A Skeptic's View of Love

Lightbrush love
I’m reposting this piece from last year. Happy Valentine’s Day!

What does it mean to have a skeptical view of love?

I don’t mean having a cynical attitude about love. (Funny how the words “skepticism” and “cynicism” get conflated.) I mean taking a skeptical, materialist, entirely non-woo view of life — and applying it to how we think about love.

Tim minchin
The other day, Ingrid showed me this video by Tim Minchin, famed atheist and skeptical singer/ songwriter/ poet/ performance artist/ comedian. (For boring technical reasons, I’ll embed it at the end of the post instead of here.) The gist of the song, sung for and about his wife (spoiler alert!): “If I didn’t have you, I probably would have somebody else.”

At first, Ingrid was worried that I’d be hurt by her showing me the video. But like her, I found it hilarious — and in a freaky way, I found it one of the most romantic and loving things I’ve seen in a while. (“You fall within a bell curve” has now become one of our endearments.)

And it’s gotten me thinking about the whole idea of soul-mates, and romantic destiny, and there being one perfect love for you in the whole world. All of which I think is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

And I don’t think I’m being unromantic.

Wings of destiny
First, obviously, I think the whole “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” thing is just wrong. Mistaken. Not true. I don’t think we have souls, much less mates for them; I don’t think there’s an invisible hand pushing people together (and if there were, it’d have a seriously sadistic sense of humor, what with putting people’s true destined loves on opposite sides of the country and whatnot).

But maybe more to the point:

The “soul-mate/ romantic destiny” vision of love puts the focus on love as something you feel — rather than something you do.

It puts the focus on love as something that happens to you — rather than something that you choose.

And I find it much more romantic, and much more loving, to see love as something we do, and something we choose.

When we see love solely as something that we feel… then what happens when those feelings change? As they inevitably do.

And when we see love solely as something that happens to us… then what happens when the going gets tough, and we have to make hard choices about the relationship? For that matter, what happens when something else happens to us — something that conflicts with the love? What happens when we get job offers in other cities… or when other romantic prospects appear on the horizon?

Of course a huge part of love is the way we feel about our beloved. The feelings of tenderness and passion that well up in me when I look at Ingrid, the feelings of anxious excitement that I had when we were first starting out…that’s an enormous part of what we have between us. And of course a huge part of love is the feeling that something has hit you out of the clear blue sky. When Ingrid and I were first going out, I used to say that I felt like I’d been conked on the head with a giant vaudeville rubber mallet. If love didn’t have the power to knock us out of our tracks and into a whole new life, it wouldn’t be what it is.

But I don’t think that’s enough. It’s enough to get love started — but it’s not enough to sustain it.

Dishes in sink
I think what sustains love is doing the dishes when you promised to. Remembering the book they said they wanted, and getting it for their birthday. Skipping the movie you wanted to see, to go with them to a party of their friends who you don’t know very well. Remembering which kind of seltzer water they like when you go shopping; remembering how they like their burgers cooked when you’re making dinner. Sitting with them when they’re grieving… and restraining your impulse to always try to fix things and give advice and make things better, and instead being willing to just sit still and be with them in their pain. Asking if there’s anything they need from the kitchen while you’re up. Wearing the stupid sticky breathing strip on your nose at night so your snoring doesn’t keep them awake. Bringing them endless cups of tea when they’re sick. Keeping your temper in an argument, and remembering that as angry as you might be right now, you love this person and don’t want to hurt them. Saying, “I love you.” Saying, “You’re beautiful” — not just when they’re dolled up for a night on the town, but when they come home from work and you notice that they look particularly fetching. Noticing when they come home from work looking particularly fetching. Going to their readings, their dance performances, their office parties. Going to their family gatherings, and treating their family as your family, too. Going to the vet together. Trying out music they like, books they like, recipes they like, hobbies they like, kinds of sex they like, even if you don’t think it’s your thing: not just because you want to make them happy, but because it’s part of who they are, and you want to find out more about them, and share the things that matter to them.

In the inimitable words of Tim Minchin, “Love is nothing to do with destined perfection/ The connection is strengthened; the affection simply grows over time… And love is made more powerful by the ongoing drama of shared experience and synergy/ And symbiotic empathy or something like that… ” Sure, the feelings I have for Ingrid have a lot to do with the giant vaudeville rubber mallet I got conked on the head with when we fell in love. But they have more to do with the eleven plus years we’ve spent together: the meals we’ve eaten, the parties we’ve thrown, the vacations we’ve taken, the arguments we’ve had, the sex we’ve had, the griefs we’ve borne, the thousands of nights we’ve spent sleeping in the same bed, the long conversations we’ve had about politics, about religion, about books, about our friends, about our cats, about bad reality television.

