Love Lives On
‘Death is the mother of beauty’
Everything we know and count on and love is impermanent. That truth crashed down on me in 2008. On an early autumn day that year I learned that my 23-year-old son had died.
Though Jordan was gone, though I could no longer hold him or hear his voice, my love for him remained a living thing. It nourished me and kept me going. It was a blanket that protected me from emptiness and nihilism.
I wondered at love’s strength, its unwillingness to die with the body, its resilience in the face of every kind of change and loss this world can throw at us. And I wondered what love actually is, what it’s made of. What do we mean, I questioned, when we say we love something? Why, for some, does love die or disappear, while for others even death has no dominion over their love?
As a psychologist and couples’ therapist for more than 40 years, I have witnessed the death of love. Many times. I have seen how emotional pain deadens the will and desire to express love. How it turns caring into anger and contempt. But I have also seen how we can learn to love in the face of monstrous pain and loss. I have learned how some keep love alive in the crushing maw of impermanence.
That is the purpose of this book: To learn to know what love is and how to keep it – even when you hurt, even when things are taken, even as you walk daily in the shadow of uncertainty.
Love in the Time of Impermanence grew from years of seeking and exploration after Jordan’s death. But it also came from our living relationship – and from Jordan himself. I learned to talk to him in spirit. For more than a dozen years I have channeled and learned from my son in the afterlife. The books Seeking Jordan and The Luminous Landscape of the Afterlife are distillations of hundreds of ‘conversations’ between us. The book you are now reading is a collaboration. Jordan’s words are offset in boxes and offer the wisdom of a soul who has lived many lives and who understands our fate of love and loss.
Whatever changes, whatever is taken or lost, your love will live and be untouched.
What Love Is
Love is the most important thing on Earth. It’s what all of us seek. We build our families, as best we can, on a foundation of love. Our most valued relationships have love at their core. Our communities, even our countries, are held together with love. And our connection to God, or the Divine, is often described as love itself. Yet for all its power and centrality, love is hard to describe, much less define. The idea of love seems at once too ephemeral to hold but also too big to corral with language. And when we try to describe it, we are often forced into greeting card clichés because love is conflated with experiences of harmony, romance, sexual pleasure and joy. Yet love is none of those things.
At its root, love is just one thing. It is relationship itself. It is the connective tissue that binds us together, that creates oneness and belonging. It is a gravitational force that connects you to friends, colleagues, family (blood and genetics don’t connect families), a community, a land, and all there is (the Divine). And love isn’t the emotion or pleasure you take in those connections; love is the connection itself.
All of our core values, the things we hold dear, derive from love of self, of others, or of the Divine. If you examine what truly matters to you, what your life is about, love is the force behind all of it. For example, all efforts at self-improvement, at personal growth and learning, are motivated by love of self. Everything you do to build and support your relationships is driven by love of others. The work you do and the people your work serves can be a reflection of love. Creativity is an act of love; the appreciation of beauty is an act of love; the great pleasures of the body (athletics, food, music, dance, sexual expression) can all be acts of love. And spirituality, the awareness that we belong to each other and to all – is born from love.
We arrive in this world naked and alone, suffering amnesia for our place of origin. What starts to heal that aloneness is love. Love from and for our caregivers; love of a place, of familiar rooms and streets; love of proximate souls to whom we are drawn; love of experiences that bring us joy. The threads connecting us to everything outside of self are made of this same quest for entanglement. Our survival in this difficult place depends on seeing and acting on love.
In the same way plants are heliotropic, always moving toward the sun, we are amortropic, orienting always toward attachment and love. This amortropic orientation reflects a basic law of quantum physics: Our world does not have separability; objects that have ever interacted are forever entangled. What happens to one soul entangled by love affects the other. Forever. No matter how far apart in space or time they may be. So we are drawn toward each other by love and once entangled, remain so forever. This is the source of all connection.
