Nearly fifty years ago, I first met Ginger as I exited an airplane into the Detroit airport and saw her waiting for me. She was my ride to my hotel. In order to identify herself, she was holding my second novel with the large photo of me on the back over. I did not know that she had already fallen in love with me from the book and the photo.
It was 1972 and I was in Detroit, not as a novelist, but as a psychiatrist and medical expert in one of the most important trials in the history of psychiatry, the famous Kaimowitz case. I was going to testify against psychosurgery experiments at a Michigan state hospital, and the decision of the three-judge panel would ultimately end psychosurgery and lobotomy in state and federal facilities throughout the nation. In the instant I saw Ginger for the first time, I saw only her, and everything about me and the trial faded away. Only twenty years old, she was a vision of intense beauty and spirit, slender with great green eyes and auburn hair.
I fell in love with Ginger, spent five gloriously days with her sandwiched in around the trial, and then returned home. We seemed to understand each other’s thoughts and feelings, and each other’s values and dreams, as no one else had ever done. We not only felt on the same spiritual and intellectual wavelength, we helped to clarify and to advance each other’s thoughts, feelings and hopes. We talked and held hands and felt like we were as physically and spiritually intimate as two people could be.
I was so in love and so filled with hope that I decided there was only one way out—never to see her again!
That’s how frightened I was about loving and losing yet one more time. My unconscious mind was screaming at me, “You think it hurt when you got rejected before? This woman is so wonderful it will destroy you!”
If it had been left up to my overwhelmed heart, I would never have seen Ginger again. Ginger was braver and risked trying to communicate with me, but I was so confused by inner turmoil that I did not respond.
Twelve years later, a mere eyeblink in a love story, all that changed. We miraculously met again. It was entirely unplanned: I was on a media trip from where I lived in the Washington DC area to Los Angeles where, unknown to me, Ginger now lived. In my hotel room I received a phone message from a friend who explained that she had met someone I knew years ago, a woman named Ginger, who would be glad to see me if I had the time.
“My Ginger?” I blurted out aloud to myself and immediately called the number. We got together that day and discovered that we were both recently divorced. We also found that our confidence in ourselves had grown, giving us more trust in our instantly revived love for each other.
Less than two hours after our first meeting in twelve years, I asked Ginger to marry me; and without hesitation, Ginger said yes. We have now been married for thirty-four years—nearly three times that unfortunate twelve-year hiatus. Life, of course, continues to come at us and we in turn continue to take on life, while we mature in our ability to love each other, exceeding anything either of us had ever dared to hope for. We feel surrounded by love in our personal lives and in the reform work we do together in the world.
What is this thing we call love that so terrified me?
Love wipes the slate clean. It reformats our lives. It gives us a fresh start.
If we are ready for it, love makes known to us a completely new and higher set of values, aspirations and goals. It can be like magically switching from a muddy old black and white TV screen to high-definition sound and color. Or it can creep up on us with a gradual recognition that we are falling in love with an old friend, but the result is the same—our lives become new and better. Either way, love brings bright and irresistible sources of meaning and joy into our lives.
All this is true not only in romantic love, but in respect to anyone and anything we truly love, from family members and special friends or mentors to heroes we admire and love from a distance. Our love can be for a place or home, for nature, for our work, for art or music, for sports, for country or humanity, and for God. When we love, we change. Through our devotion to someone or something outside ourselves, we engage life in a new and more vitalized and meaningful way.
When we find someone to love or when we find a creative endeavor that we love, we almost inevitably go through a period of fighting against the person we used to be before we found the courage to love. Often, we must overcome our habitual armor, the psychological defenses, the reflexive irritability and anger, the urgent desire to withdraw, the doubts and fears and lack of faith in love and in other people, in life or in a higher power.
In that struggle to throw off or transcend our past, love can help us center our mind and heart as one. Love creates an utter lack of contradiction or opposition between our thoughts and feelings, and between our desires for ourselves and for the one we love. When we allow ourselves to experience love, we are, perhaps for the first time in our lives, free of ambivalence or internal contradictions.
Once we have established a trusting and loving relationship with a person or an endeavor, we can begin to resolve any escalating or threatening conflict by reminding ourselves about our feelings of love and letting ourselves re-experience them. At the moment that our conflict with a loved one seems impossible to resolve, and when we teeter on the edge of outrage or despair, reminding ourselves to revive our love can quickly turn us around.
When we experience love—when the other person seems like a treasure and a gift too good for us to deserve, when the other person’s mere presence brings us joy, when simply thinking of the other makes us happy—we have immersed ourselves in the pure reality of love. In that reality, love can resolve almost any conflict. Work, often very hard work, is required to prevent our inevitable human flaws from undermining or destroying the new and great opportunities in a loving relationship or in our love for any meaningful aspect of life. But the effort required to clear a path for love can become the most worthwhile spiritual exertion of our lives.
Clearing a Path for Love
The love we feel makes us want to nurture the person or activity we love, bringing its interests or needs onto a par with our own, and sometimes ahead of our own. How can we remain mired down in ill-feelings or recriminations, how can we withhold ourselves and remain self-centered, when love commands us to hold another person’s well-being at least on a par with our own?
Love obliterates the familiar limits and restraints within which we and those around us have lived and imagined. In doing so, it produces upheaval in our personal lives, and often in the lives of others. Love can overturn institutions and philosophies and change the course of humanity. This messages lies at the heart of the story of Romeo and Juliet, a conflict between immature and yet intensely loving young people and the prejudices and restraints of their feuding families. Their love and their tragic deaths inspire the uniting of their families.
