, as it were, the project and undertaking it) would begin the process of overcoming that inner resistance, while the "distance" between oneself and other might, in other ways, remain. Does that work?

  10. I think my puzzle has to do with the gap you mention between self and others. But I’m not sure. For one thing, I’m not sure I have a good grasp of the idea of a gap between people apart from the other sort of gaps you mentioned between love and indifference/hate/etc. And perhaps that’s part of my problem. Also, I did not have so many dimensions in mind when I raised the question--it did not occur to me that there might be more than one gap at the same time. And maybe that’s another part of my confusion.

    When I wrote about my puzzle, my sense was that there was a riddle about our relations to others. What does it mean to come to terms with other-mindedness? Does it mean closing the gap, or does it mean accepting the gap between self and others? And anyway what would it be to close this gap? What would it be to accept it? There is something about other-mindedness that can throw us. “There is something going on in that head of his, and I will never be privy to any of that!” or “My mind, my thoughts, go with me wherever I go. I’m always in the presence of my mind. So how is it possible that I encounter other minds? How can I be in the presence of a different mind? Would that not require of me to detach myself from my mind? And if so, what would then be left of me?” Anyway, I think that part of the importance of what you say about patience and love--and it seems to me very important--has to be understood in connection with our problematic relationships with other-mindedness. Is this part of your motivation, or am I forcing a foreign philosophical issue on your discussion?

  11. Reshef: I see where you're coming from with the other minds question. I can't say that this is a conscious motivation in what I'm doing. However, the "gap between people" might presumably be a gap in understanding the other person, the differences between us that make it hard for me to make sense of you (and things you say or do). That's a different gap than the love and hate/indifference/etc. gap, since we can love people even when there is the first kind of gap and vice versa (so it seems to me).

    In A Common Humanity, Raimond Gaita tells the story of a nun who came to visit patients at a psychiatric hospital he worked at as a teen in the 1960's--patients who had been deemed incurable, and who were treated brutally by many of the staff and doctors (though Gaita notes a few doctors insisted that they be treated with dignity, and were thought naive by the other doctors, and despised by some of the other employees). Gaita talks about the loving attention the nun gave to those patients, completely uncondescending. But if these patients really were incurable, then presumably their "minds" would have been as mysterious and as foreign as one could conceive (and maybe a certain kind of philosopher would doubt that they had minds--after all, we say that the incurably insane have "lost their minds"...)

    I'm not entirely sure what to say about this. Did the nun come to terms with the otherness of their (lost) minds? What could that mean? That she understands their minds? I agree that "other-mindedness can throw us": indeed, to see such an afflicted person throws most of us so much that we look away. But then do we look away because we think there is no mind to be confronted there, or because the mind that would have to be confronted is too disturbing? Accepting the gap here also involves, as Weil puts it, accepting the reality of affliction (and the fact that we, too, might lose everything and become thus afflicted). I realize I'm sort of talking around your questions; sorry. Maybe the nun's example shows somehow that focusing on "mind" is possibly misdirected: to worry about this problem is to get fixated on what's inside the other person (in his or her mind) and so possibly to forget to pay attention to the person? Or: I don't relate to other minds; I relate (or fail to relate) to other people. Focus on the other person's "mind," in some cases, fixates on the aspects of the person that remain opaque and mysterious to me. And too much opacity leaves us unsure of how to relate to the other person (and perhaps afraid of what we might see if we try to pry?)...

  12. Thanks Matt. This is helpful.

    I think I can see in what you say the idea that there is not one problem of other mind, but really different problems--a family of problems. The different problems (all of them?) can be understood in terms of gaps between minds, and there are many sorts of gaps. So, for instance, there is the problem of hating others, and the problem of being indifferent to them, and there is also the problem of people being a “complete mystery” to us. Now, somewhere alongside these there is also the philosopher’s problem of other minds, where the problem is not so much with a particular mind, but with the very mindedness of others, their otherness. It is a problem in principle, an absolute gap. Would you agree to these distinctions?

    As for the case of Gaita’s nun, I’m not sure how to think about it. Is it a kind of case where people are “complete mystery” to us? I’m not so sure about this, because there is the additional element of the insanity, which seems to make the distance--the gap--even greater. The mystery of a different culture or personality is different from the mystery of insanity.

    Another thing I’m not sure about here is whether this is meant to be an absolute gap. On the one hand, Gaita is interested in an absolute conception of morality. But on the other hand, this and other examples he gives can be understood as examples of non-absolute gaps, and I’m not sure I know how to understand them as examples of absolute gaps.

    Lastly, going back to the issue of love and patience. If you agree that there are different kinds of gaps between people, do you think that love and patience function in the same way in the different cases? Is this a unifying element? Is this a way to unify the different problems of other minds?