Knowing a thing’s opposite can illuminate the thing itself. If the essence of love is connecting, the opposite of love must be the severing of connection. Hate can’t be the opposite of love because hate is a form of relationship. There’s a painful but deep connection between those who hate one another. Selfishness is sometimes thought to be the opposite of love. But the focus on self doesn’t block relationship; it merely distorts it into serving only the self.
The true opposite of love is the silence of abandonment, the judgment that says you are cast out, you are not one of us. It is any credo that separates people into good or bad, into tribes where you either belong or you are dangerous and foreign; it is any judgment that dehumanises and rejects.
The rooms where we feel safe are defined by the familiar, the faces we know.
Everything outside seems dangerous. The people we don’t know could do anything, say anything. We protect ourselves by deciding they are evil. But the mere thought that there is good and evil creates evil. Because it is the means by which we separate ourselves from the other. Reject the other. Dehumanise the other. Separation, the delusion that we are not all one, is what evil is made of.
There is no them. The room that seemed so small that it contained just a single life holds everyone.
Any belief that separates and severs relationship takes us in the opposite direction from love. And any act that disconnects, that breaks the belonging between souls, sets our course away from love. So in love’s opposite, we also see love’s essence: It is the bond that holds us, that moves us toward the experience of being one.
THE REACH OF LOVE
Because love is relationship, it isn’t limited to the connection between souls. We can love objects and places as well as living beings.
The beautiful things that we come to love, whether it’s light shimmering in the leaves of an aspen, a cascade pouring between shoulders of granite, or the polished carving of a monk bent in prayer, constitute our relationship to the world. They are physical expressions of the collective consciousness to which we all belong and our love for them is a mere aspect of our love for all that is.
Love can reach to include anything we can see, hear and feel because love is the energy form connecting the universe.
HOW LOVE EVOLVES
Love is both an orientation and a skill – – for each of us personally and also for humankind over thousands of generations. We begin life as self-focused individuals, largely unaware of the experience of the other. Our own needs and distress are preeminent. But each relationship is a laboratory where we learn more about love. Over time our sense of self expands to include others. What is good for them is good for us; their pain becomes our pain. There is a growing sense of oneness among the souls we connect to, a feeling of belonging, a sense of fates intertwined. Our orientation moves from a focus on me to concern for us.
Love is also a skill that is forged in the heat of different and often competing needs shown in the face of hurt and misunderstanding and in the slow discovery of who this other really is. These needs are an opportunity to get better at turning love into action and tailoring our expressions of love to what another can feel and receive.
In the same way we personally grow more able to love, our capacity to love evolves as a species. Early on in the development of Homo sapiens as with other primates – we were able to care for partners and children. This caring response could also extend to favoured individuals in the clan. Over millennia the ability to love and care began to extend outward to one’s tribe, to groups sharing common rituals and beliefs, to the personification of God or gods and, more recently, to humanity as a whole. The history of love in our species has moved from caring for a few nearby individuals to a sense of expanding oneness.
While many of us still experience limits to love, caring mostly for members of our tribe or church or nation – there are growing numbers around the world who feel a belonging to and caring for all. This is the trajectory of love for human, our sense of oneness will continue to deepen and expand until it includes everything that is.
THE FOUR ELEMENTS OF LOVE
Love is active, not passive. It is about what you do, not what you feel. And because love is enacted and therefore a choice, it is something under your control. It’s something in your power to keep. Nothing can take love from you: Not loss, not rejection, not death if you act on love every day.
The apparent impermanence of love is an illusion created by the material world. The illusion dissolves every time you act with love. The feelings of love wax and wane. The motivation or desire to be loving waxes and wanes. But the intention to love can be a constant. It is a north star to navigate by; it is the basis for most decision making; it’s what guides us through every moment of every relationship.
The four elements, or acts of love, are care, knowledge, compassion, and intention. Each element is a special way we manifest love in relationships. Together they are the fabric that holds everything.
At the heart of love is caring. The welfare of those we love is important; the fate of what we love matters. Caring means we are committed to what’s best for the other. We are aware of their needs and react as if those needs are our own. It’s as if our sense of self expands to include the loved ones, and whatever happens to them happens to us.
