by Jacob Bruggeman

Today’s politics are pockmarked by our recent crisis of faith in the United States’ democratic institutions and a pervasive distrust of one another. Many sources report of unprecedented polarization, with some detailing a move toward “peak polarization” and an increase in hateful rhetoric. How to preserve the Union–or at least the democratic unity it stands for–is the question of our day.[1]

Wildly innovative cultural and policy prescriptions to these problems are decidedly de minimis, a dime a dozen, and generally make things worse. Instead of searching for solutions to a divided America by sprinting toward the horizon of the now’s newest research, we ought to approach anew enduring ideas and the thinkers who animated them. By using timeless social thought to inform our solutions to today’s problems, we might truly learn to live well together.

In The Four Loves, a philosophical exploration of the human art of loving, the British writer C. S. Lewis examines his four loves: Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity. Affection, though, is the Lewisian love most applicable to the trials of polarization. Affection is “a warm comfortableness,” a “satisfaction in being together”[2]; it “is modest—even furtive and shame-faced”; and it is the “humblest” of Lewis’s loves.[3] Affection hides within us, often too weak to take on and overcome the brutish bits of being human. We see this in how easily we make the descent into tense screaming matches over trivialities.

Affection must be sought after, teased out from hiding, pulled from the clamped teeth of our persistent, animalistic nature. Even if we are able to stand upright and above our base instincts, affection is difficult to pin down. It “almost slinks or seeps through our lives,” and so it must be nurtured, repeatedly planted within us.[4] Adopting affection in our outlook allows for the broadening of our minds, and exposes us to the uniqueness “in the cross-section of humanity whom one has to meet every day.”[5] Affection is a kind of pointed optimism, a tool with which we are able to peel back the oftentimes unpleasant, uglier armor we all wear through life. We are desperately in need of such a tool. In the polarization all too common in our communities, we are daily reminded of America’s fracturing and the anger that spews up from its fissures. To beat back hate and rehabilitate the public square, we must strive to practice affection in our conversations–even if that means weathering difficult dialogues with people whom we disagree with.

To embrace affection is to be courageous. To care for the citizen unknown–the passerby whose life, while as rich as our own, is only a droplet of color on our lived canvas–is a radical act. Today’s heroes are not always the people we hear of in the news: they are the passersby who come to the aid of a stranger, knowing that doing so will make them late to work. They are the opinionated people who, putting conviction second to conversation, establish meaningful contact with those whom they wholeheartedly disagree with.

Affection can lead to the awakening of appreciative love, which is “curled up asleep” within us all.[6] Appreciative love “is not discriminating. It can ‘rub along’ with the most uncompromising people,” thereby making “appreciations possible which, but for it, might never [have] existed.”[7] As Lewis wrote of affection, its “especial glory […] is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not; people who, if they had not found themselves put down by fate in the same household or community, would have nothing to do with each other.”[8] Like the greatest art, affection has the power to pull lightly on those invisible threads running through us, reorienting our focus towards the threads themselves and the implications of their universality. Affection has the power to bring us together in the realization that every individual is an artist, each creating and living out innumerable human odysseys. To live well together is to integrate affection into the ways we interact with one another. In affectionately approaching our neighbors and strangers as we so often do in theaters and bookstores, we may witness their human odysseys, and even find an appreciative love for their unique characteristics.

To deny the impulse to affection is a damning choice. In an era dominated by a discordant, spiteful public mood and a general avoidance of the subjects at its roots, affection (and the possibility of appreciative love) is a necessary thing. Affection is a potential societal touchpoint for a divided America. Like the geniality that brings us together in the theater or bookstore, the local grocery, a round-the-corner artisan coffee shop, or even your run-of-the-mill dive bar, affection might serve us as a cornerstone of human coexistence, a commonly held attitude toward human action that leaves room for human error. Affection provides space for human growth, a tiny terrarium in which we may bury its seeds and cultivate the beauties of appreciative love: communities better at communicating, a more neighborly society, intellectual growth, and friendship.

Jacob Bruggeman is a junior at Miami University studying history, political science, art, and English literature. 

Notes:

[1] Ed Kilgore, “In the Trump Era, America Is Racing Toward Peak Polarization,” New York Daily Intelligencer, May 31, 2017.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves: An Exploration of the Nature of Love (New York, New York: First Mariner Books), 32

[3] Ibid., 33.

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] Ibid., 37.

[6] Lewis, The Four Loves, 34.

[7] Ibid., 36.

[8] Ibid.