Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.
― Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
Hanuman showing the images in his heart, in Kalighat folk style, c.1880
The great work of our lives is loving.
This is much uglier, more misshapen and grotesque than we think. It’s doesn’t swoop elegantly like the symmetrical halves of the valentine, and bluebirds don’t fly in with banners to announce its presence.
I don’t know when it happened, but someone, somewhere got the idea that love is supposed to be fizzy and uplifting, a Disney fairytale with a happy ending. Many people, especially high school and college students I’ve taught, think that love is all smiles and sweetness (or on the other spectrum—desperation and drama) and if those things stop then the love is gone.
They’ve mistaken love for an emotion, for something that they think they’re supposed to feel.
Lots of folks regard Romeo and Juliet as the decisive example of romantic love in literature. Even characters in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love are convinced the play portrays the “nature of true love.” I’ve met a lot of people who cite Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate love story: R & J are very, very sparkly together and then they DIE for each other! How romantic!
Somehow the tragedy is forgotten. Or maybe the spectacle of the tragedy backfires. What Shakespeare describes in the relations of his two doomed lovers is not really the work of love. It’s actually a story about how dangerous it is to misunderstand love.
Julia Kristeva, a theorist of how language and meaning work, hits it right on the button when she notices the inherent violence in the language of the lovers’ monologues. In one particularly infatuated monologue, Juliet exclaims:
When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Sure, it’s poetic. But it recalls the tragedy of heroes like Orpheus, whose lyre is hung in the sky as a constellation after he is ripped apart by Dionysus’s wild women, the maenads. (Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy, revelry, and hard-won epiphany: you might see the truth after hanging with Dionysus for a while, but it’s not one you’re going like). Looked at closely, the passage hints that Juliet’s love is not for any quality belonging to Romeo in and of himself. She’s in love with how, like so many little fancy accessories, he can make something else—the night, but also presumably, her—desired. Romeo, cut up in little pieces, has lost his face to the night sky. It’s a horrific image.
Claire Danes as Juliet in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
I love Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film version of the play because he really gets this failure of love in the young couple. It’s so evident in his filming of the death scene. Claire Danes as Juliet lies gauzily on her funeral bier in the crypt, not yet awoken from the sleeping draught she has taken to fake her death. Leo DiCaprio as Romeo arrives at the crypt, not knowing that Juliet hasn’t actually died. He has poison with him in a little glass vial to take his own life. As he approaches the bier, her body surrounded by lit candles, he unstops the bottle. Weeping over her, so lost in his emotion, he doesn’t see that she’s waking up: she stirs, her eyes flutter and open, but he can’t notice a thing. He’s in love with his own romance and tragedy. We know the rest of the story.
Romeo and Juliet is only part of a long, long line of stories, films, mythologies, and songs about love. Too bad this particular story is often misinterpreted; it tries to reveal the problems in thinking that love is about how someone else makes us feel. (Why aren’t we listening?) Not all stories do: many indulge the sweet-tooth of romance. As a culture, we tend to crave that glitter, the fantasy of a perfect “soul-mate,” a perfect sex-life (so highly marketable), and fairy-tale wedding, a happy ending. That if I find Mr. or Ms. Right—like shopping for the perfect pair of boots or sports car—I will be complete.
You complete me, the lover sighs. That is, until I need the next needle-to-the vein of glittery feeling.
Ok, so that’s not really love.
Because love is work—Erich Fromm calls it an art—it draws along with it a range of emotions: joy and delight are partnered with anger, pain, frustration, disgust, sorrow, confusion, fear. Those emotions don’t mean that you’ve stopped loving or being loved.
Love’s shape twists. It is pitted and pockmarked, freckled, carbuncled. It has recesses that fool you, their floors dropping away suddenly into deep caverns that you didn’t know were there. Exploring that shape is a frightening prospect.
There are people whom we love easily, almost effortlessly. And there are those who don’t make loving easy for us. Loving them is a constant struggle imbued with a whole range of confusing thoughts, memories, and emotions. There’s no glowing “wow, this person jives with me” simpatico; in fact, you might align with each other on precious few values and ideas. But there’s something there that’s worth the icky feelings and frustration.
What is it?
I have a “love hurts” relationship with different people in my life. (Sometimes it’s more like a “this person makes me so angry I want to scream” relationship.) Perhaps you do too. Besides a past full of baggage and memories infuriating to recall, present conversations and interactions can seem awkward, sometimes strained. A lot goes on in the words we choose, and the content we choose to share with one another. Often there’s a subtle one-upmanship, a delicate power play that probably leaves both parties feeling like they don’t want to talk again for quite awhile.
