K. Westhues Homepage


Falling in Love

Kenneth Westhues, Professor of Sociology, University of Waterloo, 2007

Liberal education requires subjecting as many phenomena as possible to reasoned, disciplined thought. Falling in love is one such phenomenon students often overlook. Knowing they must soon earn a living, they study hard to learn some line of work. Fascinated by nature, they pore over bugs through microscopes and planets through telescopes. Curious about humanity, they take courses in history, social sciences, philosophy and literature. Courses about sex are especially popular.

But falling in love is often missing from students' agendas for scholarly examination. The labor force is scary, but they prepare for it. Sex is scary, too, but students eagerly learn safe practices. Love, on the other hand, the real thing, enduring entanglement in another's life, is beyond acceptable levels of scariness. They recoil from the very thought and steel themselves against it. The worst of it is they may get their wish. Out of unwarranted fear, they may exclude from their whole lives the singular phenomenon that would give them more joy and truth and meaning than all other phenomena combined.

In advanced old age, my mother was asked by a young woman for advice. "Don't be afraid to love," Mom said. After her death in 2003 (she lived to celebrate her hundredth birthday), my sister had that quote inscribed on Mom and Dad's tombstone. They had fallen in love in 1920, got married in 1922, and lived and worked together for the next 48 years. Often, in the decades after Dad's death, Mom said she thanked God every day for the man she married.

Only a fool growing up today would rule out in principle the experience my parents, John and Olive Westhues, found in each other. It is not the end of the world if a person never finds another with whom to fall in love and forge a common life. One can have a worthwile, satisfying time on this planet without ever hearing the sea or smelling a rose. But to say on purpose at the start, "I will not have that," is plain silly. One could die never knowing what one missed.

Other students these days harbor a secret openness to falling in love, or even a wish for it, but nonetheless refrain from thinking carefully about what this might entail. They are confident that if and when they are swept away by love, it will be into unending bliss. They should not be so sure. Unending grief is a real possibility. Falling in love is risky, by definition a leap in the dark. That is part of the fun of it. But in this as in all other aspects of life, a little forethought cannot hurt.

The purpose of this webpage is not just to recommend, as part of liberal education, reasoned and disciplined study of falling in love, but to suggest a specific resource. Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni has written wonderfully insightful analyses of this strange phenomenon, and he has put many of his writings online. Read the summary of his best-selling book, Falling in Love and Loving, or download for free the complete text in PDF. Alberoni's website includes writings on related topics, too, like love, friendship, and collective movements. It is because Alberoni's scholarship, which is too little known in North America, is of such great practical worth to young men and women struggling to educate themselves for life, that I have thought it worthwhile to include this page on my website. (Actually, I recommend his work to older people, too, since falling in love and loving are real possibilities at whatever age and in whatever circumstance.)

Sociology is not, of course, the only discipline by which to grasp what it means to fall in love and to prepare for that possibility. Philosophy, history, and literature all shed much light. No young person should fail to study Shakespeare's sonnets and plays like Romeo and Juliet. My father left school when he was twelve to work on his family's farm, missed the chance for systematic learning and relied on what he could pick up here and there. When he was courting my mother, he sent her a postcard with a Shakespeare quote. "If this don't say it, I don't know what does," was Dad's message on the back.

Or maybe it's some other poet who is better able to connect with this boy or that girl. Maybe Emily Dickinson or John Keats. What one learns is more important than from whom.

Because students so easily get stuck in the deadening routine of studying only what the curriculum requires, I urge them also to steal time regularly for movies that not only entertain but teach. Renting DVDs is easy and cheap. Who knows which film can best teach a particular student about falling in love? Maybe a Chinese historical drama like The Road Home (2001), maybe the madcap Italian comedy The Tiger and the Snow (2006), the French date movie A Man and a Woman (1966). or the American classic set in revolutionary Russia Doctor Zhivago (1965). In a way intelligible to many of today's wary youth, Zach Braff's quirky comedies convey what love means: Garden State (2004), for instance, or The Last Kiss (2006). The important thing is to put making sense of love high on one's educational agenda, and to search out films that serve this end.

To students who accept this challenge to make falling in love and loving the subject of reasoned study, much like other aspects of life, let me offer a word of caution. While discussing the ongoing results of your study with classmates and friends, do not share with them the intimacies of any relationships of your own that might involve your falling for another, or another for you. Similarly, do not pry into others' real or prospective adventures in love. To put it bluntly: Don't kiss and tell, or ask others to. The love into which two people fall is their exclusive property, a secret garden off limits to everybody else. Respect for one another precludes disclosure of details. However much relationships of love resemble each other, each one remains unique. Blabbing about it takes the specialness away and cheapens it — even, in some ways, ends it.

A 2001 study of American women and dating was entitled, "Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right." It makes for dreary reading. Anybody who wants more from life than that, something that excels one's wildest dreams, should study carefully the distinct phenomenon of falling in love, and be alive to its possibility in one's own life.