I don’t think you can reasonably expect someone to control who they fall in love with.
You’ve probably spotted by now that I’m something of a fan of The West Wing. The quote above, though, is one of those times when I think they get it very wrong.
Charlie Young has been asked what he thinks about the fact that a top naval fighter pilot has been placed under arrest by the military police for committing adultery – or more specifically for failing to end the affair when she was ordered to.
[As an aside, we have to wonder, as with the Biblical story of the woman caught in adultery, why only one party is facing the punishment. From a storyline perspective it’s so the case can become a ‘women’s issue’, but that’s another post…]
Charlie’s response to the question is very revealing of his worldview and – judging by the fact that his comment is taken within the narrative as a wise and reasonable perspective – the worldview of at least some of the writing team.
On one level, he’s right – you can’t control who you fall in love with. Love is a fickle and incomprehensible thing. People fall in love with the most unexpected people at unexpected times, and much of mythology and fiction revolves around the dilemmas of how to make the person you love love you back, and how to make the person you despise stop loving and pursuing you.
His comment doesn’t tell the whole story, though. You can’t control who you fall in love with, but you can control how you act on those feelings. You can and, if you’re seeking to be a wise, mature adult who does what is right, you should. Particularly if you or the object of your affections is already married to someone else.
One of the consequences of rejecting the notion of an objective right and wrong – and a divine arbiter who sees all and dispenses justice – is that we only have our feelings to guide our judgment as to the rights and wrongs of a given course of action.
‘If it feels good, do it’, is the message of our time, and it is one of our strongest and most closely guarded values – even though at the same time we know that feelings aren’t to be trusted and certainly aren’t to be acted upon thoughtlessly. Think of a child in a nursery – if he or she hits out at another child, ‘because I felt like it’ isn’t sufficient reason to excuse him or her of the punishment. S/he is punished because the teacher wants to instil the message that simply acting on one’s feelings and impulses is not a valid way to function in a world full of other sentient beings.
So, we temper our existentialist motto with ‘unless it hurts someone else’. Most people today would affirm that as the best way to live in a plural society – ‘do whatever feels good as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else’.
And yet, we come back to adultery. Yes, it feels good, but even its participants would accept that it hurts their spouses – they may try to fool themselves that they can carry on in secret and what the other person doesn’t know won’t hurt him or her, but really they’re allowing one value to trump the other. They’re saying ‘Even if this ends up hurting someone else, it feels so good it must be right’ or, as in the words of a Seventies country song, “If lovin’ you is wrong, I don’t want to be right”.
This kind of attitude isn’t limited to adultery, of course, we all do it, justifying things we know we shouldn’t do on the grounds that they feel good (and avoiding the things we should do because they feel unpleasant). For me it manifests almost daily in eating the wrong kinds of foods and failing to exercise – or spending an evening watching the West Wing when I could be writing my novel or volunteering at a homeless shelter or any number of other good things!
It’s a constant battle for us all, but that fact is not sufficient to make it right, and is certainly not grounds for complaining when we are faced with the consequences of our actions. No matter what the West Wing says.