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Posts Tagged ‘Leo Buscaglia’

30 JUNE, 2014

A “Dynamic Interaction”: Leo Buscaglia on Why Love Is a Learned Language

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From developmental psychology to Timothy Leary, a reframing of love as deliberate mastery rather than magical thinking.

Love might be one of the most quintessential capacities of the human condition. And yet, for all our poetic contemplation, psycho-scientific dissection, and anthropological exploration of it, we greatly underestimate the extent to which this baseline capacity — much like those for language, motion, and creativity — is a dynamic ability to be mastered and cultivated rather than a static state to be passively beheld. Despite what we know about the value of “deliberate practice” in attaining excellence in any endeavor, the necessary toil of mastery, and the psychology of what it takes to acquire new habits, we remain gobsmackingly naive about the practice of love, approaching it instead with the magical-thinking expectation that we’re born excellent at it.

That disconnect is precisely what Leo Buscaglia considers in one of the most stimulating chapters in Love: What Life Is All About (public library) — that slim and potent volume based on his 1969 course at the University of Southern California, which also gave us Buscaglia on education, conformity, and how labels limit us.

Citing famous cases, both folkloric and factual, of human children raised by animals outside civilization, Buscaglia notes that just like we “learn” to be human, we also learn to love. He points to the research of various psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, and educators, who have indicated that love is a “learned response, a learned emotion,” and laments a fundamental cultural disconnect:

Most of us continue to behave as though love is not learned but lies dormant in each human being and simply awaits some mystical age of awareness to emerge in full bloom. Many wait for this age forever. We seem to refuse to face the obvious fact that most of us spend our lives trying to find love, trying to live in it, and dying without ever truly discovering it.

And yet, Buscaglia argues, this dreary destiny is self-made and thus avoidable through the choices we make, in how much of ourselves we invest in learning love. He observes a startling paradox that bespeaks how we, as a culture, cripple ourselves in the journey to love — if one wanted to learn about cars, one would “without question study about automobiles”; if one wanted to become a gourmet cook, one would “certainly study the art of cooking, perhaps even attend a cooking class.” But when it comes to love, Buscaglia points out, we expect the skill of it will magically bestow itself upon us. “No mechanic or cook,” he writes, “would ever believe that by ‘willing’ the knowledge in his field, he’d ever become an expert in it.”

He writes:

Love is a learned, emotional reaction. It is a response to a learned group of stimuli and behaviors. Like all learned behavior, it is [affected] by the interaction of the learner with his environment, the person’s learning ability, and the type and strength of the reinforcers present; that is, which people respond, how they respond and to what degree they respond, to his expressed love.

Love is a dynamic interaction, lived every second of our lives, all of our lives.

Buscaglia puts the premise poetically yet unambiguously in seven postulates:

One cannot give what he does not possess. To give love you must possess love.

One cannot teach what he does not understand. To teach love you must comprehend love.

One cannot know what he does not study. To study love you must live in love.

One cannot appreciate what he does not recognize. To recognize love you must be receptive to love.

One cannot have doubt about that which he wishes to trust. To trust love you must be convinced of love.

One cannot admit what he does not yield to. To yield to love you must be vulnerable to love.

One cannot love what he does not dedicate himself to. To dedicate yourself to love you must be forever growing in love.

This growth, Buscaglia argues, is a process both active and interactive:

Love is an emotion, that is true. But it is also a “response” to an emotion and, therefore, an “active” expression of what is felt. Love is not learned by osmosis. It is actually acted out and acted upon.

The process begins in childhood, as we absorb the picture of the world we are fed and emulate the psychoemotional tools we observe — something psychiatric trio Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explored with remarkable dimension decades later in their excellent A General Theory of Love. Buscaglia writes:

In order to exist at some level of comfort, [the child] must accept what is offered, often without questions. In fact, he has few questions for he has little knowledge and nothing to compare it to. He is spoon-fed his world, handed the tools to meet its requirements and the symbols with which to organize it. He is even taught what things are significant, what sounds to listen for and what they mean, and what is valueless. In other words, he is taught to be a particular type of human lover. To be loved in return, he need but listen, see and respond as others do. It is a simple matter but the cost to his individuality is great.

