Love and Specificity

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HELEN: “Everyone’s special, Dash.” DASH: “Which is another way of saying no one is.” –The Incredibles (2004)

Our educated élite often reminds me of Matthias Schlitte, the German arm wrestler with the massive right arm and the puny left arm. Some of our intellectual muscles have been trained intensively whilst others have been left to atrophy. Our educational system is good at teaching us how to attack intelligently. We learn well how to rip apart, how to tear down, how to dissect: how to find flaws, fallacies, and foolishness in pretty much anything. But our educational system never really teaches us how to praise intelligently. One of the consequences of this lopsided education is that many of us—especially the well-educated—sound smart when we hate and stupid when we love. If we hated the movie, we know how to articulate why in a reasonably elegant fashion. But if we loved it, we invariably fall back upon empty rhetoric and meaningless clichés.

1655521_10151987460977683_560316917_oTo combat this problem in my own small way, I teach the students in Love and Friendship class how to write a really good love letter. They think it’s going to be easy. And they’re almost all wrong. Most discover that writing a really good love letter is hard—just as hard, incidentally, as writing a really good letter of recommendation. Because you’ve got to avoid general statements and be as specific as possible. And you’ve got to get every single one of those little details right. Because writing a love letter is like casting a spell: a spell that can be broken by the smallest misstep. If you go on and on about those beautiful brown eyes in a love letter addressed to your green-eyed girlfriend, you can kiss that budding romance goodbye. Likewise, if you go on and on about that magical night on Rye Beach in a love letter addressed to a boyfriend who’s never been to New Hampshire, you better start looking for a new boyfriend. For instance, in Murphy’s Romance (1985), Sally Field’s sleazy ex-husband manages to screw up his attempt at winning her back from the get-go with this clueless comment:

Emma: What the hell are you doing here?
Bobby: Guess I just missed gazing into those beautiful blue eyes of yours.
Emma: They’re brown, Bobby.

There’s great truth to be found in romantic comedies. And this exchange is a case in point. Love and specificity go hand in hand, and people who say they love everyone probably don’t love anyone well. As the philosopher Mark Vernon puts it in The Meaning of Friendship (2010), “those who say they love everyone equally, and no one in particular, are often deeply unpleasant people to know. They love only in the abstract, which in a way is no love.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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