"Without love, I am nothing” (John 13:2)
It’s been called the most powerful force in the universe. It transcends race, religion, age, social status, and even time and space itself. It lives at the heart of popular culture, and has even driven some to clinical madness. Science can explain it but will never be able to harness its power or find a cure. We’re hard-wired to love. It’s at the very core of our being. It gives us a reason to live and offers peace in death. Love is chemical, irrational, and wonderfully magical. Why, then, after so many moons, are we still writing and singing and fussing over what should have jumped the shark a few hundred years ago?
Science says it’s because of a brain chemical cocktail comprised of dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin. And, yes, a similar cocktail is present in both the addict and the insane. Need proof?
This story is about a girl. While at the funeral of her own mother, she met a guy whom she did not know. She thought this guy was amazing, so much, that she fell in love with him there and then. He disappeared and a few days later, the girl killed her own sister. What was her motivation?
I’ve seen answers range from, “the guy was the sister’s boyfriend” to “she caught the guy and the sister having sex at the mom’s funeral.” The answer we’re looking for is: she killed her sister so there would be another funeral and she could see him again. Messed up, right? This particular question circulated in email back around 2001. It was purportedly designed to see if people think like a sociopath. It’s completely untrue and has since been debunked, but the idea is a powerful one. What a great illustration of the love/insanity chemical cocktail at work and how love can (in this case) drive someone to murder her sister to satisfy her desire.
Tales of love’s power proliferate throughout most, if not all, ancient cultures, the Greeks are probably most notable. One of my favorite tragic love stories in Greek mythology is that of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Orpheus, the son of the muse Calliope was a grand musician. His wife, Eurydice, was the object of his undying affection but she was also desired by Aristaeus, the rustic god of shepherds.
Aristaeus pursued Eurydice until she stepped on a poisonous snake. Bitten, she was forced into the underworld. Orpheus, heartbroken, was determined to retrieve his beloved Eurydice. He journeyed to the underworld and used his music mastery to charm Charon, the ferryman of the dead. He then lulled Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog to sleep.
Hades, the god of the underworld, refused to release Eurydice, but Orpheus's music so touched Persephone, Hades’ wife, that she pleaded Orpheus's case until Hades relented. Hades set forth one condition: that Orpheus not look back on their way out.
As they ascended from the underworld, Orpheus was worried that Eurydice wasn’t behind him, and he insecurely (and fatefully) glanced back to ensure she was there. Because he broke his promise, he watched her disappear and he lost her forever. Unable to live without her, Orpheus spent the rest of his days wandering in aimless sorrow.
Tragic? You bet. Were the girl at the funeral and our hero, Orpheus, flooded with dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin? Of course they were just as we all are in the throes of romantic love. Does knowing what happens in our brains make it any easier to control? The answer is no. It rules us, drives us, inspires us, and can lift not only us but those around us. We exude energy. The positive energy that accompanies healthy love is palpable, but like Jekyll and Hyde, the negative energy that so often accompanies heartache and unrequited love can be as equally draining and destructive. A great example of the positive is the story of Britain’s King Edward VIII.
He sparked a constitutional crisis when he fell madly in love with an American, Wallis Simpson. The fact that she was American wasn’t the issue. The problem was that she was an American and a two-time divorcee yet King Edward still wanted to marry her.
The heads of government, church, and social elite outwardly opposed the union. Edward ultimately abdicated the throne so he could marry Simpson. In a broadcast to the nation in December 1936, after spending just 325 days as monarch, he said, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
The couple married in May 1937 and became known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They remained together until Edward’s death in 1972; Simpson died in 1986. Can you imagine being so in love that you would literally give up being King?
On the insanity flip-side, we have the story of Lisa Nowak.
You’ll probably remember Lisa Nowak as the former American naval flight officer and NASA astronaut. She was a robotics specialist and flew on Space Shuttle Discovery. In case you don’t think that’s a big deal, it is. This is an extremely intelligent woman who ascended (professionally) to heights most of us regular folks will never realize. Then she fell in love with fellow astronaut William Oefelein and the dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin took over – for the worse in her case.
Apparently, William didn’t feel the same and, worse, was involved with an Air Force Captain named Colleen Shipman. At some point, the insanity took over and had Lisa driving from Houston to Orlando to confront Colleen.
Per Wikipedia, “Nowak drove from Houston to Orlando, Florida, on February 4–5, 2007. She packed latex gloves, a black wig, a BB pistol and ammunition, pepper spray, a hooded tan trench coat, a 2-pound drilling hammer, black gloves, rubber tubing, plastic garbage bags, approximately $585 (USD) in cash, her computer, an 8-inch (20 cm) Gerber folding knife and several other items before driving the 900 miles (1,400 km) to Florida. Early police reports indicated she wore diapers during the trip, but she later denied wearing them. On February 5, 2007, Nowak went to the Orlando International Airport, waited for about an hour in the baggage claim, and then proceeded to the airport parking lot, where she located and confronted Shipman, who had just arrived from Houston by plane.”
She pled out and was discharged from the navy in 2010. Her entire career was gone. She’d lost control. The love turned to insanity and all logic and rationality left what, up to that point, had been a very keen mind.
Personally, I’m no exception. Logically, I know what’s happening when I see the beautiful girl at the end of the bar with the bright smile and come-hither eyes. Dopamine, my pleasure neurotransmitter, is flooding my neural pathways. I’m literally, in that moment, blinded by infatuation. I have no control. The chemical release overpowers any logic or rationale. I doubt I’d ever drive 900 miles in diapers with a bb gun to jealously confront a dude who was involved with the woman I love, but you never know. Under the influence of the love chemicals, the lines between love and insanity too often become blurred.
Yes, there are different kinds of love and, based on our upbringing and environment, we all experience the chemical release with different people at different times and in varying amounts. Some people guard themselves against love in an act of self-preservation. Fear of the pain of heartbreak counteracts the joy that accompanies new love. The reality is that the odds favor heartbreak. Chemicals fade and when they do, you’re left with the person as they are. The question then becomes, do you like what you see and do they?
Does it matter? Does any of it really matter at all? I say absolutely it matters. Loving is living. Yeah, it can and will make us crazy sometimes but it will also let the best parts of us shine. These magical chemicals in our brains are so powerful that we will actually put our own safety, health, well-being aside for the one we love. We’ll climb mountains, sing out of tune, spend thousands of dollars on outward declarations, and risk it all for the chance to feel the greatest high a human being can feel.
Science gives us the answers. Love at its core exists for the continuation of our species. It’s a burst of chemicals. It’s not magic. My question then becomes, if it’s not magic, why can’t we control it? What’s more is that I find myself insanely hoping we never will. It’s the best and worst part of our human experience and I wouldn’t have it any other way.