And none of that has anything to do with fate.

Like Tim Minchin, I’m intensely aware of the massive role that pure chance plays in our lives. Not fate, not destiny, but pure dumb random roll- of- the- dice luck. As passionately as I love San Francisco, I realize that I could have landed in a dozen other cities — New York, Portland, London, Seattle, Minneapolis — and settled happily there instead. I often think about the people in those cities who would have been my friends if I lived there instead of San Francisco; I sometimes even feel a loss, a yearning, for the people I’ve never met who could have been my best friends.

And I realize that if I’d wound up in one of those cities instead of San Francisco, I would never have met Ingrid, and we both would likely have met and fallen in love with other people instead. While there’s a pragmatic sense in which I suppose Ingrid and I were destined to meet — we both lived in San Francisco, we were interested in many of the same things, we knew many of the same people, it’s not actually that big of a city — any one of a thousand small choices and pieces of random chance could have resulted in our paths not crossing. Or not crossing at the right time.

What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me isn’t that she’s my soul-mate, my destiny, the one person in billions I could have loved and been happy with. What makes Ingrid uniquely special to me is the years we have behind us: the meals and parties and sex and conversations and trips to the vet and everything else. It’s the things we do, and have done, and will do for many years to come; it’s the choices we make, and have made, and will make in the years we have left.

Wedding portrait
Of the people in the world I might have been happy with? She falls within a bell curve. Of the people in the world I now want to be with? She is entirely and 100% unique. Not because a divine hand made us uniquely suited to be together… but because we have chosen to make each other unique.

Oh, yeah. The Tim Minchin video is below the jump, since when I put videos above the jump it screws up my archives.

Like I said. Ingrid and I both think this is totally romantic. I know. We’re freaks.

A Skeptic's View of Love

14 thoughts on “A Skeptic's View of Love

  1. 1

    I hit play on Tim’s video and my jaw dropped open. It was a shock to her rational thought in a love song. It was awesome to finally hear someone turn my exact thoughts into a love song. Tim is very VERY good.

  2. 2

    There is a beautiful song by Neil Tennant (the Pet Shop Boys) called “You Choose”:
    He’s gone you’ve lost
    Stay behind and count the cost.
    You try you lose
    You don’t fall in love by chance you choose.
    It’s a decision made over time —
    Should you take a risk and start to climb
    The steepest hill only to find
    Halfway there you’ve been left behind?
    Choosing to love is risking a lot
    And trying to change and to give all you’ve got
    But don’t pretend it comes out of the blue.
    You take a chance and see it through.
    And if it’s refused what can you do?
    Continue, hopefully? Start anew?
    Lick your wounds buy your booze —
    You won’t get drunk by accident you’ll choose.
    Don’t blame him for refusing your bid
    He didn’t decide to love you did.
    Learn the lesson take the blows —
    You didn’t fall in love by chance you chose.
    Play the sad songs sing the blues —
    You don’t fall in love by chance
    you choose.

  3. 3

    Tim Minchin can do no wrong. I saw his latest show last year and he just gets better.check out Storm where he totally nails the woo around alternative meds.
    And of course love is about hard work and making sure the familiar doesn’t get over familiar and recognising that lust sometimes operates outside of our control, so not getting too worked up if your partner finds someone else attractive etc.

  4. 4

    Yeah, that song is quite something. The song he wrote about Christmas is also excellent: in it he talks about how it feels to celebrate it with people he loves, and how little the rituals and the politics have to do with it. That one is not funny like this one, but it is incredibly moving.

  5. 5

    What a sensible and moving post. I wish I’d read something like that thirty years ago it might have put a bit of sense into my muddled head and helped me to see that a life on your own is only half a life but probably not as there is no contradicting stupidity. BTW for anyone who hasn’t seen Tim Minchin live, do so if you get the chance, he’s brilliant.

  6. 6

    Great post. I’ve spent the last five years giving up god and woo and have found the concept of love to be my last sacred cow. This post has put into words much of my mental meanderings on the subject. Thank you.
    And Tim Minchin rocks.

