From The Order of Her Noodly Appendage
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In recent years there seems to be a convergence of views about what facilitates the unfoldment of the human person. Study of infant research reveals that healthy early development occurs as there is an attuned response from “self-regulating others” [1]; within object relations theory, “holding” and “mirroring” from the caretaker allows the emergence of the “true self” [2]; in self psychology, it is empathic attunement that catalyzes the “nuclear self” (Kohut 1984)[3]; in humanistic psychology the “structure of self” and “self-actualization” develop as needs for safety, belongingness, love, and respect are met [4][5]; in attachment theory, accessible and responsive attachment figures support the growth of a secure and confident child [6]; some recent thinking in the field of positive psychology points to compassion as key to healthy human development [7]; and finally even current neuroscience speaks of “the shaping physiologic force of love,” finding that “attachment relationships” and “limbic resonance” with significant others shape the “neural core of the self” [8][9].

It appears that all these different approaches perceive, though from quite different vantage points, that human being flourishes within an empathic, respectful communion with others, a communion that we believe can be called “love.” It seems that it is love that facilitates the innate drive of synthesis, wholeness, and actualization; love that supports the human journey over the course of a lifetime; love that allows the human spirit to thrive. Looking even more closely at the operation of this love, however, we can see that this is a particular type of love. This is a love that can see and embrace the whole of who we are—in short, an empathic love.

This is a love that can see a baby beyond our hopes and fears for him, see a child beyond our delight or disappointment with her. A love that can see a friend distinct from our needs and expectations of him, see a partner and not simply our ardor or anger toward her. And a love that can see a psychotherapy client beyond our wish to cure or control, teach or advise him. This love does not obliterate any of these motivations in us, but remains free of them and so can reach beyond them.

It is therefore a love that can reach us no matter what our physical appearance and behavior, no matter what our moods and thoughts, no matter what the condition of our person. We are touched at a level deeper than what we feel or think about ourselves, deeper than our gifts and deficits, deeper than our social roles or personal ego. Again, while none of these aspects of ourselves is ignored or discounted—indeed these aspects of ourselves may also be loved—we are yet not reduced to any of them. Loved like this, we find ourselves free to appear as we are, to feel what we feel, to think what we think. Free to discover who we authentically are.

To the extent we live in the conscious embrace of this love, our life journey unfolds gracefully. We are supported in negotiating each life-span developmental stage as it emerges; feel secure in synthesizing our gifts and developing skills; and have the wherewithal to engage the joy and the pain, the successes and the failures, that life brings. Held in this love, we experience a union with others and the world beyond any sense of dualistic separation or alienation between self and other. We are thus at home with other people, the wider world, and ourselves. There is a sense of basic trust and belonging that invites us into the world to discover and follow our deepest callings.

Given this description of empathic love, it is clear that this love is a crucial provision for the growth and development of human being. The powerful thrust of human unfoldment, of “nature,” demands the “nurture” of love, as an acorn demands sunlight, soil, and water to become a seedling and eventually an oak.

Remember again, however, that this love is of a very particular kind. This is not a love that sees the other as fulfilling one’s desires and dreams, not a love that views the other as something to be changed or managed, not a love blinded by ideas and images of the other (whether positive or negative). So this life-giving love must issue from beyond—and at times in spite of—the hopes, fears, and designs of the personality or personal ego. Although it is somewhat elusive and difficult to recognize, some psychologists have described it well.

Existential-humanistic psychologist Rollo May wrote of this type of love using the traditional term, “agape,” which he described as “esteem for the other, the concern for the other’s welfare beyond any gain that one can get for it; disinterested love, typically, the love of God for man” [10]. And of course, Carl Rogers’ [11] term for something quite like this love was “unconditional positive regard”—a caring for the other in a “non-possessive way,” a “prizing” of the other in a “total rather than conditional way.”

This love is also what Roberto Assagioli called “altruistic love” deriving from a deeper or transpersonal Self beyond the conscious personality. He wrote that this love may also be called “caritas” or “agape” and involved “a sense of essential identity with one’s brothers [and sisters] in humanity” [12]. He held further that:

Altruistic love is not limited to the members of the human family. It can also embrace all living things in the animal and vegetable kingdoms of nature. This inclusiveness is expressed in the Buddhist love for all living creatures, and by Saint Francis in his “Song of the Creatures.” One might say that an increasingly conscious sense of this universal brotherhood is behind the growing trend toward the cultivation of harmonious relations with the environment. This is the higher and broader aspect of ecology. [13]
  1. Stern, Daniel N. 1985. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Winnicott, D. W. 1987. The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
  3. Kohut, Heinz. How Does Analysis Cure? Edited by A. Goldberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Maslow, Abraham. 1962. Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand. Quoting Anonymous, “Finding the real self. A letter with a foreword by Karen Horney,” American Journal of Psychoanalysis 9 (1949): 3.
  5. Rogers, Carl. 1951. Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications, and Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  6. Cassidy, Jude, and Phillip R. Shaver, eds. 1999. Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. New York: Guilford Press.
  7. Cassell, Eric J. 2005. Compassion. In Handbook of Positive Psychology, eds. C. R. Snyder and S. J. Lopez, 434–45. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. 2001. A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books.
  9. Siegel, Daniel J. 1999. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: Guilford Press
  10. May, Rollo. 1969. Love and Will. p.319 New York: Dell Publishing.
  11. Rogers, Carl. 1980. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  12. Assagioli, Roberto. 1973. The Act of Will. p.94, 116 New York: Penguin.
  13. Assagioli, Roberto. 1973. The Act of Will. p.117 New York: Penguin.