I make my way through my fraternity’s main floor and soon meet the gaze of one of my brothers. We share a smile of no particular origin, and our lips meet. We withdraw from the kiss, and he introduces me to the woman next to him who he then tells me he recently started dating. Her initial stunned appearance prompts me to consider some explanation—“he’s loyal; I promise!”—but before I can speak, her face compensates in acceptance, reading, “he’s just European.” She leans forward to imitate her significant other. But I’m not European, and I withdraw before contact.
I share that warm greeting of a kiss with only a few friends I adore. This practice always seemed a mere eccentricity that fit our loving bond. But still, as I sidestep that kiss with a woman I don’t know, I brush up against a label, one I am comfortable with yet whose uncertainty obliges an honest question, “Am I gay?”
But why do I ask this question? We live in a society, and that society associates certain behaviors with certain labels by convention. Yet donning the label “gay,” awarded by one practice, inevitably shapes all future action. Therefore, my question indicates the pressures that move us toward certain labels shape our expressions of love, and, at worst, erode the love itself. To anchor ourselves amid these pressures, we ought to fully imbue each kiss with meaning and never kiss without it.
For example, pressure might spring from expected progression: kiss to tongue-down-throat to cookie-cutter sex. This sequence can distill one’s complexities into something of a shot that “goes down” easily, satisfies a taste, and enlarges a body count. As consummation slips into consumption, utility erodes physical expression, and I easily forget that love is not just about sustaining me but also appreciating the other person.
The morning after, the erosion continues with the expected telling of the prior night’s stories. The affairs fit into toxic social narratives, all that doesn’t fit deemed toxic to that narrative, and the listener becomes the receptacle for the “vent.” This vent, even in its reciprocation, does not equal conversation—listening is more than waiting for your turn to talk—but rather epitomizes the contamination of verbal expression by utility. I’d say it’s more of a “dump” than a “vent.” The crude word only completes the accretion-excretion progression: from the kiss to the consumptive consummation to the “dump.” The expected sequence seems to pressure us to experience others so long as they can sustain our interest.
But now we’re stuck in quarantine, and these expectations may seem irrelevant. However, if we only appreciate the proximity to others and not the others themselves, we resign to the same pressures. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer equates interpersonal relations to porcupines huddling together on a cold night; they stay close enough to remain warm but not too close to avoid poking each other. Schopenhauer argues that “the need for society, arising from the emptiness and monotony of our own inner selves, drives people together; but their numerous repulsive qualities and unbearable flaws push them apart once again.”
If others are only their “uses” to us, we are in a world by ourselves—the coldest world of all. But then I think of that brotherly kiss. By imbuing that smallest, most meaningful touch with the complete appreciation of another’s heart, I recover my own. I dip my toes into sensuality just enough to say, “I send my full love to you with this peck,” eschewing all worries about what comes next, the use of it all, and whether or not I am gay. No matter who is receiving that kiss, so long as the action is filled to the brim with an emotional origin, the eddies of utilitarian pressures will fail to unanchor love.
However, in the midst of this pandemic, we can’t kiss. For now, I suggest we take advantage of the distance to further develop our conception of expressing love. Maybe then, next time we find ourselves in the eddies, we can anchor ourselves in a minute but full expression of our heart. To do this, I suggest we practice a loving-kindness meditation, a Buddhist practice to cultivate gratitude and benevolence.
With my eyes closed, I focus on myself: “May I be happy, live with ease, and be free of suffering.” I then turn to one I care about, my brother, perhaps: “May he be happy, live with ease, and be free of suffering.” I focus on those neutral in my life, and then those with whom I may have problems: “May they be happy, live with ease, and be free of suffering.”
Theodore Michaels is a junior in Columbia College. He wishes all health and safety throughout this precarious time. His column, Minded Moment, runs alternating Thursdays.
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