What living in the South has shown me

Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina
Middleton Place, Charleston, South Carolina
I lived the first fifty years of my life north of the Mason-Dixon line in two blue Ohio counties surrounded by red ones. When I moved to South Carolina in 2012, I had to recalibrate my bullshit detector, which takes a lot of trial and error. I’m still disconcerted by the deceitfulness of people who have tried to befriend me and by the self-confident warmth of those who, in the North, automatically would have doubted me and frozen me out until I proved myself trustworthy. I had been expecting the opposite, which is to say, Northern stereotypes are useless in the South.

It so happened that I moved during 2015 to the coastal town of Beaufort, South Carolina, midway between Charleston and Savannah, a few weeks before a young, self-proclaimed white supremacist shot and killed nine African American congregation members in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. I hadn’t been oblivious to the existence of the alt-right in America. Neither had I assimilated into the Southern culture beyond accepting that it was compulsory to express a greeting when passing someone on the sidewalk. That summer after the church murders I wondered where, exactly, I had planted myself. Or more precisely, among whom?

In the days following the hateful attack on innocent churchgoers, part of the Southern African American culture that had mystified me was articulated straightforwardly: “Wrong Church! Wrong People!”

I remember fumbling to explain to anyone who cared or at least listened that the African American people I encountered in South Carolina were not hostile, militant, deferential, or even avoidant. Their interactions with me were remarkably different than what I’d been accustomed to in the North. Particularly here in Beaufort, where some of the African American citizens are connected to the Gullah Geechee culture, their relaxed self-assurance is beautiful. I admire it.

After the racially motivated killings in Charleston, the members of the Emanuel AME Church congregation automatically lived their creed of peace, nonviolence, and forgiveness—Christians behaving exactly as Christian doctrine had taught them to respond to hate. It was an inspiring moment in the wake of unspeakable evil. It also placed into context the manners of my black neighbors in the South, which until then had puzzled me. Without saying anything, all along they had been demonstrating, “You can’t drag us down into the gutter. We’re better than that. We’re better than you.” I am a proud, incorrigibly idealistic child of the ’60s, and it makes me deeply happy to have them as role models.

Heartbreak all around

Sad news of romantic love lost or in jeopardy has come too frequently this spring. It makes me melancholy, and it makes me try harder to rationalize everyone’s emotional reactions in order to pretend that any of them make sense.

loveEach human being, myself included, is a tangle of emotional contradictions. At the moment, I can’t help thinking we’ve gotten the idea of love all wrong—so wrong that we wind up conflicted at every turn. We’ve overcomplicated love. We’ve reinforced a mythology of love that is unnecessarily unrealistic. We’ve insisted that love is about tender feelings for another person, but I’m not sure we’re being honest.

If love is a way of feeling—an emotional state—then maybe it’s more correct to imagine love as the exquisite joy that arises within a person who has been accepted, validated, encouraged, and valued in any number of ways. Who wouldn’t want more of that? The risk of losing such an emotional high is like the prospect of going through detox.

Are we confusing ourselves with the words we use to speak of love? If we were to revise the usual definitions and come up with more appropriate metaphors, could we understand ourselves better as beings in whom a sense of love is evoked rather than bestowed? Should we correctly term love a response rather than an interaction? Maybe love doesn’t have an object.

It’s easy to predict that heartbroken lovers will experience love again. The inevitability of finding new love is part of what makes love look to me more like an enviable state of mind than a relationship between two people.

It’s old news from Psychology Today but worth remembering:

In the world of relationships, the most important numbers to learn are: five to one. That is the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones that predicts whether a marriage will last or become one of the sad statistics of divorce.

The Psychology Today article briefly summarizes some of the research findings of John M. Gottman, whose blog I found just this moment in order to link to the source of the studies. The blog looks like a wonderful distraction.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but Gottman’s research seems to support my purely extemporaneous contention. Grant, if you will, that the feeling or experience of love evaporates rather quickly, or can transform into pain, when the sensation of being regarded positively by another person is disrupted or the scales don’t remain tipped five to one. It can happen suddenly, or gradually over a long period of time.

Try to disregard all the clichés we use to describe it. Might love be nothing more than one person’s response to another’s behavior? Even if the other person’s actions are intentionally supportive, affirming, romantic, manipulative, or seductive, should they be termed loving? Shouldn’t we use separate, more accurate words for the effort and the reaction, the cause and the effect? Would more exact word pictures help us to understand the necessity of working at long-term relationships? Would precision with language allow us to comprehend why some people cannot feel loved? Would factual labeling make true love appear less haphazard and elusive?

Writers ought to be able to grapple with this idea better than I’m doing. What do you think? (That is, those of you who don’t believe it’s better for love to remain mysterious.) I’m open to debate and certainly don’t have the answers. Point me to some relevant research or just give me your thoughts.