​​Love of a Lesser God
by Kenneth Stewart, Ph.D.

In struggling to break free from the grips of

an intense affair a woman who saw me said

she didn’t know how she was going to get

beyond the grief that infused her and froze

her in time. Her description of this grief

reminded me of the words from this

poem by Rilke, “It’s possible that I am pushing

through solid rock /in flintlike layers, as the

ore lies, alone; /I am such a long way in I see no way through, / and no space: everything is close to my face, /and everything close to my face is stone.” She still loved this man who had insinuated himself into her vulnerable marriage and carried on an intense affair with her for several months. She wanted to stay married to her husband of nearly 20 years, but didn’t know how to break free from the deep, heartfelt love she had for him.

She loved her husband and didn’t want to hurt him any longer. He was trying to be patient and understanding, but I thought that even his patience had its limits. What kind of love was this she had for this intruder into her marriage and heart? Typical of the dopamine infused love of affairs[1], she felt they were soul mates, that they knew each other deeply. In looking deeply into his soul she believed she saw elemental parts of herself, the core of her own soul.

The soul mate in the mirror       
I was moved by this description of their soul mate connection. I wondered whether she saw what she believed to be the best parts of herself in him, and he in her. She said yes, it was like that – a mirror of her self, her soul, held up to her when she looked in his eyes. I was reminded of Narcissus gazing at his reflection in the pond: self-love run amok. Psychotherapist Marian Solomon writes, “the mythical Narcissus loved himself too much. He fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water and became so enamored with what he saw that he failed to hear the endlessly repeated words of the nymph Echo, who loved him. In his own reflection he discovered a perfect other who made him feel forever whole, while soon there was nothing left of Echo but a whisper. Narcissus was entranced not by himself but by his mirror image, a perfect copy of every nuance and movement. Narcissus was ignorant not only of Echo, but of his own possibilities.”[2]

A lesser god
The god that shows herself in the narcissistic love of affairs is a god of the mirrored self. It is a seductive god, a god who knows you intimately, who makes you swoon in an ecstasy of “extremely focused attention” brought on by what biological anthropologist Helen Fisher says are elevated levels of dopamine in the brain. This kind of ecstasy is a common trait of lovers when the elevated levels of “dopamine produce exhilaration, . . . increased energy, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, trembling, a pounding heart, accelerated breathing, and sometimes mania, anxiety, or fear” (p. 52). She says that dopamine may explain why men and women become so dependent on this idealized romantic relationship and why they seem to crave a romantic union with their lover. And dependency and this kind of craving are symptoms of addiction and all major addictions are associated with elevated levels of dopamine. This kind of love, this kind of blissful dependency is, she asserts, an addiction. In the grip of this craving we turn the other into a god that’s worshiped beyond all else, that’s worshipped fervently and in whom we become true believers.

A god of selfless love
She was also in mourning for her father, who was recently deceased and whom she described as deeply unselfish in his loving. He had this acceptance of the world. He was nonjudgmental, and open, loving without expecting anything in return. This is agape love. Christian theological writers have called this kind of love self-sacrificing love the highest form of love, the love of God for all of humanity. She described her father’s love is this way and I was moved by the story she told of him and his love. She missed him, mourned him deeply. While the narcissistic focus of romantic love is the mirrored self, that pulls one inward into a vortex of self-absorption, the love shown by her father took her out into the world. Inspired by this kind of love we reach out to others, to their pain and suffering that we might bring some semblance of healing to them through our selfless service. One love pulls you into a world of 1 + 1 = 1, just you and me and me and you and we are one, eros. The other love takes you away from the self-absorbed self, takes you out into the world.

To be invited out into the world through selfless acts of caring is to embrace a greater god, a God that is present in our selfless acts of caring and connection. We welcome these connections and in a myriad of ways, we come to understand how we are all connected – and in awareness of these connections, we know we are not alone. We belong.

[1] cf. Fisher, H. (2004). Why We Love:  The nature and chemistry of romantic love.  
New York:  Henry Holt and Company

[2] Solomon, M. F. (1989). Narcissism and Intimacy: Love and Marriage in an Age of Confusion.  
New York:  W.W. Norton, pp. 45 – 56.