Paul Wallace: The Deepest Truth About Love: A Response to Alain de Botton

Trent Gilliss featured this video last week at On Being. Released earlier this year by Hannah Jacobs and Lara Lee, it takes the words of Alain de Botton, our most literate and urbane public atheist, and animates them. According to Gilliss, the video "speaks with care about the human condition." It is, in truth, beautifully made.



Here are de Botton's words:

You will never find the right person.

Such a creature does not exist.

You are irredeemably alone.

You will not be understood.

The moments of love were an illusion.

There is something wrong with you

And with everyone else.

The idea of love distracts us from an existential loneliness.

Now let's pretend we do not know any of this.

(O, the pathos!)

There is a sense in which these words give us a bracing and tonic glimpse of reality. It is good to see that many of our dreams -- of love, of togetherness, of being understood -- are merely expressions of desire, or craving. Such dreams are often not related to anything in the actual world. It is also an excellent thing to know yourself well enough to see that you are broken. And shallow ideas of love do distract us from our essential solitude, which can be painful to acknowledge.

But of course this is not what de Botton is saying. What he is saying is that love is in fact an illusion, but we must, in fact, live like it's not. We must live like there's something more than physics, because life cannot be endured for the sake of mere endurance. Perhaps he would say that evolution has bequeathed us an illusion called "love" in the interest of our survival. Or, as someone once said, "If there were no God we'd have to invent one." An irony, to be sure.

But living my entire life in direct opposition to my fundamental convictions is altogether too much irony for me. Irony is like pepper on eggs: Without it life (and art) is too bland to enjoy. But a plate full of pepper is inedible.

A number of years ago I would have read de Botton's words and watched Jacobs's and Lee's animation and thought they were profound. But the existential turn -- let us find the courage to pretend! -- sounds silly to me today.

So I propose a rewrite:

There is a good chance that, if you remain open and kind and if you wish to do so, you will find a person through whom you may learn to love the entire world.

There are many such creatures.

Your solitude is rooted in God, but through God you are connected to all things.

You may be understood, but not by your trying to be understood. If you wish to be understood you must, in the words of St. Francis, seek first and only to understand.

The moments of love were ultimate reality's still small voice.

There is something broken in you

And in everyone else, but this is not the largest truth about you.

Love is the only thing wider and deeper than existential loneliness.

Now let's stop pretending, because we don't have to.

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