COLUMN: Love Begins With Respect
Published: Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 22:02
While walking down the stairs from Upper Campus last Saturday, I happened to overhear a pack of first-year gentlemen trading stories from the previous evening’s revelry. Once we went our separate ways and the cloud of cologne and chauvinism cleared, it occurred to me that the 19-year-old male might in fact be the least attractive thing on earth.
Okay, statement withdrawn, that’s a bit unfair. But the way they spoke about the women they encountered the night before profoundly disturbed me. Now, I consider myself fairly thick-skinned when it comes to “guys being guys” (stay with me, ladies, it’s not an excuse). I am currently the only girl in the 19-piece instrumental section of the University jazz band BC bOp! Sometimes I feel like a mascot, and I shamelessly enjoy my self-appointed task of adding a little feminine charm amid a group of my 18 brothers. But back to the point—I’m no amateur to the group dynamics of uneven ratios. I’ve heard everything you could imagine, and probably much you could not. Many jokes are quite harmless, and the guys respect me when I draw the line. A wonderful catharsis comes from the ability to laugh at yourself and your sex—a strong sense of self-respect develops when exercised in an environment that forces you to speak up. I’m confident in the balance I’ve struck between playing along without compromise and calling them out. I know I can play the game.
If we can agree that my sensitivity scale is well calibrated, we can agree that my quick, adverse reaction to the conversation is … not irrational. Who wouldn’t cringe or bristle when four young men derisively gloat over their conquests, ridiculing their too willing collaborators? (It takes two to tango, after all). I supposed this is the place where I should mention that nothing was said/happened that would require legal action. But this brings us to the principle issue—these situations and the language used by those men are an engrained into our culture.
Press pause—so I have indicted our culture, brought us to that place where innumerable columns, psychologists, preachers, talk show hosts, soap boxers, etc. have brought us before. Critiquing one’s society is as old as society itself. On the seventh day, God rested, and on the eighth, the complaints began to file in. I know that I, too, am acting within the confines of the western tradition. You may not agree with what I write, but we agree that this—the newspaper opinions column—is an acceptable medium and form for registering complaints. In spite of the little revolutions that spill out of our heads and onto the page or blog, we are still playing in bounds of our culture. So let’s be frank without apathy or cynicism—the next 400 words will solve nothing. It takes an interruption of time and history to alter tradition. What we can do is continue one of the most admirable customs of our inheritance—keep the conversation going and invite others into it. This is how we learn to think for ourselves, to practice the liberating arts.
Resume—I was disturbed by the lack of respect that these students advertised—both for others and themselves (But their attitudes and actions are neither new nor unusual. And far be it from me to charge only men. And further be it from me to prance around here on my high horse—I hope for mercy from everyone else when I slip.) “Respect” is a word that we like to throw around and abuse—what does it mean here, or rather, what behaviors do a lack of respect imply? In the situation I encountered, the failure to respect is the failure to revere our interconnected, sacred solitudes. One of my favorite authors on love and relationships is German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). He writes in his Letters on Love:
“All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling.”
Many “love” relationships on American college campuses—or simply among our generation—are initiated by a willed loss of self, a chosen disintegration of our polyphonic selves via toxic substances or toxic beliefs that wrest the soul and body apart. Those who abandon themselves through these means cannot grow closer and create relationships rooted in authentic love because they are exchanging only violently extracted pieces of themselves in an effort to exploit. When we give ourselves up, we have nothing of meaning left to share. What remains? One takes, the others is taken from—no one gender more than the other. The “neighboring solitude” that Rilke considers a prerequisite for loving well demands that the two be whole beings willing to guard the mystery of the other’s individuality. Love is being-with—the “beings” remain as distinct entities in the “with.”
How can we prepare ourselves to love well? Prepare ourselves. Seek personal wholeness so that we can be ready for together-wholeness. Maybe that will be enough to change the culture.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.