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The School of Life: Love & Connection

by Wolf & Badger

Following The School of Life workshop that we hosted in King's Cross on Thursday we caught up with their team to find out more about their mission and resources. They delve deeper into the concept of love and explain why we should be talking about it openly and practising it as a skill to maintain healthy and thriving relationships.

Tell us about The School of Life - where do the ideas and resources that you offer derive from, and what topics do they encompass?

Our mission at The School of Life is to help people learn, heal and grow. At the core of this mission is our belief that many of the largest problems people face in life can be traced back to a lack of self-knowledge. Our minds are incredibly complex; made up of desires, fears, memories, impulses, sense impressions and errant emotions that we’ve barely begun to process. A metaphor we’re fond of using is that of an iceberg; we are typically conscious of only a tiny proportion of what’s really going on inside our brains. 

Self-knowledge matters so much because it is only on the basis of an accurate sense of who we are that we can begin to identify what might be going wrong for us — and how we can go about putting it right. If we feel stuck in the wrong job, or the wrong relationship; if we’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or sleeplessness; if we can’t seem to connect with others, or to be fully present in the moment — almost certainly part of the reason is that we haven’t understood our own minds in sufficient depth. 

Everything The School of Life creates — our books, classes, workshops, YouTube films, digital resources and the like — is designed to give our audience the tools for understanding themselves (and other people) a little better. We don’t claim that we can teach people to understand themselves completely (given the complexity of the human psyche, this is more or less impossible). But the more we can understand about ourselves, the better prepared we’ll be to deal with whatever difficulties we’re currently facing.   

Though we think and write about a broad range of themes (like love, work, friendship and culture) we’re particularly focused on mental health: how we can process our emotions, overcome past trauma, and build a more meaningful and livable existence. 

Purely focusing on the relationship element: Why is it, do you think that a lot of us shy away from talking openly about love on a more granular level?

A lot of us shy away from talking about love because we feel it shouldn’t require discussion. Our understanding of love is largely the legacy of an intellectual movement called Romanticism. Romanticism, which first emerged in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th century, came to utterly dominate the way Western culture thinks about love. 

In the Romantic conception, love is an emotion: an intense and overpowering feeling of attraction toward a desired ‘object’. It’s akin to a magnetic force: pulling two people toward one another and binding them forever. It’s a philosophy of absolutes, which implicitly argues that either a couple is ‘destined’ to be together, or they aren’t. 

This ‘Romantic’ view of love lives on in a more familiar, contemporary cultural idea: the dream of ‘The One’. We possess an idealised vision of what a ‘good’ relationship should look like, characterised by perfect and permanent harmony. If we find ourselves struggling to love our partner to the degree we feel we ought — if we have regular arguments, or become intensely irritated by their habit of never closing cupboard doors after using them —  the only possible conclusion is that we were never meant to be together in the first place.

This vision is not only a naive fantasy of love — it’s the very reason why so many of us struggle to find and maintain it. Love is not an emotion, a feeling, or a supernatural force. Love is a skill — and one we have to learn. Teaching this skill is one of the reasons why The School of Life was first set up, 15 years ago.

Understanding that love is a skill and something that we can practise is an area that TSOL explores widely. What would you say are the key elements to becoming a little better at it?

Perhaps the most important element of genuine and long-lasting love is vulnerability. A classic mistake we make in relationships is believing that love is based on admiration: that we earn love through a demonstration of our more admirable and attractive qualities (our physical beauty, our sense of humour, our talents in the kitchen or bedroom, and so on).

The problem with this idea is that it impels us to practise a certain degree of dishonesty. Somewhere along the line, we have internalised the lesson that in order to be lovable, we must suppress or conceal certain, ‘trickier’ aspects of ourselves — for, if they were ever discovered, love would surely diminish or evaporate. In this view, any admission of madness or weakness would pose a mortal threat to love’s foundations. 

But this is not only a recipe for tension and conflict further down the line. It is to fundamentally misunderstand what love is. Vulnerability is not an impediment to love — it is the secret to love itself. 

A successful relationship demands that both parties are able to be open about their anxieties, worries and the problems that throw us off balance. Our loved ones should be those rare individuals that we don’t have to put on a good front for; a select group around whom we can be weak, messy and honest – and who will be the same around us.

In a stable and secure partnership, these trickier facts of our personality pose no threat to our relationship. On the contrary: they are the very things that make us lovable. It is our willingness to be open about our faults, flaws and weak spots that make us worthy of — and ready for — love. 

Perhaps the single most effective move we can make at the start of a relationship — or indeed at any point — is to confess to our weaknesses. To admit to the myriad ways in which we are “mad” and difficult to live with — and asking our partner to do the same. 

If our readers might be keen to utilise The School of Life, where should they start and what’s coming up?

Some of our most popular and enduring titles include Self-Knowledge, On Confidence, How to Find Love and Great Thinkers: any one of these would be a great place to start for readers new to The School of Life. We’d also recommend downloading The School of Life App: it gathers together 1,000s of films, essays, audio lectures, card games and exercises that can be accessed on the go, whenever and wherever you might need them.

This month, we’ve added two new titles to our library: The Career Workbook (a guided journal designed to help you find a more fulfilling career) and The Compatibility Game: a tool to help two people assess how compatible they are, and identify the areas of difference they should be aware of. For anyone specifically interested in strengthening relationships, we’d highly recommend checking it out.

You can find The School of Life at Papersmiths as well as in our London flagship store.