Care is the opposite of wanting. When you want someone, their presence, their attention, their beauty, the focus is on your own needs. You are hungry; you are consuming what you love. Caring moves attention away from yourself. What matters is the other. The beauty of the beloved inspires respect, a reverence, a commitment to protect. Whether your love is for another soul, a beautiful object, or a place on Earth, the commitment is the same: To care.
The adage that love is blind cannot be more false. Love requires us to see because, if we don’t know the other, what is it that we love? Without knowledge, our love is for a fantasy, a projection. The beloved is our own creation, a made-up product of desire.
Love is always active. Knowing what you love involves paying attention – observing with interest and a hunger to understand. In the case of another soul this means noticing how they feel, what they think and believe, how they respond across many situations and challenges and what they care about. Such knowledge is gathered during the entire length of the relationship. This core activity of love seeing and learning never ends.
Loving beautiful objects also involves active knowing. We study every detail of the object; we learn its history. We watch it change as it reflects different qualities of light. We take in what is unique, what sets it apart from every other object of beauty.
Loving a place on Earth requires the same process. We know it in every season, every time of day. We know it close-up as well as in a vista. We know it by touch and sound. We know what harms and nourishes this place. We experience its beauty viscerally as a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.
In a physical world everything someday becomes damaged and changed. By time and erosion, by disease, by loss of function, by the endless collisions of cause and effect. Mountains wear away; lakes dry up or become saline; deserts form where grass and trees once grew; whole ecosystems change or die. Everything physical breaks down, the integrity of the original thing worn away and finally lost. Organisms with a nervous system suffer physical pain and more complex beings suffer emotional pain as well. Love is not love without feeling joined by this fundamental of existence, how we hurt, how things wear away.
This experience of change and loss, the aching sadness we experience at the damage, breaking down, or loss of objects and places we love causes pain for sentient beings and lies at the core of physical existence. But it is also the source of our compassion for everything that feels. Compassion is knowing and feeling the pain, damage and loss that touches everything. It is an unavoidable part of caring.
Intention is the force that turns love into action. It’s what expands passive caring into caring behaviour; it transforms passive knowledge of the beloved into an active quest to see and understand. It turns compassion into a commitment to hold, to heal and to repair.
Intention is what makes love real in the world; it is the source of every act, every expression of love. The mother who cuddles and rocks her baby to sleep is turning caring into action – this is the intention to love. A partner who asks questions about how a beloved felt and reacted in a challenging moment is acting on the intention to know. Someone who listens to and validates a friend’s distress is turning compassion into action. This, too, is the intention to love.
While the feeling of love will come and go, while desire and engagement may change, the intention to love can become a constant that shapes and defines our relationships forever. It is through intention that love never dies.
What connects us to everything is love. Each act of love deepens our belonging, not just to one another, but to all. Each act of love strengthens our intention, our very ability to love. So it is the muscle of intention, as it gets stronger, that makes love bloom in us. With each act of love, we grow more able to see, hear and feel love. Instead of existing in random, isolated moments where its expression is always a surprise, love dwells in us. It becomes our arms that hold, our legs that carry, our voice that comforts. It becomes what we do and finally what we are.
Struggling to choose love, when everything inside and around us clamours to choose relief, is why we’re here. What would love have you do? This is the only question that matters, the only choice that we come here to make.
Matthew McKay, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at the Wright Institute, founder of the Berkeley CBT Clinic, and cofounder of the Bay Area Trauma Recovery Clinic, which serves low-income clients. He has authored and co-authored more than 40 books, including The Relaxations and Stress Reduction Workbook, Seeking Jordan, and The Luminous Landscape of the Afterlife. The publisher of New Harbinger Publications, he lives in Berkeley, California.
Love in the Time of Impermanence by Matthew McKay, Ph.D.© 2022 Park Street Press.
Printed with permission from the publisher, Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com.