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The Human need for Loving

Michael Lerner

...Getting back to our original nature is no simple task. One key step is to recognize that our deepest needs are not selfish, that needs for love and caring and solidarity take us directly into the deepest levels of human connectedness. A second step is to become aware of the things in our world that keep us from total fulfillment. A third imperative is to engage in a struggle to change the world in order to make it more supportive of our being together in loving communities.

Yet one of the things that gets in the way of that struggle is the ingrained belief that our deep needs for loving community are actually individual aberrations and holdovers from childhood fantasies or immature yearning for utopia that the mature individual will eventually overcome.

One of the most sophisticated articulations of the philosophies of egoism is a version of contemporary psychodynamic thought that aims at shoring up ego boundaries. From the correct perception that there is a special class of people who have problems in separating their own needs and desires from those of others, many clinicians have begun to popularize the idea that a major problem facing most people seen in therapy is the problem of getting adequate boundaries. Their notion is that healthy individuals have managed to define their boundaries in such a way that others do not impinge upon them. They can stand by themselves and function well as autonomous beings. From that standpoint, they can enter into relationships at will, making free choices about what suits their desires and when their boundaries may be "permeated." On the other hand, the unhealthy individual supposedly acts out of compulsion and need, is not able to separate him/herself from the needs of fellow humans, and hence is compelled to be in unhealthy relationships.

A part of this account is compelling. There are certainly many individuals who enter into unhealthy relationships out of a desperate fear of being alone and who act overly dependent and needy, often frightening their partners who begin to withdraw in fear of being swallowed up by this neediness. The fact of this withdrawal then confirms the first partners in the fear that they are going to be abandoned. They become all the more desperate in their attempts to merge with others. This behaviour is pathological to the extent that it does not result in either partner getting what they want. It becomes equally pathological when one of the partners begins to lose her or his own identity altogether in an effort to avoid losing the other's affection and support.

Yet the real questions we should be asking here are quite different. Why is it that people get so desperate about being abandoned and left alone? Is it merely an irrational concern?

My answers are quite different from those put forward in the psychological mainstream today. I believe that it is totally rational for people to be very worried and upset about being abandoned and lonely because our society creates a set of conditions in which people are always being abandoned, and in which it is extremely difficult to get the nurturance and support that are essential for psychological health. It is certainly true that this worry can be self-destructive when the desperation it engenders undermines the possibility of finding more fulfilling relationships. But it is also true that when we assess our options we do so in a society characterized by competition and conflict, pain and self-blaming, which typically lead people to act in hurtful ways towards each other. The dynamics that we have explored that undermine family life and personal relations are real -- and the fear of physical or emotional abandonment in these circumstances is quite often based on this reality.

The cure to the problem is not producing "healthy" individuals who can stand alone. This ideal itself emerges from the bourgeois tradition of egoism and has little to do with the basic human reality. Human beings need each other, and our very essence is to be in relationship with others. The healthy human being is the human being who can allow him/herself to be vulnerable and who rightly rejects any notion of a life lived in fundamental separation from other humans.

We need each other, we are mutually interdependent, and the height of pathology is persons who have convinced themselves that they can be autonomous from others. We do not enter into the world as a matter of free choice; we enter into the world as products of other people's already existing social relationships. We get a language, a set of categories and a material and emotional support system from others and the ways we have come to understand and feel about ourselves is largely shaped by these others...

...What is most crazy-making in this society is the demand that we be able to stand by ourselves, that we deny our needs for love, that we interpret our neediness and mutual interdependence as problems that we learn to look on others as objects for manipulation and control.

Many of us get very good at doing this. But it is a corruption of our very being and requires the continued suppression of our Human Essence. That is why people end up feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. They develop physical diseases like cancer and emotional diseases like narcissism which accentuate how ill-suited humans are for the self-centred life that they are all thrown into. They experience stress and despair and interpret them purely on individual terms as further confirmations of their own personal problems, rather than as the natural warning signs of an inhuman, sickness-producing environment. A society based on selfishness and egoism requires a transformation of our beings because it is bad for us. The world must be reconstructed on the basis of human solidarity and love, and purged of the elements of manipulation and control that discredited these ideals in the past. The basis of this solidarity already exists in the loving connections that still remain the emotional underground of this society, the experiences of fullness and solidarity and altruism and idealism that continually threaten to erupt and destroy the false selves that we have all constructed as our best way to deal with the reality of life in a competitive society.

Why doesn't this deeper reality burst forth more clearly? Because of our real powerlessness. Our world has been constructed in such a way that these parts of ourselves are constantly battered down. Those who act upon their lovingness are treated poorly. Because of Surplus Powerlessness we don't believe in ourselves and our right to fulfillment. We get scared that our best selves will turn out to be crazy, isolated and subjected to the same disappointments that we experienced when we were children. And because we have been taught to believe that selfishness is the reality, and all else mere fantasy, we are encouraged to ignore or discount those fleeting moments when we get a temporary glimpse of all that we could really be...

Reprinted with permission from the book Surplus Powerlessness, published by The Institute for Labor and Mental Health, 5100 Leona, Oakland, CA 94619