  7. 7

    & some obligatory Rush:
    “Ghost of a Chance”
    Like a million little doorways
    All the choices we made
    All the stages we passed through
    All the roles we played
    For so many different directions
    Our separate paths might have turned
    With every door that we opened
    Every bridge that we burned
    Somehow we find each other
    Through all that masquerade
    Somehow we found each other
    Somehow we have stayed
    In a state of grace
    I don’t believe in destiny
    Or the guiding hand of fate
    I don’t believe in forever
    Or love as a mystical state
    I don’t believe in the stars or the planets
    Or angels watching from above
    But I believe there’s a ghost of a chance we can find someone to love
    And make it last…

  8. Dan

    I loved the Tim Minchin Song. Also, I really loved that “you fall within a bell curve” became a term of endearment for you two.
    I followed your example. After showing my husband, I told him he was at least two standard deviations out on the bell curve. Later this evening he set my alarm clock for me and wanted to be promoted to 3 standard deviations, but I told him he would have to do better than that to get 3.

  9. 11

    You are not freaks, “you fall within a bell curve” is an endearment to us too, it’s good to know that someone with similar views to mine has already spent 2x as much time together with someone and still gives the impression of being madly in love with them. Thank you!

  10. 12

    Greta, as always, great post. You’ve really got to stop holding that gun to my head and forcing me to read all your posts and not getting much sleep.

    This topic is something I’ve thought about for years. I have very little experience with love. 3 extremely short relationships in the last 15 years, and singlehood for the last 9. Before I overcame the shackles of religious belief (of which, thankfully I only had one hand lightly bound) and came to think more critically, I believed-like many-in the notion of “the one”.
    Now that’s utter crap.

    Aside from feeling a really strong religious undertone to the idea that there’s ONE person in the world that’s meant for you, I find it ridiculous to think for one second that there’s only ONE person on the whole planet that you can create a deep, meaningful, loving relationship with. In fact, given that most of us forge all manner of relationships with people to varying degrees, it makes far more sense to me that there are many people out there we could potentially fall in love with. For all I know, there are 5,227 guys in the world that I could forge a love bond with (although right now, I’d settle for meeting 3 of them).

    I think the mentality that there’s one person meant for you also leads people to think the grass is greener on the other side. The “one” is your perfect match. Your “soul-mate”. Your “other/missing half”. The one who “completes you”.
    I see people all the time that break up or complain about things in a their relationships, and it seems like they’re expecting something perfect. Many times when that perfection doesn’t materialize and reality sets in, they end things and move on. And on. And on. As if they’re still searching. At what point do you know that you’ve found “the one”? Is it like grabbing your luggage after a flight and walking out of the terminal and finding your private driver with your name on a plackard? “Hi there. I’m the one. Come with me if you want to live.”
    There seems to be a misconception that love is supposed to be perfect. Color me crazy, but while I haven’t been in love before, I’m going to guess that it’s NOT perfect. It’s a human emotion that (among other things) entails a deep connection between individuals. Given that we are humans, it something you continue to work with. It’s not Mt Everest. You don’t keep climbing trying to reach the top (perfection). Relationships take work. That you have problems with the person you’re with doesn’t mean that you can’t be in love with that person. For many people, when the going gets rough, they get going (I’m not saying that people should stay together and work through ANY problem that rears its head; some things are intolerable to some people; if a spouse cheated on you or you are in an abusive relationship, it may be in your best interest to get out). No relationship is going to be perfect and there will always be disagreements to varying degrees. To have a deeper idea of what you’re getting into with a person, you need time to get to know them. I just don’t think getting married 4 months after you first meet is a good idea (I am not implying that there’s some sort of benchmark that, when met, means love has been achieved. I just mean people need to take their time to get to know each other). I think it happens for a variety of factors, but one chief reason is that initial flurry of emotion and arousal. It’s during that test drive phase where everything is perfect and awesome and butterflies in the belly. It’s probably essential to get past that point before you make strong decisions about a relationship. When you can see how they don’t do the dishes. Or leave the toilet seat up. Or get so drunk that you have to drag their butts into the bed. Etc. Etc. All those things that breed frustration over time, but aren’t so apparent in the beginning (or are overlooked during the initial rush of excitement).
    It may sound like I’m anti-love. Or that I’m a bitter queen. Not in the slightest.
    I feel that people often enter relationships with a set of unreasonable expectations of their partner (some of it borne out of religious notions of love, which don’t really jibe with how humans REALLY interact). When those expectations don’t measure up, too often people will move on instead of working together to overcome the problem (in the cases where such a thing is possible).


  11. 13

    Heh. When I saw the introduction and link to this post I wondered “Hey, does she know about the Tim Minchin song that says exactly the same thing” and of course you did 🙂

    I thought the last part of that song was one of the most romantic things I’d ever heard.

    Note to anyone new to Tim Minching : this is a shortened version of the song with two verses missing – there are other versions of the same performance on Youtube that are about fifty seconds longer. But this one does use better camera angles.

  12. 14

    This is one of the most beautiful and romantic things I’ve read it quite a while! You rang my truth bell Greta. Thank you so much for this

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