Passion and Love

As we made love for the third day, cloudy and dark, as we did not stop but went into it and into it and did not hesitate and did not hold back we rose through the air, until we were up above the timber line... is a place from which no one has ever come back. --Sharon OldsIn this poem, "Ecstasy," we see how our passions push us and pull at us: noisy, calling, insistent. From early childhood on, themes of passion and arousal, shouting and whispering, often profound and often misguided, weave through our lives. Sexual desire and the search for a sexual partner dominate most of our personal histories. Love stories are always compelling--witness the popularity of the best-selling book and film The Bridges of Madison County or the idealized The Sound of Music. In the film Shadowlands we are shown the beautiful and profound story of someone learning to love. These fantasies of idealized love carry enormous emotional power, calling to a deep yearning in each of us for fulfillment, completion, union.Psychologists tell us that all human connection is at its root passionate, though not necessarily sexual. We are aroused to become involved with others because of powerful biological drives that seek gratification. Beginning with our first love connection--our parents--the dynamics of passionate desires, rivalry, and hatred begin to evolve. Early sexual desires arise, often in inappropriate situations. Labels such as "Oedipal Complex" are an attempt to catalogue these early sexual desires, childish wishes that often are frustrated. Our relatedness in its early forms and many facets is often a compromise between instinct and frustration, desire and prohibition.Our childhood sexuality is a normal and essential precursor to the development and character of our adult sexuality. However, we can carry much negative shame about some of our youthful explorations and wonderings. Shame can be destructive, leading us to feel defective, exposed. Often we absorb shame unconsciously--shame about natural physical functions, sexual urges and longing, or sexual experiences. Our secret shames can linger into adulthood, creating "hang-ups" that block our happiness and development. Finding a safe place to disclose some of our "shameful secrets" can lead to healing.Sexuality and Soul Our culture usually associates sexuality with genitalia, but the expressions of our sexuality can be far more profound than that. Physical love is an aspect of relatedness--it is sexual desire fused with tenderness, mutuality, and commitment, which leads to a feeling of union or oneness. At its highest, sexuality is no longer limited to the genitalia but is transformed into our total and loving response to the whole world. Such love engenders soul. Soul is that mysterious, positive, powerful force at the core of our being that calls us to delve deeper into life, to discover who and what we really are. We need to ponder what the soul's purpose is when we are attracted to another, when we long for a deeper love. As we open ourselves to a greater reality, a deeper purpose, we invite the gift of love, love that opens body and soul to the eternal.In this kind of loving sexual interaction you feel the body, the pulsing life, the beating heart. Beyond lust, it is a surrender to the spirituality between you, to the primordial yearning heart, to the dance of opposites, to balance, to wholeness, to the ancient rhythms. Once you've had this kind of sexual meeting, you don't want anything less. To accept less is to betray yourself.The opposite of this experience is casual sex or genital sex, in which, after discharge or orgasm, the partner is of little further interest. Here sex is reduced to the satisfaction of a nagging appetite or an addictive impulse. In the film When Harry Met Sally, Harry remarks: "You have sex and the minute you finish, you know what goes through your mind? How long do I have to lie here and hold her before I can get up and go home?" That is the epitome of genital sex.Sex Versus Sexuality A good friend of mine, Roberta Hanson, specializes in teaching human sexuality in the Seattle area. In her classes she separates the words "sex" and "sexuality." Sex is defined as a three-letter word and is concerned with anatomy, function, and behavior. Sexuality, on the other hand, implies so much more--including the intellect, emotions, personal history, spirit, and the capacity for love. Our media emphasize the three-letter version of sex and take an adolescent, immature approach. The conversations between people in film, television drama, and popular novels consist mostly of where, when, and how. Our adolescent culture is driven by the question, "How can I put tab A into slot B? The "who" of sex is not addressed.Contemporary American sexuality has been banished from the sacred places and relegated to "how-to" machine shops and technical manuals. Mechanized prescriptions for sexual fulfillment line the bookshelves and feature positions, tools, and formulas for successful orgasms. This orgasmic emphasis trivializes the whole