Buscaglia applies Timothy Leary’s notion of developmental “imprinting” — the idea that a child’s acquisition of language and words serves as a “freezing of external awareness” — to love:

[According to Leary] each time a parent or society teaches a child a new symbol he is given both an intellectual and an emotional content for the symbol. The content is limited by the attitudes and feelings of his parents and society. This process begins too early for the child to have much to say about what words will mean for him. Once “frozen,” the attitudes and feelings toward the object or person to which the words refer become very stable, in many cases irreversible. Through words, then, the child is given not only content but attitude. His attitudes of love are so formed. A sort of map is set up, Leary continues, which is static and upon which all subsequent learning of attitudes and awareness take place. The child’s “map” will be determined by how closely the symbols resemble the facts and how they are taken in, assimilated, analyzed and reinforced through experience. The important language for establishing behavior, relationships, action, attitudes, empathy, responsibility of love, trust, caring, joy, response — the language of love, in other words, will thus be set.

The formal education system, Buscaglia argues, only compounds the problem with its propensity for “‘feeding in’ rather than a ‘leading out,'” coercing the child to accept the ideas of love as defined by his or her teachers. Buscaglia laments the distorted, backwards model of love instilled in us by culture and commerce since childhood:

Neither the love of self — what educators call self-respect — nor love of others — responsibility and love for his fellow man — can ever be taught in our present educational system. Teachers are too busy “managing” to be “creating.” As Albert Einstein said, “It is nothing short of a miracle that instruction today has not strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. For this delicate little plant lies mostly in need of freedom without which it will fall into rack and ruin and die without fail.”

So the individual, now fully grown, leaves our schools confused, lonely, alienated, lost, angry, but with a mind full of isolated, meaningless facts which together are laughingly called an education. He knows neither who he is, where he is or how he got there. He has no concept of where he’s going, how to arrive there nor what he’ll do when he gets there. He has no idea what he has, what he wants, nor how to develop it. In essence, he’s a type of robot — old before his time, living in the past, confused by the present, frightened by the future, much like the teachers who made him.

Nowhere along the way has he been directly exposed to love as a learned phenomenon. What he has learned of love he has come upon indirectly, by chance or by trial and error. His greatest exposure and often his only teaching has been through the commercial mass media which has always exploited love for its own ends.

[…]

You are assured that love means running together through a meadow, lighting two cigarettes in the dark or applying a deodorant daily. You are given the idea that love just “happens,” and usually at first sight. You don’t have to work at love — love requires no teacher — you just fall into love — if you follow the right rules, and play the “game” correctly.

The result of this, Buscaglia argues, is a singular and pervasive psychoemotional crippling. And yet there is hope — active, dynamic, elastic hope for mastering this all-important skill that is learned like any other:

Most of us never learn to love at all. We play at love, imitate lovers, treat love as a game. Is it any wonder so many of us are dying of loneliness, feel anxious and unfulfilled, even in seemingly close relationships, and are always looking elsewhere for something more which we feel must certainly be there? “Is that all there is?” the song asks.

There is something else. It’s simply this — the limitless potential of love within each person eager to be recognized, waiting to be developed, learning to grow.

It’s never too late to learn anything for which you have a potential. If you want to learn to love, then you must start the process of finding out what it is, what qualities make up a loving person and how these are developed. Each person has the potential for love. But potential is never realized without work. This does not mean pain. Love, especially, is learned best in wonder, in joy, in peace, in living.

Love: What Life Is All About is a glorious read in its entirety — a dimensional synthesis of the insights Buscaglia and his students arrived at over the three years he taught his USC course on love, prompted by the tragic and discombobulating suicide of one of his brightest students. Buscaglia goes on to explore, in a fashion both philosophical and practically useful yet not the least bit self-helpy, such facets of love as its biological basis, its deterrents, its agelessness, and its relationship with personal responsibility. Complement it with these essential reads on the psychology of love and some timeless wisdom on it by Susan Sontag, Vincent van Gogh, and Albert Camus.

