Archive for September 15, 2009

Of Love and Syphilis

My wife shared with me the other day that she had a dream in which she asked me to write about the quantification of love…she said she didn’t know why it came to her in this manner, but once she offered the suggestion, it was strong enough to keep me awake for quite a while that night, tossing and turning with the rampaging thoughts of what I might do with the topic.  I looked for parallels and analogies in some of the arenas of my life where measurements were taken and given, shared, discussed, and relied upon for whatever reason…and I couldn’t help but come to the idea of comparing the quantification of love to the act of measuring or marking the intensity of a syphilis infection.  Yeah, that’s kinda strange, but it seems to work…a little, anyway…kind of…we’ll see.


A revered book and source of comfort and wisdom for many people, the Holy Bible, says in the King James Version of John 15:13 that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  I’m not asserting that the book offers an accurate standard by which to measure things like love, because I’m only too aware that the same book also describes a certain god’s exhortation to a certain people to go into the lands of several other certain peoples and kill them, and it tells parents to stone their impudent children, and it tells husbands to kill their disobedient wives, and it tells the tale of the last godly man in a ‘wicked’ city offering his virginal daughters’ bodies to the nasty (male) denizens so they would stop bugging him to let them have carnal-knowledge with his angelic visitors, and it tells of…well, you get the picture…but for Literature’s sake, the Psalms, Proverbs, and the book “The Song of Solomon” are mostly beautifully written and offer much in the way of describing love, compassion, devotion, etc.  So, having said all of that, when we go back in time and reflect on the above saying, that there is no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friend, shouldn’t we look into the context of the writing?  Shouldn’t we evaluate the saying against what we know of the people or society and literal time in which it was written?  Can we also evaluate it against what we know of social relationships in other parts of the present world that are still ‘morally governed’ by yet other holy texts that are as relative to the same Abrahamic God as is the chief personality in the Christian holy book?  If we’re allowed to do that, then we can look to parts of the predominantly Islamic Middle-East and see men walking arm-in-arm with each other while their wives walk behind them….  So, was the Biblical verse, John 15:13, in reference to only a man laying down his life for an adult male friend, or was it speaking symbolically in referring to anybody laying down their life for someone else, i.e., male, female, child, friend, or stranger?  And, before we leave this point, can we assume that the man who would lay down his life for his friend would do the same for that woman or child who walks behind him?  We know the Bible speaks harshly of women and children’s lesser roles, lesser value, etc, so can we align this concept within this context, as well?  Maybe this is taking things too far….


We can also consider a mother’s love for her children, or a father’s love.  We know that women will/can instantaneously develop a blind, animal rage and herculean strength to protect their children from immediate dangers and fathers will forget the civil order in meting out punishment, themselves, to those others who have harmed or abused their children…we know these things…but how do we measure them?


When diagnosing syphilis, as opposed to love, medical practitioners can clean the crud off of a lesion and express some of the clear fluid from within to examine under a special microscope and then actually see the little cork-screw shaped bacteria, called treponemes, which cause the infection.  They can also perform a blood analysis where the sample of blood is spun, separated, and then treated with a substance that will react to the syphilis antibodies in quantities that can be presented as ratios, with the stronger or higher ratios indicating a greater immune system response, which we typically translate into meaning a larger or more profound infection.  As communicable disease investigators with the county’s public health clinic, my partners and I would get excited when we found a person with classical symptoms who also had really high ratios or titers on their blood tests.  It meant that we had found a likely source or a spread from a particular disease incidence we were investigating.  Typical reactions on the blood tests would range from a ratio or titer of 1:8 or 1:16 to 1:32 or 1:64, with the numbers doubling as the strength of the reaction increased.  Occasionally, when a person tested as high as 1:512 or 1:1024, we’d get really excited.  We’d hit the mother-lode!  Imagine our wonder and amazement when we had the one patient with a titer of 1:8192!  Holy shit, let’s go find some more cases!!!  If only we could perform a similar test on someone, or ourselves, when we wanted to see how ‘in love’ we were.


The ability to quantify love in the same manner that we quantify a syphilis infection would give us the scientific and statistical means of identifying and comparing strengths and types of love.  We could measure love’s strength between individuals in a romantic relationship, male or female, straight or gay, young or old, people in one national or geographical area against another, platonic love among same sex and opposite sexed individuals; love for parents, siblings, biological children versus adopted children, step-children, step-parents, (pets – cat lovers vs. dog lovers?) etc.  But this probably isn’t going to happen.


We might have the scientific ability already to map the intensity of a brain’s neurons firing when the patient/subject is shown certain visual stimuli or told to think about a particular person or topic, but how will we apply this to love itself?  Will that mapping be able to account for the cultural and familial differences between people who were socialized with different concepts or notions of love and its expression?  Will it be able to discriminate through the healthy and unhealthy life experiences of the individual being tested, weighing the good against the bad, or whatever?  I don’t know.  Imagine the following from a respected medical or psychological journal: “According to Smith and Jones (2009), people from the United States have an average ‘self-love’ titer of 1:32, while Japanese have a titer of 1:4.  The same study revealed that Irish adult males have an average titer of 1:8 in love ‘between themselves and their male childhood friends,’ while adult males from Labrador Island demonstrated an average titer of 1:2 in the same category.”  Hmm…it’s probably not going to happen like that.


I think we might simply be left with the wisdom and truisms that we already have in such songs as Randy Travis’s Deeper than the Holler:    


My love is deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers
Higher than the pine trees growin’ tall upon the hill
My love is purer than the snowflakes that fall in late December
And honest as a robin on a springtime window sill
And longer than the song of the Whippoorwill


Ok, or maybe from the children’s book Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney, or Love You Forever, by Robert N. Munch, or maybe better yet, we’re left with the old argument of – “I love you more than you love me,” he said.  “Not so, I love you more than you love me…,” she responded, or, “Why don’t you love me the way I love you?”  And on it goes…. 


Maybe we should just leave well-enough alone and go with what Paulo Coelho said in Warrior of Light, “…love is neither great nor small.  You can’t measure a feeling like you measure a road,” or syphilis….  J