meaning of sexuality as a sacred gift to be shared on many levels, not just the physical. When purified, sexuality is a sacred power with an incredible potential to bless and heal. When misused, sex becomes deeply polluted--manifesting itself as addictive sex, compulsive sex, abusive sex, angry sex, neurotic sex, and controlling sex.We need a redefinition of sexuality today. The best sex happens when there is caring and loving and, yes, laughter. We are beginning to understand this more and to realize that the "who" of sex is essential--it is everything! Who is this unique, one-of-a-kind miracle I am with? Who is this being in all of her or his complexity and beauty?Fostering Soulful Relationships It is not easy or natural to foster soulful relationships. How does one heart open to another? How can we educate ourselves in the all encompassing possibility of love? The Irish poet, W.B. Yeats observed: "Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned." How do we earn our hearts? How do we become a pilgrim of love, the kind of love that provides the essential foundation from which to live life and taps into a storehouse of treasures, warming the coldest night and healing the broken heart? Such a powerful reality asks us to study it, to learn from it, to honor it. It will serve us in our greatest need.Healthy relationships are very challenging and call us to acknowledge our own depth, our own shadow. It is in relationship that we are exposed to the raw material or soul of life. This essential material is often unpleasant, despised, and few of us willingly embrace it.W.B. Yeats wrote the following shocking lines about 70 years ago: But Love has pitched his mansion in The place of excrement; For nothing can be sole or whole That has not been rent.Love is messy, irrational, and initiated by soul. When confrontations with love force the courageous to engage with the raw material or soul of life, the possibility of radical transformation presents itself. The wound of love, the "rent" of love is an essential part of the great mystery--the mystery of two becoming soul mates, one whole greater than its parts, yet still unique, individual beings.Where is Passion in Mature Love? Right now, in my maturity, I wonder about many things. I enjoy my singleness and the richness of solitude, I love my family and friends, and I love my very rewarding work. Yet sometimes I feel a yearning--what is it for? This yearning is not the same frenzied intensity of my youth, that almost unbearable insistent passion that pushes so hard and demands so much. This is gentler, rather like an ache. I know I yearn to learn more about others, God, and love. Do I also long for intimacy with a special other? Companionship? Someone with whom to share my mature self, my full heart?On the television show 60 Minutes one Sunday evening, an interview with French actress Jeanne Moreau, now in her sixties, showed her to be deliciously honest. Interviewer Mike Wallace asked her about her private life, and if she was involved with anyone right now. She responded no, and that she didn't mind a bit. Mike pushed further. "There's a feeling that passion in a woman of a certain age is unseemly."Jeanne responded: "They're right."Mike: "Passion is unseemly?"Jeanne: "Oh come on. Passion--when you get to be 60--by then you know about love--but love is not passion. I would hate passion; I would hate to be still overcome with passion, I've done that! I have passion for life now. And now I know about love. Love and passion don't go together. Passion is destructive. Passion is demanding."Passion is jealous. Passion goes up and down. Love is consistent. Fidelity, that's what love is about. Compassion, you give even more than you receive. That's what love is about. I'd hate to still be a victim of passion--I would think, God! I've lived all these years and I've learned nothing?"Love, not passion, is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence, says Erich Fromm in his beautiful book, The Art of Loving. This loving is not easy, it's risky, and yet it is the only way to salvation. C.S. Lewis remarked on the riskiness of love when he said "hell is the only place outside of heaven where we can be safe from the dangers of love." No matter what the dangers, it is riskier not to be a lover. Here is May Sarton's testimony of love and why she "keeps at it." It is hunger and hope that keep her a pilgrim of love.Love Fragile as a spider's web Hanging in space Between tall grasses, It is torn again and again. A passing dog Or simply the wind can do it. Several times a day I gather myself together And spin it again. Spiders are patient weavers. They never give up. And who knows What keeps them at it? Hunger, no doubt, And hope.Paula Payne Hardin is a teacher, lecturer, and the director of Chicago's Midlife Consulting Services. She is also the author of What Are You Doing With the Rest of Your Life? Choices in Midlife and Love After Love: Stages of Loving. This article is excerpted from the latter.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.