The famed Jungian writer Robert Johnson makes this observation about falling in love: “To fall in love is to project the most noble and infinitely valuable part of one’s being onto another human being. . . . We have to say that the divinity we see in others is truly there, but we don’t have a right to see it until we have taken away our own projections. . . . Making this fine distinction is the most delicate and difficult task in life.”
And indeed it is. Sorting through what is genuine in love and what is projection is indeed one of the more delicate and difficult tasks of life. We can, and do, for instance, sometimes fall in love with persons who are utterly wrong for us and know from experience that once our initial infatuation is over our passion can quickly turn into indifference or even hatred. For this reason we might ask: Whom or what are we really loving in those magical moments of infatuation when we see so much goodness and divinity inside of another person? Are we really in love with that person or, as Johnson suggests, are we simply projecting some of our own noble qualities onto that other so that, in effect, this is more self-love than real love?
The answer to that, as Johnson highlights, is complex. The goodness and nobility we see in the other person are in fact there, normally at least. However, until a certain projection, an idealization within which we envelope the other, is stripped away we are not yet really loving and valuing that other.
As an example, imagine a man falling in love with a woman. At that early stage of love, his feelings for her are very strong, obsessive even, and his eyes are open mostly only to her good qualities and blind to her faults. Indeed, at this stage, her faults can even appear attractive rather than problematic. Of course, as bitter experience teaches us, that won’t be the case once the infatuation wears off.
And so we are left with an important question: Are those wonderful qualities we so naturally see in another person in the early stages of love really there? Yes. Absolutely. They are there, but they may not be what we are actually seeing. As Johnson highlights, and as spiritual writers everywhere attest to, at this stage of love, there is the ever-present possibility that the beautiful qualities we are seeing in someone are more of a projection of our own selves than actual gifts we see inside him or her. Though the other person actually possesses those gifts, what we are really seeing is a projection of ourselves, an idealization with which we have enveloped the other, so that in effect, at this stage, we are not so much in love with the other as we are in love with certain good qualities that are inside of ourselves. That’s why we can fall in love with people of very different temperaments and virtue and, at an early stage of our love, still always have the same feelings.
That’s also why falling in love is such an ambiguous thing and needs the discernment offered by time and the counsel of wise friends and family. We can fall in love with many different kinds of people, including some who are very wrong for us. The heart, as Pascal asserts, has its reasons, some of which are not always favourable to our long-range health.
What’s the lesson here? Simply this: In all of our intimate relations we should be aware of our natural propensity to project our own more noble qualities onto the other person and to be aware too that we do not truly love and appreciate that other person until we have withdrawn that projection so that we are actually seeing the other person’s goodness, not our own. The same holds true as regards hatred of someone else. Just as we tend to idealize others, we also tend to demonize them, projecting our own dark side onto them and enrobing them with our own worst qualities. Thus, by Robert Johnson’s logic, we don’t have a right to hate anyone, until we have withdrawn our own dark projection. We over-demonize just as we over-idealize.
In his classic novel “Stoner,” John Williams describes for us how his main character understands love: “In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.