Shakespeare may have been the first to say it: "love is blind." Everyone who has fallen in love knows what this means. When we're infatuated with someone, we focus on what we like about them, ignoring their faults.
Speaking from experience (I've been married twice, once for 18 years and currently for almost 21 years, giving me 39 years of marital knowledge), this honeymoon period starts to fade not too long after the "I do's" are said.
Then traits that previously seemed endearing -- he's so wonderfully casual and carefree! -- start to be annoying: why doesn't he put the towel back neatly on the rack?
There are biological reasons for the blindness in early stages of romantic love.
Brain chemicals, notably dopamine, produce a "high" in lovers which isn't all that different from a drug-induced state. We get addicted to being with our beloved; when we're apart, about all we can think about is our next get-together.
A few days ago Amazon delivered a new book to my doorstep, a frequent occurrence. I can't remember how I heard of her (the author, Margaret Heffernan, is a woman, so I'll give the book a feminine persona). But already I'm infatuated.
"Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril" is well-written and clearly argued. Heffernan's theme, so says the inside flap, is:
The biggest threats and dangers we face aren't secret or hidden. They're the ones we overlook... What is it that makes us prefer ignorance? Why, after every major accident and blunder, do we look back and say, How could we have been so blind? Why do some people see more than others? And how can we change?
Since I'm only two chapters into "WIllful Blindness," I don't have all the answers yet. The Love is Blind chapter, which I read this morning, is more about delimiting the problem -- which does have some positive aspects to it.
Indeed, there seems to be some evidence not only that all love is based on illusion -- but that love positively requires illusion in order to endure... Individuals were more satisfied in their relationships when they saw virtues in their partners that their partners did not see in themselves. In other words, idealizing the loved one helped the relationship endure.
Heffernan goes on to say that "when you love someone, he or she may even start to adapt to your illusion of him or her." That's great. There's a transforming magic to love. Nobody wants to make this disappear through excessive hard-headed analysis.
However, I see a big difference between the everyday sorts of love for a spouse, partner, child, parent, friend or whoever, and a religious love for a God, guru, saint, or other supposedly divine being.
In both cases, intense love is blind.
But the lack of clear vision occurs over a vastly larger territory when religiosity is involved. If a boyfriend or girlfriend is idealized, the smitten lover rarely goes so far as to claim that the beloved is the absolute most wonderful, perfect, and marvelous person in the world.
In his or her eyes, that may be true. Yet when asked whether their evaluation of the beloved is objectively accurate, if he or she really is the best person on the face of the Earth, most people would reply, "No, I guess not. That's just how I feel."
Yet when it comes to God, guru, or some other being to whom divine qualities are attributed, love's blindness often becomes extreme. Zero faults are discerned. Any skepticism about the beloved's perfection is scorned. Shortcomings are ignored or fatuously explained away.
I used to do this myself, so I know whereof I speak. For over thirty-five years I seriously entertained the hypothesis of a "perfect living master," someone who, though human, had no negative qualities despite appearances to the contrary.
So if the master/guru got angry, this was part of an unseen divine plan, not a symptom of human frailty. If he made a mistake, this was a test of the disciple's love and faith.
Heffernan describes some reasons why it is so difficult to break out of this blindness and see clearly. Here she quotes a researcher who is alluding to women who don't recognize that their husbands are child abusers.
For many of the moms I've worked with, their identity is so tied into the role of being a good mother or a good wife that they have very little sense of self. Putting on an identity like a coat becomes very important to them. And they cannot take that coat off, it would leave them too vulnerable.
It is like they have invested themselves in this role and they simply cannot afford to challenge their illusion. It is such an invested process. So when it turns out that it was an illusion, they often feel that they have absolutely nothing left.
Same phenomenon occurs in religious groups. True believers ignore evidence of imperfection in a spiritual leader (think of the many Catholic priests who abused children) because their sense of self is so closely linked with their faith. Who would I be, they think, if I wasn't a member of my religious organization?
Here's another reason for love's blindness:
The chemical processes of our brain that are stimulated by love disable much of our critical thinking about the loved one. Our illusions persist because our brains don't challenge them. Like much neuroscience, this gives a concrete reality to what the poets have always known: love does not judge.
Well, often this is admirable.
But when it comes to someone making claims about the nature of ultimate reality, and universal moral valuations, we should judge them.
Love's blindness can be embraced in romantic relationships. When it comes to religious beliefs which supposedly reflect objective reality, though, clear vision should be our goal.