Love, Service, and Choosing a Career

It was in the course of reading Micah Goodman’s essay in the periodical Sources that I first came across the formulation of love by Erich Fromm.

In the essay, Goodman explains Fromm’s work this way:

In 1956, the psychologist Erich Fromm published his groundbreaking book The Art of Loving, a fascinating indictment of much of  Western society. Fromm argued that the primary impulse of modern human beings is to be loved. That is why they go on diets, run marathons, and develop impressive careers. All for love. Fromm urged Western society to undergo an emotional revolution. Instead of seeking to be more loved, people should seek to be more loving. Loving, according to Fromm, is an acquired skill. It is an emotional muscle developed with much strain and hard work.

That sounded like something I needed to learn more about! At first blush, it sounded as though this were a version of John F. Kennedy’s famous formulation in his first inaugural address:

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” 

I’ve always particularly loved Kennedy’s formulation. I wasn’t alive when he said it, but it is just the sort of turn-it-upside-down formulation that stops me in my tracks, even when I read those words today. Without any accusation, it makes me think of my own selfishness, and feel inspired to serve, perhaps even sacrifice. Haven’t I been guilty of envisioning my country, my government, as serving the needs of the people, of which I am one? And maybe, I have it all backwards, and I really ought to ask a different question, and ask how I can help constitute the goodness I desire.

So perhaps I was primed to look at this same explanation of Fromm and think it was a more intimate version of the same question. I imagined him saying: don’t ask how you can be served by love, delivered love on a platter, but instead think of how you can put out more loving into the world. In other words, “ask not what love can be offered to you— ask how you can offer it.”

I am happy to report: what he actually says is far more stunning!.

I’m having trouble even getting far into the book, because I keep wanting to re-read what I’ve already read. Here’s something I keep returning to, on page two.

“A second premise behind the attitude that there is nothing to be learned about love is the assumption that the problem of love is the problem of an object, not the problem of a faculty. People think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love— or to be loved by— is difficult.”


Isn’t this so, so true? It definitely feels to me as though dating is a kind of testing ground— you try out different people to see if the combination to your heart gets unlocked somehow, to find out if the feelings will eventually flow, if there are any deal-breakers gumming up the works. If you can find the right person, then the reward is the stunning and exhilarating experience of a lifetime— falling in love. The feeling is the confirmation of rightness, it’s a vote in favor of a decision to commit. 

Fromm clearly means to talk about love between two people, but I wonder if this isn’t also applicable to the elusive way that some people talk about their life’s work.

When I was a kid, my parents noted that among their siblings, cousins, and friends in mid-life, not one of them would say, “I love my job.” My uncle’s advice: “don’t be a lawyer.” My parents’ cousin: “Owning a business is too hard. I can’t wait to retire.” Their friends: “If I could do it again, I wouldn’t be a teacher.” My parents themselves would dream of winning the lottery. To be clear, among this small sample size, every one of them had actually chosen their line of work— I lived in an upper middle class bubble where the adults picked their lines of work after exploring their interests in college And virtually any of those people could have afforded to choose a new direction.

So why were they signaling their discontentment within the first five minutes of a conversation about their work?

Is there some skill involved with the way that people talk about their jobs? Or more fundamentally, experience them? 

And the reason I am wondering about it is, at least in part, because the question is so often posed to our young people as what do you want to do, as though figuring out the object of desire is the important part. As though it will be easy to find fulfillment in a job so long as you have the right job. As though if you take enough personality profiles and interest-indices and aptitude tests, you can discover what will make you happy. 

I’ve always envied people who grew up knowing exactly what they wanted to do. I knew someone in college who fell fascinated with ancient Egypt as a young kid. She read voraciously and prolifically about it, and then applied only to colleges with academic departments in Egyptology. She majored in the subject, then went to graduate school and studied it further. Today, she is a professor of Egyptology, doing what she always meant to do. I always felt like she managed to shortcut through the indecision, racking self-examination, and ambivalence that so many of the rest of us felt, by having a clear and certain desire that guided her at every step. In other words, she was so very lucky to have chanced about the correct object for her skills and interests at such a young age.

But what if instead, the thing to envy is that she was just particularly skilled at loving her love? What if it is not luck, but a replicable skill?

To be fair, this isn’t the first time I thought about copying her methods. It has long occurred to me that, just as she found her thing, I might stumble around the world and find my thing. If I could somehow get the correct object in place, the rest would feel effortless. It is simply a matter of learning what I liked. But Fromm makes me think that the skill is not in the discovery but rather in the effort that follows.

College career offices are not likely to stop any time soon from talking to students about what they like and how they might find a career that aligns with their interest. Nor should they. But I wonder if, alongside trying to find or discover the perfect thing, they might also try to cultivate a set of skills that might lead to better fulfillment throughout the long career journey.

Does Fromm have any guidance about what those might be? Can he say something that doesn’t reek of “make the best of a bad situation” as though reconciling oneself is the best that can be done? Can true, nurturing love come out of knowledge and effort and not the romance of the right thing descending upon you in a blaze of clarity and excitement?

I guess I’m going to have to read on and let you know…

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