Arithmetic of Love

DURING A RECENT VISIT to Vancouver I came across an AIDS quilt panel that bore, as part of its embroidered farewell, the following equations:

1 + 1 > 2

2 – 1 < 0 I wept. Anyone who has been part of a pair understands how perfectly these simple lines capture the calculus of coupledom. That abstract numerals could serve as a heartfelt inscription about a survivor's sense of diminishment is remarkable. Lovers long to be together because love is a re–finding, a remarkable continuation (despite every contrary appearance) of early emotional life. All unfulfilled longings get bundled and transferred to the beloved, who becomes seen in our imagination as a source of everything that is potentially good. So how does love make 1 + 1 add up beyond two? By expanding one's sense of identity. The power of romance comes from a double identity. Passion requires an exaggerated idealization of the beloved. But it is not the physical or spiritual person per se who gets idealized: It is the beloved's potential ability—as imagined by the lover—to gratify him. That the lover wants to gratify the beloved as much as he wants to be gratified in return is readily apparent in his desire to provide for the beloved: Wanting to please him, care for him, and give him pleasure of body and soul. Love is an agent of change insofar as it prods us to act for another instead of our self, moving us beyond ego to embrace the needs of another as equally important. A trite instance of mutual identification is the Binky and Buffy phenomenon wherein members of a new couple sport the same haircut or clothing, or finish each other's sentences. More profound examples occur within the psyche. And why do we feel less than nothing when the beloved is gone? Lovers come to relinquish the boundaries of a singular self and believe in an autonomous "we." A paradox that needs explaining, however, is that the self is not smothered in mutual identification but, strangely enough, enlarged. In incorporating another's identity, we expand yet maintain our own. The ego of one becomes the ego of two. Love quite literally gives life a sense of direction by steering us away from our own ego. We are no longer bound by old patterns and rigidities of character—one reason why falling in love is accompanied by spurts of energy and creativity. It is not free love or anonymous sex that is exciting, but the vow that is daring. To dare to pledge our whole self to another is the most remarkable thing most of us will ever do. This exhilarating agent of change and direction dies when 1 gets subtracted from 2. Mementoes of loss remind us of what we could be enjoying right now. Fear of "losing" one's identity is mistaken. The equations from the quilt speak of a simultaneous quality of mingling with the beloved while expanding the self. No freedom is lost; everything is gained. This reality is what sustains our belief in love as life–enhancing and, when we are without it, feeds our hope for gaining it once again.

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