Teachable Moments

Reading books by Diane Ackerman has become an exercise in frustration. While I know that I can just put the thing down and never pick it up again, I keep turning the pages, telling myself that I can learn something. And I do. I learn how other people view the world, why they come to particular conclusions, and how their biases affect what they write.

A Natural History of Love is the Ackerman book I’m working on now. Over and over, throughout the 99 pages I’ve read thus far, I’ve rolled my eyes and said (sometimes aloud), “She just doesn’t get it.” She doesn’t: partly because she comes at everything from a scientific slant and partly because she’s more concerned with writing lyrically than with writing factually. Ironically the latter undermines the former.

Ackerman always give short shrift to religion, because—apparently—she is not a believer. This becomes a real failing in her books, sometimes because she simply gets things wrong, such as when she writes, “Religious ecstasy and the ecstasy of lovers have much in common … for some Christians, a cannibalistic union with the godhead by symbolically drinking his blood and eating his flesh.” For Catholics, the Holy Eucharist is not symbolic. We believe that, through Transubstantiation, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Ackerman certainly does not need to believe this, but she should be careful to state the matter correctly.

Over and over in her books, Ackerman does herself and her readers a disservice by her lack of interest in religion. She does not have “a suitable attitude in the dynamic of knowing an object.” As Monsignor Luigi Giussani explains in The Religious Sense:

If an object does not interest me, I will leave it alone, and be more than content with a certain impression of it transmitted out of the corner of my eye. But in order to give an object my attention, I must make some sort of judgment about it. I must take it into consideration and, to do so, I insist, I must possess a certain interest in it. What does this interest mean? It means I must have a desire to know what the object truly is.

This may sound banal, but it is easier said than done. We are too readily interested in merely holding on to and reinforcing the opinions we already have about things, especially some things more than others.* More precisely, we are inclined to remain bound to the opinions we already have about the meaning of things and to attempt to justify our attachment to them. … **

Applying this to the field of knowledge, this is the moral rule: Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it. More concisely, one could say, “love the truth more than yourself.”

While I could share great gobs of sentences from A Natural History of Love to support my contentions, I’ll quote just a few. In wondering why humans want to become one with another person, Ackerman looks at the relationship between an unborn baby and its mother—and she gets most of it wrong! First, she writes, “Because a child is born of a mother, and lives as a separate entity, we think of the child as an individual. But in biological terms that is not precisely true. The child is an organic part of the mother that is expelled at birth, but it shares much of her biology, personality, even scent.” This is simply not true. A baby, from the moment of conception, has its own unique DNA. Therefore, it is an individual, not a clone, not an organ, not excrement to be “expelled.”

Further, Ackerman writes, “The only and absolute perfect union of two is when a baby hangs suspended in its mother’s womb, like a tiny madman in a padded cell, attached to her, feeling her blood and hormones and moods play through its body, feeling her feelings.” Well, guess what: the unborn baby does not feel the mother’s blood “play through its body” since the mother’s blood does not mix with the baby’s blood.


*Is this seen anywhere more clearly than in the realm of politics, especially as it’s displayed on social media? What would the world be like if we all just kept our opinions to ourselves when it comes to subjects we have not studied in-depth and as objectively as possible?

**It took me a long time to learn this, but having figured it out, I now carefully pick and choose which subjects I will discuss with particular individuals.

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