The Quest for Intimacy

The Quest for Intimacy


As the state of human affairs becomes increasingly burdened with conflict and strife, we hear more people say: “Everyone wants basically the same thing. So why can’t we somehow just get along?” If we all want the same thing, what is it that everyone wants?  Were we to ask people if they would prefer to live a life of wealth and privilege, or one in which they loved and were being loved, most would probably choose the latter. And yet, we spend most of our time on earth pursuing wealth and privilege—whether we succeed or not. Could the likelihood that we are pursuing what we don’t really want have something to do with why we can’t seem to get along?

Where does our desire to love and be loved come from? We weren’t taught that we need it when we were in school. And most people haven’t learned about love from experience. Quite the opposite. In our increasingly alienated world, loneliness, not love, seems to be the order of the day. If we haven’t been taught that we need love, and we haven’t learned about it from experience, then we must be born with the need to love and be loved. 

Are animals born with the same need? Do dogs, wolves, horses, beavers, lions, gorillas, chimpanzees, and elephants need love? We can’t ask them, so there is no way to really know. But, behavior reveals a lot. I would guess that most people who have spent time with those animals would agree that they share our need for love.

Are animals getting what they need? Well, a caged gorilla isn’t able to love or be loved. And body language experts could probably detect its state of distress in its behavior. But the ones who yet live in the wild probably have all the opportunities they need to fulfill their desire to love and be loved. This is a hypothetical proposition, but, what if we asked the animals whether they preferred wealth and privilege to loving and being loved? I think they would likely choose love. If I am right, regarding the matter of love, we are like the animals. The difference is, they are getting what they want, and we aren’t. And body language experts could probably detect our state of distress in our behavior.

Why are the animals experiencing love, and we aren’t? It’s not that we never experience it. A mother experiences love when attending to the needs of her child. During romantic involvements, couples experience love. And we love our pets. Based on these examples, there are three observations we can make about love. First of all, love is not something we choose. It happens to us. Mothers, even ones who have achieved fame, speak of motherhood as being the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to them. Romantic love is also a happening. The lyrics to Richard Roger’s, “Some Enchanted Evening” say it well: “You may see a stranger, from across a crowded room, and somehow you know, you know even then, that somehow you will see her, again and again.” Regarding our pets, we can’t choose not to love them, which reveals that love is beyond our control. The point is that in every instance of love, it is a happening, not a choice.

Love is a response. It happens only in the moment. Of course we might experience the anticipation of a romantic involvement, as well as fondly remember one. But these are not the actual experience. And promises of love undying remove us from the moment. The reason we love our pets so freely is that our love has no promises attached. That is the only way to keep any relationships an in-the-moment experience. And, because we have promised our pets nothing, our love for them is an in-the-moment experience. Promising them nothing frees us to be honest in our relationships. We can even be angry with them. Being angry is an event of the moment. It breaks no promise, and leaves the love untouched.

When we promise love, we are presuming that we will forever feel the same as when the promise was made. This takes us out of the moment, turns us into pretenders. How can we be close to anyone, when we can’t be honest about how we feel? Love lives in the moment, or it doesn’t live at all.

And finally, love, regardless of what kind—motherly, romantic, brotherly, sisterly, or our love for our pets—is beyond verbal description. Think of trying to describe romance to someone who has never experienced it. They would think you’re crazy! Not only is the experience indescribable, the words “I love you” can neither make love happen, nor can they keep a waning romance alive. The feeling is either there or it isn’t. Words are beside the point.

Modern humans know about motherly love, romantic love, and love for our pets, because we have experienced them. But very few people who are alive today have experienced brotherly or sisterly love, because the common ground required for this kind of love no longer exists. The conditions for brotherly love, however, are sometimes present on the field of battle. Though words can’t describe it, let’s consider what occurs in the lives of men who have experienced brotherly love. I refer to the work of photojournalist Tim Hetherington, a wartime correspondent who spent a year filming American soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan for his documentary, “Restrepo.” Throughout his career, Tim’s particular interest was to study the relationships among men on the field of battle.

Following are quotes from the film, “Restrepo:”

Man Eden

Man Eden

Tim: One of the pictures that I really like is what I call my kind of “Man-Eden” picture. It really isn’t like a kind of war photograph. It’s a very pastoral scene to it. It kind of brings up ideas of medieval paintings and it kind of indicated that the work was going in another direction. As I stayed on, then I started to make the more kind of nuanced pictures about men and war and these kind of  relationships.