Maybe there’s frustration with a friend’s life choices; but she’s wary about how you like to rock the boat. Or you and your brother don’t share a sense of humor, not to mention your completely divergent political views. Perhaps you always wanted your mother’s approval and genuine interest; she couldn’t give it. Your father may now want your genuine interest and approval and it’s not easy to soften your jaw, let alone your heart, around him.
Thinly veiled by all the little tricks we do to avoid confrontation– “niceties” (those little laughs, the small dishonesties that dart like rabbits in the garden, quick changes of subject) or, openly disgusted and yelling, the disapproval is mutual. We have a personality clash.
That personality clash and its whole history puts a roadblock in the way of warm, lovey-dovey feelings. I find myself often enraged, suddenly, out of nowhere, while driving my car home from work, at some small detail in a conversation with one of my “love hurts” folks that has clearly opened the whole can of worms again. I’ve had bitter and accusatory “pretend” conversations with them in the bathroom mirror. What would it be like if I actually said those things to their faces?, I’ve wondered.
In the same car, on the same road back from work, I’ve chided myself: why can’t you let go of the anger and just love and accept? What would it take to be generous and loving? Be sweet and kind and forget the anger and hurt. Be a good friend, daughter, son, husband, uncle, mother–you fill in the blank.
Hyde Park section of “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace”
But in the next moment, as I pull my car to the stoplight, I wonder, “what if that is what I’m doing?”: what if this struggle, this back and forth, all the fraught feelings are part of loving this person? What if the struggle means that I am loving? That the anger and fierceness makes me a good friend, daughter, son, husband, uncle, mother (you fill in the blank)?
That this is the shape of this love relationship: a bit ungainly, less than lovely. A bottom heavy shape with a scrawny neck, a lot like the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park, the oldest boating lake in the city and a popular site for public protest and demonstration from the 19th century to today.
The Serpentine, which I saw with my parents as an 11-year-old child on a visit to London, is chock full of stuff. It was where the triathalon and swimming marathon were held for the 2012 Olympics. Waterfowl are plenty there: it’s home to cormorants, herons, egrets, cranes. A statue dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, a patron of motherhood and nature, in the shape of a ten-foot high ibis stands near the Serpentine. The oddly-shaped lake also saw finery, wealth and display in the touring crowds of the wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s where Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, drowned herself .
And it’s where this happened this past summer:
My “love hurts” relationships are chock full of histories, too, and messy with small (figurative) murders, suicides, revolt. Yet some quality these people possess, even simply their presence when I need it, soars like the Serpentine’s birds. Sometimes there’s a kind of pomp and ceremony in these relationships, a protective formality that makes us wonder if we can ever truly relax around the other. But like that weird effigy of Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth rising up suddenly from the lake water–non sequitur extraordinaire–there are also those odd moments that break the barriers of the past, that can catapult you into sharing laughter and a moment of heartfelt recognition from the very strangeness of it all.
Despite all the ways that we “miss” the other and her/his meaning–there are so many misses!–we choose to continue our confusing struggle with love.
And it’s really confusing. Speaking of her relationship with her mother in The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit perceives three mothers: her mother as she is, the mother of the past, and a third mother she created from her own experience and assumptions. This “third mother” is not the person herself; it is a ghostly replacement, a poor version of the real person dimensionally thin and attached to the world by the lack, desires, neuroses of the one constructing her. The third mother—or the third sister, wife, husband, daughter, or son, for that matter—is the one we just can’t get over, the one who pushes buttons and draws ire, especially when the real person does something that aligns with our expectations connected to our constructed version: “I knew you would say that.”
In a love relationship, then, we’re dealing with layers and layers of ourselves and others. Part of the work of love is to tease those layers apart: what is me and what is you in this relationship? What of myself am I using to construct you? And when I do that, in what ways does this construction miss your complexity? How, when I struggle with you, am I struggling with myself also?
Isis at the Serpentine. Credit: Petr Brož
I continue struggling in the “love hurts” relationships for many reasons, but the most important is that I do love these people. That in itself stretches me, my Self as it is connected to everything. Suffering all the shapes of love—I’m not talking about suffering abusiveness here—can teach us reflection and selflessness. It can make us confront what we don’t like in ourselves, because more often than not, the thing we dislike in the other is the thing we can’t admit to in ourselves.
Loving is not about being sweet and kind. Loving is being curious and asking questions, wading through the mire of all the layers, doing the ugly love work. If sweetness comes from that–which it will, with practice–then that is something to celebrate.
Then keep wading.