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Saturday, April 1, 2023

Love & OM: The Journey To Self Through Relationship: (Part II) Love and Belonging

In our search for love and belonging, we often sacrifice authenticity to fit in, to be valued, to be loved

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Jewish psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about love as a higher stage in human consciousness, which can be achieved only after lower levels are fulfilled. In Maslow’s hierarchy, the need for love and belonging comes after physiological needs and needs of physical safety have been generally met.

Maslow has been criticized for this linear view of needs attainment, and the world is full of examples: Migrant laborers of India, working in cities away from home, often lacking food and safety, sleeping on pathways, eating one meal a day, will send money home, out of love. Soldiers and veterans often form the closest of human bonds, usually forged from of a lack of safety.

Childhood and loss of authenticity

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Every child is born into a situation, created by a society that shapes its personality. Situations make us perceive reality in a certain way.

In an interview with Sameera, a primary school teacher with 15 years’ experience, she said, “Children are very different from [adults]; they are alien to all our concepts. You have to make them accept the reality we accept. [Prior to this] they are free of adulterations of influence, one can conceive things as they truly are.”

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She continued, “A child’s brain is the most authentic one indeed. They see things as they are without any pre-conceptions. We are born like that, with no moral code, no concept of what good is. In reality, we are not always able to help [children] develop these morals. We feed them the morals society believes are right. There is a lot of unlearning involved, in order to see the world as authentic again.”

I asked her about her views on Maslow’s stage of love and belonging. She said, “It has got to do with biology and psychology. The brain is too busy trying to work out the more urgent needs first, most of the attention is spared for that. That is one of the reasons relationships are such a common part of a school’s ecosystem. If you have reached school then in more cases than not, you are able to eat three times a day. You have the social safety of course that school provides. It is at this time that love and friendships blossom.”

Society and loss of freedom

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Society is the panoptic gaze of our consciousness. It is everywhere, knows everything, and demands sacrifice for happiness. Friendships and relationships rely greatly on one’s social status. If you have a character not deemed acceptable to society, like a criminal or an outcast, you are not perceived as desirable.

We should have a good understanding of who we are without being lost in the labyrinth society has created, often concealing reality.                     

When Jean Paul Sartre talks about existence in Being and Nothingness, he refers to bad faith (mauvaise foi), which refers to a kind of self-deception.

According to Sartre, individuals are often lulled into playing a role. When we play these roles, we become objects of the society and wear particular uniforms to convey our roles. These uniforms decide our morality, our love life, and our sense of belonging.

One would argue that we choose this role in society, therefore it is our free will. Sartre gives this example of bad faith. In a café, he noticed a waiter that was a little too “waiter-esque”, a little too polite. The very fact that he chose to live this lie takes away his freedom. The moral compromises we make, the thwarting of our authenticity for the sake of social acceptance is bad faith.

Role of love and belonging

As discussed in last week’s column, Akshay and I (Lisa) connected deeply from the first time we met in Nagpur. When people meet for the first time, there is a tendency to “categorize” the relationship. This is especially tempting when there is the potential of a romantic connection.


Photo Credit: Akshay Wahane

In the physiological and safety stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy, the self needs resources directed toward it. The individual needs to be provided food and sense of general well-being. In the love and belonging phase, the individual enters into reciprocal relationship with the world and others. In this stage one risks losing authenticity in an effort to be liked, to fit in, to make others comfortable. One is tempted to define relationship. Defining the boundaries of a relationship can risk limiting its potential. It’s no small task to maintain authenticity.

Akshay and I have known each other for nearly 3 years. As I shared last week, we can easily lose hours in conversation; we have traveled together, gotten mad as hell at one another, cried together, and shared our deepest fears. We have come to both nurture and encourage one another’s authenticity.

Defying Labels

Akskay and I were vacationing in Goa. I happened to read an article on platonic love. Over our favorite chai and masala omelet, we discussed this both philosophically and personally. The author was involved in a deeply intimate relationship with her best friend and how, for lack of a better term, they referred to themselves as platonic. Platonic love is defined as an emotional bond “rising through levels of closeness to wisdom and true beauty from carnal attraction to attraction to souls, and eventually, union with truth.”

Their relationship stood outside of any label, and she discussed how uncomfortable that made the people in her life. Akshay and I both come from societies (he Indian, and me American) that demand knowing “what” we are. Every place we went in India, we were either asked directly or it was assumed we were a couple. We would smile and simultaneously say, “No.” We both recognize that to put our relationship into some category would be to destroy its essence.

When we enter into loving relationships, we almost immediately wonder, “Where is this going?”

Akshay and I have learned, together, through the deepest love and respect for another, “We are here right now.”                

It is within this framework of complete openness and freedom that we have been able to laugh with abandon and opine on the meaning of existence, to foster each other’s growth, and perhaps most importantly: to hold each other accountable when we fail to see our own worth, a topic we will explore in depth next week.           

What we have embarked on is an experiment: What are the limits of a relationship? So far, we have only experienced its possibilities.

This was co-written by Lisa Carley Hotaling (with Akshay’s permission)

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