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← A better way to talk about love

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Showing Revision 17 created 01/24/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. OK, so today I want to talk
    about how we talk about love.
  2. And specifically,
  3. I want to talk about what's wrong
    with how we talk about love.
  4. Most of us will probably
    fall in love a few times

  5. over the course of our lives,
  6. and in the English language,
    this metaphor, falling,
  7. is really the main way that we
    talk about that experience.
  8. I don't know about you,
  9. but when I conceptualize this metaphor,
  10. what I picture is straight
    out of a cartoon --
  11. like there's a man,
  12. he's walking down the sidewalk,
  13. without realizing it, he crosses
    over an open manhole,
  14. and he just plummets into the sewer below.
  15. And I picture it this way
    because falling is not jumping.
  16. Falling is accidental,
  17. it's uncontrollable.
  18. It's something that happens to us
    without our consent.
  19. And this --
  20. this is the main way we talk
    about starting a new relationship.
  21. I am a writer and I'm also
    an English teacher,

  22. which means I think
    about words for a living.
  23. You could say that I get paid
    to argue that the language we use matters,
  24. and I would like to argue
    that many of the metaphors we use
  25. to talk about love --
  26. maybe even most of them --
  27. are a problem.
  28. So, in love, we fall.

  29. We're struck.
  30. We are crushed.
  31. We swoon.
  32. We burn with passion.
  33. Love makes us crazy,
  34. and it makes us sick.
  35. Our hearts ache,
  36. and then they break.
  37. So our metaphors equate
    the experience of loving someone
  38. to extreme violence or illness.
  39. (Laughter)

  40. They do.

  41. And they position us as the victims
  42. of unforeseen and totally
    unavoidable circumstances.
  43. My favorite one of these is "smitten,"
  44. which is the past participle
    of the word "smite."
  45. And if you look this word up
    in the dictionary --
  46. (Laughter)

  47. you will see that it can be defined
    as both "grievous affliction,"

  48. and, "to be very much in love."
  49. I tend to associate the word "smite"
    with a very particular context,
  50. which is the Old Testament.
  51. In the Book of Exodus alone,
    there are 16 references to smiting,
  52. which is the word that the Bible uses
    for the vengeance of an angry God.
  53. (Laughter)

  54. Here we are using the same word
    to talk about love

  55. that we use to explain
    a plague of locusts.
  56. (Laughter)

  57. Right?

  58. So, how did this happen?

  59. How have we come to associate love
    with great pain and suffering?
  60. And why do we talk about
    this ostensibly good experience
  61. as if we are victims?
  62. These are difficult questions,
  63. but I have some theories.
  64. And to think this through,
  65. I want to focus on one
    metaphor in particular,
  66. which is the idea of love as madness.
  67. When I first started
    researching romantic love,

  68. I found these madness
    metaphors everywhere.
  69. The history of Western culture
  70. is full of language that equates
    love to mental illness.
  71. These are just a few examples.
  72. William Shakespeare:
  73. "Love is merely a madness,"
  74. from "As You Like It."
  75. Friedrich Nietzsche:
  76. "There is always some madness in love."
  77. "Got me looking, got me looking
    so crazy in love -- "
  78. (Laughter)

  79. from the great philosopher,
    Beyoncé Knowles.

  80. (Laughter)

  81. I fell in love for the first
    time when I was 20,

  82. and it was a pretty turbulent
    relationship right from the start.
  83. And it was long distance
    for the first couple of years,
  84. so for me that meant very high highs
    and very low lows.
  85. I can remember one moment in particular.
  86. I was sitting on a bed
    in a hostel in South America,
  87. and I was watching the person
    I love walk out the door.
  88. And it was late,
  89. it was nearly midnight,
  90. we'd gotten into an argument over dinner,
  91. and when we got back to our room,
  92. he threw his things in the bag
    and stormed out.
  93. While I can no longer remember
    what that argument was about,
  94. I very clearly remember
    how I felt watching him leave.
  95. I was 22, it was my first time
    in the developing world,

  96. and I was totally alone.
  97. I had another week until my flight home,
  98. and I knew the name
    of the town that I was in,
  99. and the name of the city
    that I needed to get to to fly out,
  100. but I had no idea how to get around.
  101. I had no guidebook and very little money,
  102. and I spoke no Spanish.
  103. Someone more adventurous than me

