Umair Haque is Director of Havas Media Labs and author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. He is ranked one of the world’s most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50. Follow him on twitter @umairh.
Why Love Matters More (And Less) Than You Think
6:14 PM Tuesday February 14, 2012 | Comments (34)
- So, how was your Valentine’s Day? Me? I had an anti-Valentine’s day at my local bar with the ghost of Albert Camus, an existential crisis, and a decent bottle of wine. Here’s what occurred to the four of us while we were angsting out.EMAIL
I’ve made the point before that our economy seems especially good at mass-producing toxic junk. Food that malnourishes us, entertainment that bores us, "news" that isn’t, finance that blows up our economy, et cetera. So somewhere into the bottom half of the bottle, I found myself sinking into the well-worn mental ruts that are probably familiar to anyone who has ever hated Valentine’s Day: how it’s a suspiciously consumerist celebration of cheesy pink-tinged coupledom that exists for the sole purpose of selling pink (or blue) fuzzy (or smooth) disposable crap (or overpriced blood diamonds). Smile winningly, pledge your troth, and log into the intertubes to breathlessly proclaim "Life goal achieved!!!!<3!!"
Throw The Art of War at me if you must, waterboard me, glue my eyes wide open and dress me in one of Rick Santorum’s sweater vests if you have to, but I’d suggest, when it comes to real human prosperity: the truest denominator of a life searingly well lived is love. And that has nothing to do with pop songs, rom-coms, or candy hearts.
Hence, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way — thanks to a long string of catastrophically failed relationships, imploding corner offices, living in between multiple cities, a couple of fistfights, and long evenings of solitude at the bar. These aren’t the only lessons — or even the "best" ones; just a few of mine.
Experience. There are many kinds of love. The Greeks distinguished between agápe, éros, philía, and storgē. Consider: five millennia ago, a more nuanced conception of love existed than the McLove that surrounds us today. Without experiencing the many forms of love — evoking them in one another, and elevating them for one another — we’ll probably always feel a little empty.
Act. Love is a verb, not (just) a feeling. Love is investing in, sacrificing for, and caring about; seeking what I’d call higher-order returns — igniting the creation of real human wealth in others (and reciprocation in kind). The former without the latter is to love what Mission Impossible 4 is to great film: banal, disposable, and shinily vacuous. Love, above all, must be lived.
Suffer. Love transforms, and transformation hurts. Hence, you probably won’t love if you can’t surrender to a little bit of suffering. You can’t love your work if you don’t suffer for the art and craft in it. You can’t love your partner if you don’t suffer a little bit sometimes when you see them — as if the act of seeing them reminds you of the heart-stopping fragility of life. And I’d bet you can’t fully love if you can’t deprogram yourself from the cult of consumer not-quite "culture" and its relentless cycle of self-loathing. You have to take a deep breath and plunge into the arduous journey of figuring out why you’re really here, who you are — and why it matters.
Mean it. Erich Fromm, after a lifetime inquiring into the meaning of life, famously concluded: "Love is the only sane and sensible answer to the question of human existence." To which Woody Allen tartly replied: "Love is the answer, but while you are waiting for the answer sex raises some pretty good questions."
Sure, it’s possible to divert yourself for a long, long while with money, power, fame, toys, and the other assorted fun and games we’ve used the institution of a consumer economy to produce. But love is not a commodity. Love is the messiest, most singular, least interchangeable, and most transformative idea our species has yet invented. Unlike the humdrum, yawn-inducing stuff our institutions can offer us, love can’t be bought off the shelf in a neatly packaged twelve-pack.
But it can, if you’re very lucky, be earned. So don’t front. At the end of the day — and especially at the surprisingly short end of life — there’s no such thing as a substitute for the real thing. And there’s no better way to miss the real thing than to tell little white lies to yourself about it. So love your partner. Love your friends. Love your family. Love your life. Love your job.
Despite our attempts to trivialize it, commercialize it, and strip-mine it of meaning, love is still dangerously, incandescently meaningful. While we may try to reduce it to a mass-made quasi-luxury we purchase on credit once a year, obediently, in the form of chocolates, flowers, and dinners, it remains vital. While we may try to turn it into an option — one more choice to be plucked off the shelf, depending on whether you prefer the red label or the blue — it remains necessary. And it must be evoked and created, nurtured and renewed, tilled and cultivated — because without it, life is little more than sleepwalking.
Perhaps our celebrations of "love" are so often tinged with a quiet desperation because what we’re really pursuing is a caricature of love. And perhaps by endlessly redrawing that caricature, we ourselves are lessened, little by little; as if we feel we don’t fully belong in the human world, but can’t quite understand why.
None of us belong here. But we are here. And there’s not enough time. Cut the bullshit. Love.