“No doubt you saw the whole pretty picture in detail. The young prince bowing to the assembly. Suddenly, he stops. He looks up. For lo… there she stands. The girl of his dreams. Who she is or whence she came, he knows not, nor does he care, for his heart tells him that here, here is the maid predestined to be his bride. A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire. But in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure.”
So sayeth the Grand Duke in Disney’s Cinderella. As he is speaking, the very event he declares to be “foredoomed” unfolds on the dance floor below him.
“Wait,” I can hear you saying to yourself. “She’s not really going to defend the idea of love according to Walt Disney?” To which I say: It’s Valentine’s Day. Of course I am.
What happened to Cinderella and Prince Charming is something Malcolm Gladwell calls “mind-reading.” In his fascinating and insightful book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he asserts, “We can all mind-read effortlessly and automatically because the clues we need to make sense of someone or some social situation are right there on the faces of those in front of us.” This is only one of many types of unconscious decision-making Gladwell deals with in Blink, but for the moment the most relevant. He details the universality of facial expressions, the ways in which mind-reading happens, and the reasons it does not always work. Even if you have not read his very lucid account of these phenomena, you know he is right: you can tell what other people are thinking or feeling… just not always.
Which is why most of us scoff at the concept of love at first sight. Something instinctive tells us it’s possible–why else would Cinderella hold such ubiquitous, ageless appeal?–but it’s too scary to act on. After all, what if you took that leap, and it turned out you were wrong?
I wonder if that thought went through the minds of Peter, Andrew, James, and John the day they left their fishing boats “at once” to follow Jesus (Matthew 4:18-22). They glimpsed him upon the shore; he gave a single-sentence invitation; and that was that. You see, the problem with the Cinderella story is not that it’s fancifully improbable. (It is, but that’s not the problem.) The problem is that it has cast love at first sight so completely into the realm of romance, our culture has forgotten that there could be other kinds. In fact, when I did a Google search for “love at first sight,” I found a lot of genetic, evolutionary, socio-economic explanations of how we analyze potential mates, but not a single mention of anything other than romantic love (unless you want to count an advertisement for a puppy and kitten adoption center.) Come on, world. Do you know any parents who didn’t fall in love the moment they laid eyes on their newborn child? When the newly-elected Pope Francis first set foot on the balcony in St. Peter’s Square and asked the crowds to pray for him, half the world fell head-over-heels–most of us via satellite–and no one tried to rationalize it away.
Love at first sight is not only possible; it’s scriptural, and more common than we’d like to admit. We accept snap judgments about love without question when they require little overt commitment (like loving Pope Francis) or when the commitment has already been made (like loving a child). But romance is trickier. How can you tell you’re not being duped by lust or mere fantasy?
Blink is helpful here, too. “When our powers of rapid cognition go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood.” The reasons include unconscious cultural bias and having too much information, but the most surprising is that being asked to explain why we reached a particular snap decision turns most of us into morons. One example Gladwell uses is a jam taste-testing. When asked, “Which one do you prefer?,” people chose the same brand of jam as professional food experts 55% of the time. When asked, “Why do you prefer it?,” they changed their minds, and correlation to expert opinion dropped to just 11%. “By making people think about jam, Wilson and Schooler [who conducted the study] turned them into jam idiots.”
Scary, isn’t it? All that justifying we’re supposed to do for Mom and Dad on behalf of the new boyfriend might actually be the reason the relationship is wrong.
Here’s the good news: the jam experts–people who had learned to taste the difference between fruit juice, cane sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup, for example–could justify their opinions without breaking a sweat. Turns out, if you want to make a good choice and have solid reasoning behind it, you’d better start honing your taste buds. So, how do you acquire a taste for true love?
It really should be easy. Child development experts will tell you we have all been studying love in every relationship we have encountered since the moment we were born. Unfortunately, forces of evolution and culture often combine to train us to look for the outward trappings of love instead of the thing itself. Good looks, good voice, good hygiene, similar education and social class, similar values–these are the traits the studies in my Google search named as important to our love at first sight decisions, and all of them really are helpful in sparking that elusive “chemistry.” Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure the definition of “love” goes more like this:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
Here is why I think Cinderella made a good choice: studies show that the one thing we’re most attracted to in others is a reflection of ourselves, and Cinderella was patient. She was kind, never envious or proud. She never tried to take revenge on her stepmother, and she never gave up hope. Anyone her instincts singled out to love probably possessed the same qualities. I also suspect that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were not afraid to throw aside their entire livelihood to follow an itinerant preacher because they already embodied many (if not all) of love’s virtues. We have no account of the apostles’ characters before they were called, but certainly they exhibited heroic acts of love in later life. Like Cinderella, I think they knew love when they saw it because they had cultivated it within themselves.
I should tell you that Blink never deals explicitly with the question of love at first sight, nor does Malcom Gladwell reach the conclusion that we should always act on our snap decisions. Blink is about the role snap decisions can play in improving our judgment, but judgment itself is a complicated, multifaceted thing. That’s why I am not suggesting couples should run off to Vegas the first night they lay eyes on each other, nor that people should drop everything to join a charismatic religious leader, à la Peter and Andrew. It’s still a good idea to take a sober look at things before you make life-altering choices. I also do not think “first sight” is the only way love happens; far be it from an ever-loving God to limit Himself to a single method of revelation. However, I do believe there is a dangerous tendency in this age of information to dismiss intuition as unprovable and mysterious, and thereby cloud the natural process of good judgment. Love is a mystery, and gut instinct–especially if it has been formed by the habitual practice of virtue–can and should play an important role in calling us toward any of love’s vocations. If you want to find love, be love, and then do not be afraid to follow where it leads.