  104. might have seen this as
    a moment of opportunity,
  105. but I just froze.
  106. I just sat there.
  107. And then I burst into tears.
  108. But despite my panic,
  109. some small voice in my head thought,
  110. "Wow. That was dramatic.
  111. I must really be doing
    this love thing right."
  112. (Laughter)

  113. Because some part of me
    wanted to feel miserable in love.

  114. And it sounds so strange
    to me now, but at 22,
  115. I longed to have dramatic experiences,
  116. and in that moment, I was irrational
    and furious and devastated,
  117. and weirdly enough,
  118. I thought that this somehow
    legitimized the feelings I had
  119. for the guy who had just left me.
  120. I think on some level I wanted
    to feel a little bit crazy,

  121. because I thought that
    that was how love worked.
  122. This really should not be surprising,
  123. considering that according to Wikipedia,
  124. there are eight films,
  125. 14 songs,
  126. two albums and one novel
    with the title "Crazy Love."
  127. About half an hour later,
    he came back to our room.

  128. We made up.
  129. We spent another mostly
    happy week traveling together.
  130. And then, when I got home,
  131. I thought, "That was so
    terrible and so great.
  132. This must be a real romance."
  133. I expected my first love
    to feel like madness,
  134. and of course, it met
    that expectation very well.
  135. But loving someone like that --
  136. as if my entire well-being depended
    on him loving me back --
  137. was not very good for me
  138. or for him.
  139. But I suspect this experience of love
    is not that unusual.

  140. Most of us do feel a bit mad
    in the early stages of romantic love.
  141. In fact, there is research to confirm
    that this is somewhat normal,
  142. because, neurochemically speaking,
  143. romantic love and mental illness
    are not that easily distinguished.
  144. This is true.
  145. This study from 1999 used blood tests

  146. to confirm that the serotonin
    levels of the newly in love
  147. very closely resembled
    the serotonin levels
  148. of people who had been diagnosed
    with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  149. (Laughter)

  150. Yes, and low levels of serotonin

  151. are also associated
    with seasonal affective disorder
  152. and depression.
  153. So there is some evidence
  154. that love is associated with changes
    to our moods and our behaviors.
  155. And there are other studies to confirm
  156. that most relationships begin this way.
  157. Researchers believe
    that the low levels of serotonin

  158. is correlated with obsessive thinking
    about the object of love,
  159. which is like this feeling that someone
    has set up camp in your brain.
  160. And most of us feel this way
    when we first fall in love.
  161. But the good news is,
    it doesn't always last that long --
  162. usually from a few months
    to a couple of years.
  163. When I got back from my trip
    to South America,

  164. I spent a lot of time alone in my room,
  165. checking my email,
  166. desperate to hear from the guy I loved.
  167. I decided that if my friends could not
    understand my grievous affliction,
  168. then I did not need their friendship.
  169. So I stopped hanging out
    with most of them.
  170. And it was probably the most
    unhappy year of my life.
  171. But I think I felt like
    it was my job to be miserable,
  172. because if I could be miserable,
  173. then I would prove how much I loved him.
  174. And if I could prove it,
  175. then we would have to end up
    together eventually.
  176. This is the real madness,

  177. because there is no cosmic rule
  178. that says that great suffering
    equals great reward,
  179. but we talk about love as if this is true.
  180. Our experiences of love
    are both biological and cultural.

  181. Our biology tells us that love is good
  182. by activating these reward
    circuits in our brain,
  183. and it tells us that love is painful
    when, after a fight or a breakup,
  184. that neurochemical reward is withdrawn.
  185. And in fact -- and maybe
    you've heard this --
  186. neurochemically speaking,
  187. going through a breakup is a lot
    like going through cocaine withdrawal,
  188. which I find reassuring.
  189. (Laughter)

  190. And then our culture uses language

  191. to shape and reinforce
    these ideas about love.
  192. In this case, we're talking
    about metaphors about pain
  193. and addiction and madness.
  194. It's kind of an interesting feedback loop.
  195. Love is powerful and at times painful,
  196. and we express this
    in our words and stories,
  197. but then our words and stories prime us
  198. to expect love to be powerful and painful.
  199. What's interesting to me
    is that all of this happens

