As a teen, I thought I was a hard-nosed realist. I questioned everything. I willingly suffered the emotional pain of giving up cherished ideas when I found them to be wrong. I embraced ideas only after I was convinced by logic and evidence that they were true — and never because I merely hoped they were true. Of course, I was also quite naive.
For instance: I was quite skeptical of whether love had any value. Looking back, I understand how naive I was as a teen. The “love” I disvalued was what today I would not call love — instead I’d call it “infatuation”. Infatuation concerned me because, like many teens before or since, I was quite often infatuated with one person or another. And even as a teen, when I analyzed those infatuations they seemed to me more often curses than feelings to be valued. So I didn’t believe in “love”. At least, I didn’t believe in what I thought was love.
Perhaps oddly enough, I’ve now seen precisely the same cynical mistake made by several of my younger friends. In some things, every generation repeats the mistakes of the generations that came before it. And to confuse infatuation with love is one of those mistakes that often gets repeated.
As a hard-nosed teenage realist, I not only confused infatuation with love and consequently disvalued love, but I also scorned what I thought were soft, illogical descriptions of love unsupported by any convincing weight of evidence.
I guess my confused thinking ran along these lines, “If love (actually, infatuation) is a curse, then how can those “soft” descriptions of love (actually, genuine love) be true?” For example, I might read something like “love is healing”. Of course, I would snort at any such notion. Nothing in my experience of “love” as a teen fit with the notion that love is healing. Therefore, love couldn’t possibly be healing and any person who said that it was must be a sappy idiot.
I also see that cynical mistake echoed by some of my younger friends. It all comes from (1) confusing what today I would call “infatuation” with love, and (2) from having little or no experience of genuine love.
Of course, genuine love is at times tremendously healing. At least that’s been my experience in the years since I was a teenage “realist”. Those sappy idiots who said love is healing knew what they were talking about, after all. So, was there any value in all those misguided reflections on love when I was a teen?
Actually, I think there was great value in those reflections. I did a pretty good job analyzing infatuation. I might have mistakenly called infatuation “love”, and falsely concluded that “love” was overblown, but once I’d corrected that mistake, pretty much everything I’d noticed about infatuation still held true. The hours of reflecting on it were not wasted.
I have also learned a lesson that’s somehow more important to me than knowing a bit about infatuation. I’ve learned how extraordinarily difficult it sometimes is to understand what others are talking about when we have little or no experience of what they are talking about.
That seems particularly true of things like love, beauty, kindness, generosity, altruism, gratitude — all those things one can so easily dismiss as “sappy”. Until we ourselves have given with pure generosity, pure generosity seems to us an unobtainable ideal — at best — and a scam at worst. Until we ourselves have experienced a thing, the experiences of others who have experienced that thing can seem to us mistaken, absurd, ludicrous, delusional, or inconsequential. Communication depends to a great extent on shared experiences.
As a hard nosed teenage realist who questioned “everything”, I would have done better if I’d been even a little bit more hard nosed and realistic. That is, I should have even questioned whether my own experience was definitive. I should have recognized that others might have experienced things I hadn’t. And instead of saying, “love is overblown” and “all those fools who believe in it are sappy idiots”, I would have been more honest and realistic to simply say, “That’s not been my own experience of what I call ‘love'”. For the really hard nosed and realistic approach to life begins with recognizing the limits of our own experience.