Vintage postcards courtesy of the New York Public Library archives

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19 MAY, 2014

Leo Buscaglia on Education, Industrialized Conformity, and How Stereotypes and Labels Limit Love

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“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other.”

In the winter of 1969, shortly after a young woman he considered one of his brightest and most promising students committed suicide, Leo Buscaglia decided to deal with the flurry of confusion by starting an experimental class at the University of Southern California where he taught, exploring the most essential elements of existence — “life, living, sex, growth, responsibility, death, hope, the future.” The obvious common tangent, “the only subject which encompassed, and was at the core of all these concerns,” was love. So he simply called his course “Love Class.” While some of his fellow faculty members dismissed the subject as “irrelevant” and mocked its premise, the university agreed to let Buscaglia teach it on the condition that it be without course credit and he teach it free of salary in his spare time. Over the three years that followed, the course — not a scholarly or deeply philosophical study of love but “a sharing of some of the practical and vital ideas, feelings and observations” related to the human condition — earned Buscaglia the moniker “Dr. Love” and became one of the university’s most popular classes, drawing students of all ages and backgrounds. In 1972, Buscaglia published the most universal and important of those ideas in a slim and potent volume titled Love: What Life Is All About (public library).

The book opens with an adaptation of a magnificent lecture titled “Forward to Love,” which Buscaglia delivered in 1970 at a school in Texas, focusing on a more oblique and abstract but no less crucial aspect of love: how the laziness of stereotypes stifles its spirit and labels limit its transcendent power.

Buscaglia begins by looking at the nursery of social beliefs — the education system:

Education should be the process of helping everyone to discover his uniqueness, to teach him how to develop that uniqueness, and then to show him how to share it because that’s the only reason for having anything.

This might sound obvious — a tired truism, even — and yet it’s antithetical to how most formal education unfolds, even today, with its model of industrialized conformity. Buscaglia offers a poignant example:

[The art teacher] comes racing in from another class and has time only to nod to the teacher, turn around and say, “Boys and girls, today we are going to draw a tree.” She goes to the blackboard, and she draws her tree which is a great big green ball with a little brown base. Remember those lollipop trees? I never saw a tree that looked like that in my life, but she puts it up there, and she says, “All right, boys and girls, draw.” Everybody gets busy and draws.

If you have any sense, even at that early age, you realize that what she really wanted was for you to draw her tree, because the closer you got to her tree, the better your grade. If you already realized this in grade one, then you handed in a little lollipop, and she said, “oh, that’s divine.” But here’s Junior who really knows a tree as this little woman has never seen a tree in her life. He’s climbed a tree, he’s hugged a tree, he’s fallen out of a tree, he’s listened to the breeze blow through the branches. He really knows a tree, and he knows that a tree isn’t a lollipop! So he takes purple and yellow and orange and green and magenta crayons and he draws this beautiful freaky thing and hands it in. She takes one look and shrieks. “Brain damaged!”

Illustration from 'How To Be a Nonconformist' (click image for more)

To drive the point home, Buscaglia offers another illustrative tale titled The Animal School — a story he loves “because it’s so wild, yet so true”:

The animals got together in the forest one day and decided to start a school. There was a rabbit, a bird, a squirrel, a fish and an eel, and they formed a Board of Education. The rabbit insisted that running be in the curriculum. The bird insisted that flying be in the curriculum. The fish insisted that swimming be in the curriculum, and the squirrel insisted that perpendicular tree climbing be in the curriculum. They put all of these things together and wrote a Curriculum Guide. Then they insisted that all of the animals take all of the subjects. Although the rabbit was getting an A in running perpendicular tree climbing was a real problem for him; he kept falling over backwards. Pretty soon he got to be sort of brain damaged, and he couldn’t run any more. He found that instead of making an A in running, he was making a C and, of course, he always made an F in perpendicular tree climbing. The bird was really beautiful at flying, but when it came to burrowing in the ground, he couldn’t do so well. He kept breaking his beak and wings. Pretty soon he was making a C in flying as well as an F in burrowing, and he had a hellava time with perpendicular tree climbing. The moral of the story is that the animal who was valedictorian of the class was a mentally retarded eel who did everything in a halfway fashion. But the educators were all happy because everybody was taking all of the subjects, and it was called a broad-based education.

