("The Sick Child" by Edvard Munch, 1925)

Love Originates in Shared Suffering and Pity

From where does love originate? Many thinkers have attempted to pin down its cause, but whether it be romantic or platonic, from where love originates remains elusive and amorphous. 

In one of the most beautiful descriptions of love, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne left the cause of his friendship with Étienne de La Boétie firmly in the realm of mystery, when he wrote in the sixteenth century: 

In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.

Though this sentiment poetically acknowledges the experience, it does not satisfy the curiosity. Perhaps the cause of love cannot be identified, but if one believes every action or event has a cause, then there must be something that causes love to emerge. The early twentieth-century Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno thought he held the answer. 

[Read “For Love’s Sake, Let’s Reclaim the Manic Pixie Dream Girl”]

Spiritual Love Is of the Flesh

In 1921 Unamuno published The Tragic Sense of Life, an existentialist treatise exploring what causes us to despair. In his exploration of the theme, he examines love and its role in our attachment to others. 

Unamuno is quick to distinguish between various types of love. In his conception, the highest is what he terms “spiritual love.” This is a type of love that transcends the carnal, sexual love associated with romantic relationships and is more akin to unconditional love, or what the classical Greeks called agape

This spiritual love is not something we can will into existence but comes to us through experience, which for Unamuno is unquestionably one of the flesh—that the individual is a part of the world and cannot be separated from it. This involves the whole body, creating what Unamuno calls the values of the heart: 

The values we are discussing are, as you see, values of the heart, and against values of the heart reasons do not avail . . . . There are, in fact, people who appear to think only with the brain . . . while others think with all the body and soul, with the blood, with the marrow of the bones, with the heart, with the lungs, with the belly, with the life.

Though he acknowledges the importance of reason in the analysis of things, when it comes to the issue of love, Unamuno makes clear on what aspect he will rely for basing conclusions:

The reader who follows me further is now aware that I am about to carry him into the region of the imagination, of imagination not destitute of reason, for without reason nothing subsists, but of imagination founded on feeling.

[Read “A Revolution Built on Eye Contact”]

We Must Share in Suffering 

When we think of the things that unite friends, romantic partners, and family, there may be initial commonalities of interests. These might be things such as liking the same kind of music or sports teams; being passionate about similar pursuits, like collecting figurines or being an avid reader, yet these are but fairly surface connections, the beginnings of possibility. Soon, as relationships mature, deeper commonalities are explored and exposed, such as values, long term goals, moral and ethical positions. Meaningful relationships that sustain over time have these in common, but even over decades, these categories can shift. How is it that a life-long friendship or romance can sustain through such significant shifts? What is it that binds certain individuals over time?

For Unamuno, the answer is our common experience of suffering and the compassion which arises from pity*. 

For the romantic couple, in order for love to transcend beyond the early days of passion and become the spiritual love of which Unamuno speaks, they must share in some kind of suffering:

Lovers never attain . . . true fusion of soul and not merely of body, until the heavy pestle of sorrow has bruised their hearts and crushed them in the same mortar of suffering.

And for relationships outside of romantic ones:

For men love one another with a spiritual love only when they have suffered the same sorrow together, when through long days they have ploughed the stony ground bowed beneath the common yoke of a common grief. It is then that they know one another and feel on another, and feel with one another in their common anguish, they pity one another and love one another. For to love is to pity; and if bodies are united by pleasure, souls are united by pain.

Perhaps there is something to this. No one wants to suffer, yet suffering seems to be a key ingredient in forging character and clarifying purpose. Comfort does very little if nothing to promote meaningful growth. If you think about phases in your life when things were difficult, these are the times that significantly shaped who you are. There does not seem to be any particular type of suffering needed; any will do. 

Though we strive for comfort and security, it is the times of struggle that binds groups of people together. 

Yet, existence is fluid and the personal significance of a dramatic event fades over time. I remember the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York City. The people of the United States were bound together in their grief and suffering, but after some time that bond relaxed; while it now it is still a significant event for the great majority of the populace, the urgency and sting of the grief and suffering has abated. 

What are we to make of that in light of Unamuno’s claims? Is one event or period of suffering enough to bind people together in the creation of spiritual love for all time, or must these relationships every so often experience suffering in order to renew spiritual love? 

[Read “The Mythos of Pandemic”]

Our Desire to Be Pitied and Loved

Unamuno continues to identify another significant aspect in the formation of spiritual love, that of pity: “Man yearns to be loved, or, what is the same thing, to be pitied. Man wishes others to feel and share his hardships and sorrows.”

He ventures on to use a beggar as an example. A beggar, like any other person, wishes to be loved, and this love comes from pity. He appreciates the alms thrown his way by someone hurrying by, but more so appreciates that person who “relates to his woes and is moved by the story of them. He desires to be pitied, to be loved.”

And so, connecting experience and passion, the flesh and the spirit, and reflective inwardness, Unamuno concludes: 

In order to love everything, in order to pity everything, human and extra human, living and non-living, you must feel everything within yourself, you must personalize everything. For everything that it loves, everything that it pitties, love personalizes.

No doubt there are times we wish for others to find something of our experience in common with their own so the tie that binds grows stronger: Is this an essential ingredient for the attainment of spiritual love? I believe it constitutes a part but is not the entire reason. Pity is one of the many feelings associated with empathy. Of course, we want others to empathize with us. It might be that when we receive a horrible diagnosis, have a relative unexpectedly die or just simply a really hard day at work that others might be moved to love us through pity, but what of joyous events? 

When you become a parent for the first time or have a child graduate from college, these are moments of joy. Does not a parent who has already experienced childbirth not share in the joy of a friend or family member experiencing their own version? Pity and suffering engender love, no question, but they can hardly be the exclusive wellspring of spiritual love.

Though I appreciate Unamuno’s perspective and have no qualms with the argument that shared suffering and pity can be a bonding agent between people, it seems there are other aspects that can lead to spiritual love, assuming I understand that term in the way he intends it. Can the love that results from suffering and pity simply be called “compassion” or by calling it compassion am I demeaning the notion of “spiritual love”? And on the issue of empathy, is this just not a sub-category of recognition? Perhaps what we want is for others to simply witness us, acknowledge and be with our experiences. I believe this is enough to give rise to Unamuno’s spiritual love.

*Author’s note: gratitude to Jeff Savage for bringing to my attention that what has been translated from Unamuno’s original Spanish to mean “pity” can alternatively be interpreted to signify “sympathy” or “compassion.

Derek Parsons

Derek teaches philosophy at the high school level where he focuses on, among other things, philosophy of religion. He is a contributing editor for Erraticus, holds a bachelor’s in English and History, and a master’s in educational administration.

One thought on “Love Originates in Shared Suffering and Pity

  • A man without a woman is like a ship without a sail,
    Is like a boat without a rudder, or a kite without a tail.
    A man without a woman is like a wreck upon the sand,
    But if there’s one thing worse, in this universe,
    It’s a woman without a man!


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