In the lives of the great reformers and revolutionaries that I admire, from George Washington to Lincoln, from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman, and from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., love overcame any hate or desires for revenge that these heroes may have harbored toward those whom they confronted or fought. In their striving to bring about a better world, each of them refused to be motivated by rage, hate or revenge against those they opposed in the name of liberty. Each brought a forgiving and loving attitude into their efforts, even while they persisted in risking their lives fighting for freedom. Many attributed their determination to replace hate with love to teachings from the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.
Originally my own reform work was motivated by a tangle of idealism, empathy, and self-centered resentment and anger over the injustices in life. The resentment and anger part exhausted me and sometimes led to bad choices, especially in giving voice to or acting upon the frustration and outrage I felt. I eventually realized that I could only sustain and guide a lifetime of reform work by increasingly turning to empathy and love as my motivation and as my ideal for how to influence other people.
Becoming a Source of Love
From romantic love to idealistic reform work, love has many expressions, but its source is always the same. Love shines from our deepest inner resources, our human core, our essence, our identity, our self, spirit or soul. It’s as if we are endowed with an inner lamp with a transformer that we can turn up and turn down—or shut off completely, ruining our own lives and the lives we touch. We are that source of light; the on/off switch is always in our hands.
We are, at our best, a source of love. At our seemingly worst, we generate hate. But we may be even more lost when we burn out and become indifferent and apathetic. In that bleak state of spiritual inertia, we generate little or nothing of worth. Like black holes in the universe, we can relentlessly draw everyone around us into our abyss.
Yet even in our darkest days there is good reason to hope. The degree of suffering we feel, including our “depression” and resentment, reflects the intensity of our desire for a better life for ourselves and others. If we did not desire and envision something better for ourselves and for the world, something very much better, we would not suffer as deeply as we do from the failures, disappointments, and conflicts in our lives.
On this, the best in religion and science come together—human beings thrive when they feel and act upon love. Charles Darwin, who is often falsely described as a materialist and proponent of determinism, described how we human beings have transcended the limitations of biological evolution and social instincts. Darwin concluded that biological evolution by itself could not have created our understanding of love and our monumental accomplishment in creating the Golden Rule—to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Those achievements required reason and a spiritual understanding of love.
There is romantic love, which can occur at first sight or with growing familiarity. There is love for children, which can flower in pregnancy and peak when a new mother holds her baby to her breast. There is love of nature, love of music or art, love of our work or creativity, or love of life. There is love of God, the Creator, or whatever force or value we identify as “Greater than Myself.”
Our pets can become our best reminders about the purity of unconditional love without the ambivalences and conditions we humans impose upon it. Our dogs especially express pure joy at the sight of us and pure joy is probably the ultimate expression of love. I have at times defined love as joyful awareness. Love as joyful awareness is perhaps nowhere more fervently and beautifully expressed than in art forms such as drama, poetry, hymns and gospel singing. Art as an expression of love is perhaps unexcelled except perhaps for the joyous cacophony of barking and howling with which our three dogs greeted my wife Ginger today on her return home after only two hours absence.
In my professional life as a psychiatrist, and as a friend and family member, and in respect to myself as well, I have found that even when suffering from the direst emotional reactions, we can begin to recover by remembering that we are or can become a source of love.
Nearly everything we call emotional distress or “psychiatric disorders,” regardless of how severe they are, involve a failure to give and to receive love. Experience teaches me that it is impossible to be loving and crazy at the same moment. It is equally impossible to be grateful and depressed at the same time.
Suffering that seemingly crushes the human spirit usually occurs in reaction to profound trauma, neglect or loss. When we understand what these individuals have endured, often starting in childhood, their suffering in retrospect seems inevitable. But that inevitability does not have to determine the future. I say this about myself and everyone I have known in my life and work: No matter how overwhelmed and desperate we feel, recovery and growth depend on becoming open to loving and being loved, and seeming miracles occur when individuals change their life in recognition of these truths.
Something Greater than Ourselves?
Ever since high school, I had been a proud agnostic. Many years later, when I had been in practice for at least a decade, a client asked me if I knew anything about God. Being still agnostic at the time, all I could do was quip about God, “I know it isn’t me.” My client smiled warmly and said, “Peter, that’s a good beginning.”
The renewal of my spiritual life escalated when I met Ginger again and this time found the courage to act on my love for her. Since then, Ginger and I have experienced that loving and being loved continually inspires us with a belief in something greater than ourselves. Love can lift people out of their preoccupation with bodies and material existence onto a joyful spiritual plane. Whether we believe in evolution or in God as the ultimate source of our human nature, when we love, we feel most happily in touch with ourselves and with the best that life can offer.
Love is our soul’s joyful engagement with life and love in its essence is entirely good. Love can feel ecstatic or euphoric, exciting and adventuresome. It can feel joyful and happy. It can feel safe and secure—like coming home after trying times or finding the meaning of life.
Although we often seem to get confused about it, love itself does not make us feel miserable and helpless. Love does not inevitably require suffering and sacrifice, loss and rejection. All the pain and suffering associated with love has to do with its inhibition, perversion and loss, and all the conflict it inevitably arouses in our conflicted minds. Love itself makes all things endurable and all hopes possible.
We can triumph over our legacy of negative emotions in order to become free to love. A key is our willingness and determination never to give up on love despite even catastrophic threats and losses. When in touch with ourselves as a source of love, we can maintain the rationality and moral strength to manage our lives through the greatest challenges.
Having lived more than eight decades on this Earth and having been through despair in most of its manifestations, I have this to recommend: Dare to recognize love. Dare to give and receive love. Then do the work required to build loving relationships and a life based on mutual respect, reason, and sound ethical behavior. Let your purposes and your life be infused with love.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.