Lessons in Love and Life from Jonathan Franzen

“There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of.”

Once again, there I was on metafilter when I stumbled across something interesting.  Go figure.  This time, it was an excerpt from a commencement speech at Kenyon College (printed in the opinion page of the NYT) written by author Jonathan Franzen (Freedom) about technology and narcissism and love and life.

Franzen talks about the “liking” phenomenon sweeping the world, thanks to Facebook.  We all want to “like” things, and we want people to “like” us.  “If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are.”

Perfect

Image by -= Bruce Berrien =- via Flickr

We want to be loved for who we are, and yet we rarely show our true selves to people, especially at the beginning of a romantic relationship.  We try to be perfect, to be who the person wants us to be, or who we think the person wants us to be.  We don’t lose our temper when someone cuts us off on the road.  We cook gourmet dinners.  We obviously don’t burp or fart or poop, because we don’t do any of those things. We don’t get upset or have a bad day and eat a pint of ice cream to ease the pain.  We exercise regularly and have a clean house.

The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.

Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.

And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.

Read the rest of the opinion piece here.

Listen to the whole commencement speech here.

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