The lure of a place like Restrepo inhabits a much more profound place in young men than just, “oh, I need some adrenaline.” Tim called it “The Man Eden.” It was just sort of for the young male psyche that this was an easy place to be.

Brendan O’Byrne, Sergeant: Filling sandbags on the side of the mountain, waiting to get shot at, while making fun of each other and eating bad food and telling bad jokes. It was a great place to be if you’re a man. [Laughs] There was no social norms. I think that doesn’t happen a lot in our society. Out there, it didn’t matter how you were dressed and it didn’t matter how you looked, how much money you made. It didn’t matter how hot your girlfriend was. If you weren’t filling sandbags, you were fucking wrong.

Brendan O’Byrne, Sergeant: They’re just family. They’re the best guys that you could ever be with. You know, even the guys you don’t like, you love them, you know. Even the guys you fight with, you argue with, you’d still die for them, so how much can you hate them? Talk about dudes that, you know, work together and you think that after 13 months, you’d start to fall apart. But the truth is, it’s only brought us closer.

Sebastian Junger, voice over: Tim had been in a lot of combat in Liberia, and I think one of the things he was looking for after that experience wasn’t the truth about combat as a form of conflict, but the truth about combat as a form of bonding. And what he saw with his camera in this environment of killing and fear and hardness was connection.

James Barbizon, voice over: My grandfather was a professional soldier. He fought right through the Burma campaign. He lost all of his friends, and I said to him, you know, “Do you regret any of this? Would you change any of it?” And he explained it to me like this. He said, “War is the only opportunity that men have in society to love each other unconditionally.” And it’s understanding the depth of emotion at war that Tim was fascinated with.

Tim, Voice over: “Restrepo” is a distillation of what Sebastian and I have really come to understand about young men and war. The war machine isn’t just technology and bombs and missiles and systems in this kind of CNN TV mediated world. The war machine is, put a group of men together in extreme circumstances and they will bond together, and they will kill and be killed for each other. At the end of the day, you realize they were all young men just put together on the side of this mountain, and all they were trying to do was to survive and look after each other so that they all got back home alive. That was it, really. Nothing to do with war. Nothing to do with the politics of war.


To the extent it can be conveyed through words and pictures, Hetherington’s film reveals what brotherly love feels like. These men did not go to war intending to experience brotherly love. Like all types of love, it just happens when the conditions for love exist. Indeed, when the conditions are right, love cannot be avoided.

And what did they find when they returned home? They found a place where the conditions for brotherly love do not exist, a place where intimacy is impossible. They found a place where living in the moment is not possible, because everyone is focused on realizing future plans. In this place people depend on money to survive, not on others who are bonded in spiritual trust. The key to acceptability is adherence to cultural norms, and the amount of money a man has makes all the difference. Hetherington’s solders came home to a place where you can’t have a good fight, for fear of being locked up, because of having taken matters into your own hands. Home, it turns out, is the kind of place where all promises and agreements, including those regarding family relationships, must be documented and signed, because no one trusts anyone. The world to which these young men returned is so bereft of the conditions for love that, having once experienced brotherly love, many of them cannot go one without it.

I don’t have an equivalent picture for The Woman Eden. Children would definitely be part of the scene. And, if promises force us to live for the future, rather than in the moment, then in Women Eden no women would have to promise to love and to live with a man for the rest of her life, in order to have a child. In their Eden, women would surely find the same sense of peace within their sisterhood that those brothers found in Hetherington’s Man Eden. Indeed, when I visited an indigenous tribe while touring Panama a few years ago, I noted that the women and their children were gathered in a separate group from the men. That’s not surprising. Isn’t that what we observe among boys and girls on school playgrounds? And social gatherings are not very enjoyable, unless, at some point during the evening, the men gather in one location and the women in another.

We take pride in the belief that, unlike the animals, we are rational beings. But life’s meaning can be known only through love, not reason. Is motherly love, romantic love, and brotherly sisterly love rational? Of course not. They are feelings, they are the source, of our human addiction to taking care of life. From a rational point of view, laying down one’s life for another is senseless. Maybe so, but for a band of brothers who love one another, it’s the only thing that could possibly make sense. And the fact that it makes sense is the source of life’s meaning, the source of their connection.

A rational being would never be subject to addictions, and could therefore never be possessed by the need to take care of life. In our present existence, bereft of brotherly/sisterly love, through which we would normally be “hooked” on taking care of life, we are reduced to becoming hooked on all sorts of things—ideologies, religions, politics, progress, technology, money, drugs, dreams, and, last but not least, hooked on the certainty that we are rational beings. Those guys in Man Eden were hooked on their relationships. Their “drug” was their concern for one another, and in that concern they lived in the moment and new all the peace that can be visited upon mankind.