  200. in a culture that values
    lifelong monogamy.
  201. It seems like we want it both ways:
  202. we want love to feel like madness,
  203. and we want it to last an entire lifetime.
  204. That sounds terrible.
  205. (Laughter)

  206. To reconcile this,

  207. we need to either change our culture
    or change our expectations.
  208. So, imagine if we were all
    less passive in love.
  209. If we were more assertive,
    more open-minded, more generous
  210. and instead of falling in love,
  211. we stepped into love.
  212. I know that this is asking a lot,
  213. but I'm not actually
    the first person to suggest this.
  214. In their book, "Metaphors We Live By,"
  215. linguists Mark Johnson and George Lakoff
    suggest a really interesting solution
  216. to this dilemma,
  217. which is to change our metaphors.
  218. They argue that metaphors really do shape
    the way we experience the world,
  219. and that they can even act
    as a guide for future actions,
  220. like self-fulfilling prophecies.
  221. Johnson and Lakoff suggest
    a new metaphor for love:

  222. love as a collaborative work of art.
  223. I really like this way
    of thinking about love.
  224. Linguists talk about metaphors
    as having entailments,
  225. which is essentially a way of considering
    all the implications of,
  226. or ideas contained
    within, a given metaphor.
  227. And Johnson and Lakoff
    talk about everything
  228. that collaborating
    on a work of art entails:
  229. effort, compromise,
    patience, shared goals.
  230. These ideas align nicely
    with our cultural investment
  231. in long-term romantic commitment,
  232. but they also work well
    for other kinds of relationships --
  233. short-term, casual, polyamorous,
    non-monogamous, asexual --
  234. because this metaphor brings
    much more complex ideas
  235. to the experience of loving someone.
  236. So if love is a collaborative work of art,

  237. then love is an aesthetic experience.
  238. Love is unpredictable,
  239. love is creative,
  240. love requires communication
    and discipline,
  241. it is frustrating
    and emotionally demanding.
  242. And love involves both joy and pain.
  243. Ultimately, each experience
    of love is different.
  244. When I was younger,

  245. it never occurred to me that I was allowed
    to demand more from love,
  246. that I didn't have to just accept
    whatever love offered.
  247. When 14-year-old Juliet first meets --
  248. or, when 14-year-old Juliet
    cannot be with Romeo,
  249. whom she has met four days ago,
  250. she does not feel disappointed or angsty.
  251. Where is she?
  252. She wants to die.
  253. Right?
  254. And just as a refresher,
    at this point in the play,
  255. act three of five,
  256. Romeo is not dead.
  257. He's alive,
  258. he's healthy,
  259. he's just been banished from the city.
  260. I understand that 16th-century Verona
    is unlike contemporary North America,
  261. and yet when I first read this play,
  262. also at age 14,
  263. Juliet's suffering made sense to me.
  264. Reframing love as something
    I get to create with someone I admire,

  265. rather than something
    that just happens to me
  266. without my control or consent,
  267. is empowering.
  268. It's still hard.
  269. Love still feels totally maddening
    and crushing some days,
  270. and when I feel really frustrated,
  271. I have to remind myself:
  272. my job in this relationship
    is to talk to my partner
  273. about what I want to make together.
  274. This isn't easy, either.
  275. But it's just so much better
    than the alternative,
  276. which is that thing
    that feels like madness.
  277. This version of love is not about winning
    or losing someone's affection.

  278. Instead, it requires
    that you trust your partner
  279. and talk about things
    when trusting feels difficult,
  280. which sounds so simple,
  281. but is actually a kind
    of revolutionary, radical act.
  282. This is because you get to stop
    thinking about yourself
  283. and what you're gaining
    or losing in your relationship,
  284. and you get to start thinking
    about what you have to offer.
  285. This version of love
    allows us to say things like,
  286. "Hey, we're not very good collaborators.
    Maybe this isn't for us."
  287. Or, "That relationship
    was shorter than I had planned,
  288. but it was still kind of beautiful."
  289. The beautiful thing
    about the collaborative work of art

  290. is that it will not paint
    or draw or sculpt itself.
  291. This version of love allows us
    to decide what it looks like.
  292. Thank you.

  293. (Applause)