“Every foundation has a crack I saw/Except that of Love, flawless” —Hafez Shirazi’
On March 25 this year, as always, Lahore celebrated the annual ‘Urs’ (death anniversary) of the Punjabi Sufi saint, Shah Hussain (1538-1591), sometimes also known as ‘Madho Lal Hussain’. This name, an amalgam of the name of Shah Hussain and his beloved, a Brahmin boy by the name of Madho Lal (buried next to Shah Hussain) signifies, in Sufi parlance, the ultimate love, the merging of the lover and the beloved into one.
A month earlier, Lahore along with the rest of urban Pakistan, had gone through its usual convulsions over another celebration of love — Valentine’s Day. As usual, the self-appointed guardians of public morality had declared any expression of love on this day immoral and illegal, and social media was buzzing with photos of policemen chasing after street vendors selling pink and purple balloons.
The absurdity of the police spending their time chasing after boys and girls was especially grotesque given the recent suicide blast in Lahore in which a number of policemen lost their lives.
Last year around the same time, a local institution invited me to give a talk on ‘The Psychology of Love’.
One is now at that stage in one’s life when romantic love holds little attraction but the idea of discussing love in all its myriad forms in front of hundreds of young students was appealing. In an auditorium packed with around 300 young boys and girls, I initially pointed out the rather obvious fact that, like all emotions, love too is a biological phenomenon, ruled by bodily chemicals and hormones. The basic function of love, or at least the love that is on the hit list of the police and various religious lobbies every year, is to incite humans to form physical (and emotional) bonds that lay the foundation for the basic unity of any society: the family. When an adult man and woman form this bond with society’s blessing, their union results (at some point) in children and the human race thus propagates and perpetuates itself. Love, therefore, enables the survival of humankind.
The young people sitting that day in the auditorium perhaps saw love only in this light but are there other aspects of love beyond this that can help us understand it better.
There are various psychological theories about love: why and how it happens, the different types of love etc and this brief piece does not allow us to delve into the details of each one but a simple way to examine love is to see it in the context of various stages of a person’s life.
A newborn baby is devoid of any feeling that we could term ‘love’. Gradually, as it grows, it becomes aware of a person who feeds it, comforts it in times of distress and generally caters to its every need. Obviously, a very young infant cannot express itself in any meaningful way. It cannot even experience anything except pain and a mixture of either contentment or discomfort. But gradually it realises that this person is the one who soothes its pain and takes care of it. Thus, the first ‘love’ in a person’s life is born. And what is this love? A feeling of affection, of tenderness, of devotion towards someone who is providing care and comfort.
Obviously, this feeling is two-sided (but more on that later). As the child grows older, the circle of its affection gradually grows to include first its immediate family: father, siblings and close family members while the mother stays at the centre of his or her affections. Once school starts, friends and favourite teachers also gradually enter into the child’s circle of affection while the mother’s position remains supreme. We are talking here of a child from birth till the age of about 12/13.
Starting at age 11 or 12 (sometimes slightly earlier or later), under the influence of certain bodily chemicals, physical changes start happening in the child’s body signifying the impending approach of physical and sexual maturity (‘puberty’). These physical changes (which include the onset of menstruation in young girls and the appearance of facial hair and other bodily changes in boys) also bring with them mental and emotional changes including the feeling of that love which we have described above — the love and attraction which entices a young man and woman to form a permanent bond.
In the not so distant past (and in many areas of the world today including the less developed regions of Pakistan), this was the time when young men and women were wedded off so that their emotional and physical turmoil would be contained within the relationship of marriage.
However, in this day and age, it is no longer possible, at least for boys to enter into a marriage at the age of puberty. Educational and economic needs dictate a delay of at least 10-15 years following puberty for boys to be able to shoulder the burden of a family. Thus, at the time when their mutual physical attraction is at its peak, boys and girls are constrained by their families and society (and rightly so) to avoid indulging their physical and sexual desires. Research has now proven that a boy of 17 or 18 is not mentally or emotionally ready to assume the responsibilities of fatherhood. And girls below the age of 18 or 19 can also run into serious health problems if they become mothers at an age when their bodies are not strong enough to withstand the rigours of pregnancy.
In Western societies, where attitudes towards male-female relationships are more permissive, the rising incidence of teen pregnancies and its undesirable social consequences have become a serious problem.
But let’s move on.
After the age of 19 or 20, a young man and woman enter into the bond of matrimony and their union forms the basis for a family. Now another form of love comes into existence whose basis is altruism and sacrifice: the love of parents for their child. This is the love that ensures the basis of human survival because the same lesson of self-sacrifice that a child teaches parents (often against their will for it is not easy to suppress one’s own desires and needs in the service of another), this same love also becomes the basis of the brotherhood and fraternity which allows society to flourish.
Altruism and service to others is second nature for parents, something they learn from their children. And it is because of this same sentiment that one works selflessly for one’s family, community and society. The circle of love thus, grows ever wider.
As one grows out of youth into middle age and beyond, things continue changing and a person becomes aware of many of the harsh truths of existence that had remained hidden in youth. Of these, the most bitter fact is death. A person sees his own parents and relatives growing older and sicker around him and he witnesses with his own eyes their decline and then their death.
This is extremely painful but it also opens yet another window into love. He or she realises that death cannot erase love. He remembers his loved ones fondly, misses them, dreams about them and still feels their love. And within this love is concealed what Sufi saints and poets have referred to as ‘True Love’ (‘Ishq-e haqiqi’): eternal, unending, undying love.
So we see from this brief discussion that love is not a static phenomenon. It evolves and changes as one grows from one age into the next. The love between young men and women which bothers some of our religious scholars and politicians so much every year come February is but a pale reflection of a much deeper feeling. It cannot be suppressed or eliminated. However, it is, without a doubt, the responsibility of every mature citizen of a society to guide this love along its proper channels in the interests of society at large.
If our religious leaders and guardians of public morality would only broaden their gaze beyond the narrow, suggestive aspects of physical love, they would, perhaps, be able to see the love of which Hafez of Shiraz spoke: eternal, flawless, luminous.