So, at the moment of birth, our destiny is to love and be loved, a destiny we share with all the other animals. But we moderns are not fulfilling our destiny. It isn’t through any fault of our own. Each of us is as capable of brotherly love as those soldiers, given the circumstances for interdependent relationships. Considering our present state of affairs, is there any hope for us to realize our natural destiny? There is no way to know. One thing is certain. If we are to love and be loved, we must first recognize it as our destiny. How can we fulfill a destiny that we don’t even know exists?

The other thing needed to realize our natural destiny is that it requires natural family relationships, the kind our predecessors enjoyed through eons, while human emotions were evolving. I have used Hetherington’s Man Eden to exemplify the circumstances required for brotherly love. The reader might ask: What’s natural about a group of soldiers stationed at a remote outpost in Afghanistan fighting on behalf of a nation state on the other side of the world? Agreed, in many respects, the situation of Hetherington’s soldiers was extremely unnatural. But, in one essential way, it was very natural. They were depending on one another to survive, as did all humans before the first institution existed. In that state of interdependence, they knew a love for one another that surpasses all rational explanations.

How crucial is the importance of natural relationships? Natural relationships are essential, because they are the only ones that we emotionally understand. In other words, when family relationships are natural, we pretty much understand why everyone in the family is behaving as they are, even if the family consists of thirty people. How can we know so much? That is why our brains are so large—to enable us to know things like that. Without the ability to emotionally understand what’s going on around us, we can neither love nor be loved, and that applies to both humans and animals:

If you place one male and one female elephant in an enclosure, it doesn’t work, because in their natural habitat female elephants bond with females and males function alone. In the unnatural relationship within their enclosure, neither the male nor the female emotionally understands why the other elephant is behaving as it is. This is a stressful situation, the same stress men and women often suffer when expected to live as pair bonders. You see, in our natural habitat, the brotherhood’s “mission” isn’t to protect the interests of a state, but to protect and support the sisterhood and their children. Regarding bonding, however, women bond with women and men with men, except for the romantic sojourns surrounding procreation. 

So, if we are ever going to fulfill our natural destiny to love and be loved, we need natural family relationships. Given our present state of institutional dependency, the question becomes: Is reestablishing natural relationships possible? That depends on whether human beings can throw off the weight of our longstanding dependence on institutions, for survival, rather than on brothers and sisters bonded in spiritual trust. For as long as we have depended on institutions, we have distrusted our own human spirits. Given this state of affairs, many people will see reestablishing spiritual homes as impossible, to the point of rejecting the idea out of hand. But, think of the rewards. When considering that, what now seems impossible might just be possible. 

For thousands of years, men have been creating artificial systems of authority, to grant one another the right to own women and, eventually land and animals. Through all that time, the human race has been on a quest for certainty. Systems of authority appeal to us because they promise a certain future. But it‘s a meaningless promise. A certain future—if it were possible—would result in a meaningless existence. Everyone’s behavior would be reduced to a mindless prescribed routine, as in Adam Huxley’s book, Brave New World. No place for love in that scene. It’s also a false promise, because a certain future is not possible. When we trust our lives to institutions in our quest for certainty, we are seeking something that is not possible. This is why we can’t get along, though we all want basically the same things.

The situation for those men at Restrepo was not certain, just as life is not certain for any being on earth, including us, the institutionalized ones. Indeed, had things been certain, at Restrepo, those young men would not have needed one another, and they would never have experienced intimacy. I propose an exclusion principle:

You can seek the false promise of certainty, or you can know intimacy, but not both. 

The free human spirit does not promise certainty. It promises that we will know intimacy, if we trust it to manage the future’s uncertainties in our own lives, as the men of Restrepo did in theirs. And when we have intimacy, we don’t need certainty, just as those soldiers didn’t need it. So, the question for each of us is this: Are we seeking certainty, and are we willing to live without intimacy, in order to have it? It’s a question that must be answered with care, for intimacy can be known only through natural human relationships.

Women are the key to reestablishing natural human relationships. They will do it by reclaiming their natural spiritual authority, which finds expression and is nurtured, only through loving sisterhoods, in which women trust their lives to women, instead of to the promise of men, laws, institutions and money. With women seated in their spiritual authority, brotherhoods will have real missions, missions through which they protect and serve the needs of the sisterhoods and the children, instead of advancing the cause of a government whose authority is based on documents, not love.

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