The other day, I happened to be in an internet chat room when the topic of romantic love came up. About a half-dozen or so people started discussing their experiences of romantic love.
As the discussion went on, I began to notice how everyone seemed focused on the feelings associated with romantic love. For instance, they were talking about experiencing weak knees and butterflies in their stomachs when in the presence of their lovers. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I became curious why other aspects of romantic love weren’t being discussed. The discussion was completely focused on feelings.
Of course, feelings are like mountains and movie stars. Mountains are pretty much the first thing you notice when looking at a terrain. Movie stars are pretty much the thing you focus on when looking at a crowd. And feelings not only get noticed first (like mountains), but noticed most (like movie stars). So it’s not really surprising people would tend to limit their discussion of romantic love to the feelings they experience when in love.
The discussion in the chat room somehow took me back to a conversation I had with Harriet when she was about 18 or 19 years old. We were sitting at a table outside of the Coffee Shop one Fall day in the slanting afternoon sun when I abruptly realized I hadn’t recently performed my avuncular duty of tenderly checking up on her love life to make sure all was going well. That’s to say, I hadn’t shamelessly snooped into her private business for many months. There was nothing to do but remedy such a horrendous oversight, so I began by asking if she had any lovers yet who made her want to stretch herself as a person. “Harriet, which of your lovers has made you want to be the best person you can be?”
“Josh”, she immediately responded, her eyes lighting up. We then discussed Josh for a bit, and pretty soon we were comparing him with her other lovers. I thought things started out well, but as our conversation went on, I began feeling a growing unease. It seemed she wasn’t getting as much out of her affairs as I’d hoped for her.
I try not to hope for too much when it comes to the kids I love. In part because it drives me nuts when I do. And in part because I’ve learned it’s almost always premature to worry too much about whether a young person will discover the most important things in life. Often, a young person who seems hopelessly lost one year will find themselves the next.
So, I always try to keep in mind how unreasonable it is to hope for too much. But, since I’m an idiot, I always hope for too much anyway. Like an impatient child, I want the best for them, and I want it now. That has been especially true with Harriet. I’ve always wanted more for her than is reasonable to expect at any given time.
So I was discomforted that day to learn Harriet seemed to be getting little more out of love and sex than pleasure. Even with Josh, it turned out she had misunderstood my question and was only referring to how he made her want to be a better lover — rather than a better person as a whole.
Of course, pleasure is not everything, but there’s nothing wrong with it. And, given how unfairly short-changed many young American women are when it comes to both sexual pleasure and the pleasures of romantic love, I probably should have contented myself with considering it a minor miracle that Harriet was getting any real pleasure out of sex and love at all. But I was discontented.
I was especially discontented after she explained why she’d broken up with her most recent boyfriend. There had been nothing wrong with him as a person, she said, but her feelings for him had died. “What kind of feelings?”, I asked.
“It’s simple, Paul. I fell out of love with him. The high was no longer there. He quit making me giddy and dizzy and excited, and I would go home and not even look forward to seeing him.”
“Harriet”, I said in measured words, “Those kinds of feelings inevitably pass within six months to a couple years at most. You simply cannot expect them to last forever.”
“No!”, she spoke in abrupt denial, “No! That can’t be true! There would be no point to love!” And she was just as emphatic and emotional in her denial as any fundamentalist told her god did not exist.
It was then I realized Harriet was much more in love with her feelings than with her lovers.
I don’t want to give the impression I simply blamed her for that. It’s true enough I was annoyed with her at first. But on reflection I discovered that was only because I had such high expectations for her. Actually, I wasn’t really annoyed with her — I was upset because of the setback to my hopes for her. Once I got that bit of emotional confusion out of the way I discovered myself feeling compassion for her.
It seemed obvious to me then the real problem was Harriet hadn’t yet met too many people she could profoundly connect to. To put things in cold perspective, Harriet is brilliant, gifted, and creative. Frankly, there are not many people in her category, so to speak. Most of us are fortunate to be more mediocre than her in our intelligence, gifts, and creativity. Consequently, we are much more likely than Harriet to encounter people with whom we can experience a deep and rich connection. Harriet’s truly Great Loves, on the other hand, are almost certain to be few and far between — at best.
It seems always easy to fall in love with our pleasurable feelings. But I think that tendency is heightened tremendously if we have not yet found an authentic mate for us. In the absence of that deep and rich — sometimes mystical — connection with another person, our own feelings can become “the best game in town”. That, I suspect, is what happened with Harriet.
I was reminded of Harriet the other day as I watched the discussion of romantic love in the internet chat room. For whatever reasons, a profound connection with another person can — and very often does — inspire us to become the best we can be. It can motivate us to, as fully as possible, turn our talents into skills, to be true to ourselves, to become more honest, and to become more gentle, open, and caring — among many other things.
If those things are allowed to take root in us, they can lead to our flourishing, to our greater well-being, and to our greater happiness. I knew as I watched the discussion — or at least I suspected as I watched it — that the participants had experienced that flourishing from their loves. So, I wondered: Why do we focus so much on the mere pleasures of sex and love?
Is it just because the pleasures of sex and love are so obvious — like mountains and movie stars?
Perhaps. Yet, the thought also occurred to me our culture might play a role in fixing what we look at. Despite all the importance sex and love are given in literature, art, film, song, and so forth, it seems the pleasures of those things are put forward much more than any other aspects of them. Maybe, then, when we focus on those pleasures we are — to some extent — merely following along with what our culture has trained us to focus on. And, if that is so, then is it possible to take a fresh look at these matters? Is it possible to see them without preconceptions, with instead the brand new eyes of a child?
If one could do that, what wonders would one see then?