Illustration from 'The Animal Fair' (click image for more)

Buscaglia’s most important point, however, is that such industrialized conformity transcends the education system and bleeds into our everyday lives, at all layers and levels of society — its product is a narrow definition of intelligence and ability, which results in a narrow field of belonging, which in turn casts everyone outside of it as a misfit. We then use these labels to produce culturally toxic stereotypes and polarities that say nothing about those being labeled and a great deal about those doing the labeling. Buscaglia writes:

How many kids have not been educated just because someone pinned a label on them somewhere along the line? Stupid, dumb, emotionally disturbed. I have never known a stupid child. Never! Never! I’ve only known children and never two alike. Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other. Black man. What’s a black man? I’ve never known two alike. Does he love? Does he care? What about his kids? Has he cried? Is he lonely? Is he beautiful? Is he happy? Is he giving something to someone? These are the important things. Not the fact that he is a black man or Jew or Dago or Communist or Democrat or Republican.

He goes on to share a rather unique experience from his own childhood:

I was born in Los Angeles, and my parents were Italian immigrants. A big family. Mama and Papa were obviously great lovers! They came from a tiny village at the base of the Italian Swiss Alps where everyone knew everyone. Everyone knew the names of the dogs, and the village priest came out and danced in the streets at the fiestas and got as drunk as everybody else. It was the most beautiful scene in the world and a pleasure to be raised by these people in this old way. But when I was taken, at five, to a public school, tested by some very official-looking person, the next thing I knew I was in a class for the mentally retarded! It didn’t matter that I was able to speak Italian and an Italian dialect. I also spoke some French and Spanish — but I didn’t speak English too well and so I was mentally retarded. I think the term now is “culturally disadvantaged.” I was put into the class for the mentally retarded, and I never had a more exciting educational experience in my life! Talk about a warm, pulsating, loving teacher. Her name was Miss Hunt, and I’m sure she was the only one in the school who would teach those “dumb” kids. She was a great bulbous woman. She liked me even if I smelled of garlic. I remember when she used to come and lean over me, how I used to cuddle! I did all kinds of learning for this woman because I really loved her. Then one day I made a tremendous mistake. I wrote a newspaper as if I were a Roman. I described how the gladiators would perform and so on. The next thing I knew I was being retested and was transferred to a regular classroom after which I was bored for the rest of my educational career.

He returns to the perilous effect of labels — something that Maya Angelou famously lamented — and reminds us that social forces are the cumulative result of our individual choices:

Labels are distancing phenomena — stop using them! And when people use them around you, have the gumption and the guts to say, “What and who are you talking about because I don’t know any such thing.” … There is no word vast enough to begin to describe even the simplest of man. But only you can stop it. A loving person won’t stand for it. There are too many beautiful things about each human being to call him a name and put him aside.

Buscaglia ends with a reminder of how our disembodied illusion of separateness contributes to our inability to inhabit our own selves and how the pathologically overlooked gift of human touch reconnects us not only with each other, but with our own deepest humanity:

We are constantly moving away from ourselves and others. The scene seems to be how far away you can get from another person, not how close you can get to them. I’m all for going back to the old-fashioned thing of touching people. My hand always goes out because when I touch somebody, I know they are alive. We really need that affirmation…

We need not be afraid to touch, to feel, to show emotion. The easiest thing in the world to be is what you are, what you feel. The hardest thing to be is what other people want you to be, but that’s the scene we are living in. Are you really you or are you what people have told you you are? And are you interested in really knowing who you are because if you are, it is the happiest trip of your life.

The rest of Buscaglia’s Love: What Life Is All About, an exquisite addition to these must-read books on the psychology of love, goes on to explore our ancient quest to define it, the notion that it’s a learned phenomenon, the interplay between love and strength, the responsibilities of love, and more. Complement it with Van Gogh on love, Stendhal on its seven stages, and the science of how “limbic revision” rewires the brain in love.

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