University Essays: Lesson 9, Reading 2
By Merle Shain
Our times are obsessed with finding fulfillment, so there are times when some people try too hard, and there are people who want to have the newest feelings just as there are those who want to have the latest model car.
You can’t play at love any more than you can be proud of your humility, or add water to your perfume and have it smell the same, but men and women both have been known to try. Love is an infusion of intense feeling, a fine madness that makes you drunk, and when one is in love, life can be a succession of freefalls while working without a net. Love permits the lover to savor rare emotions and dangerous sensations and, because one is never so alive as when one is in love, and never so full of power, there are people hooked on love who wouldn’t consider taking drugs.
The energy that runs from lover to lover is an electromagnetic ray that pierces through insensate anesthetized layers, expanding one’s perimeters and making one young. Once wounded by love, we are open, so all our defenses escape, making it possible for us to see ourselves. And although that makes us terribly and gloriously vulnerable, it breaks our spirit’s fast.
When you fall in love, you feel wiser than others, and larger than life, and the things that happen when you are in love seem too important to be measured by ordinary standards, so lovers often risk everything on an emotional longshot that outsiders are sure can’t pay off. The person you can’t live without often is one you couldn’t live with either, and because it is just as true that reality is what you believe it to be, sometimes a person who wants to believe his beloved beautiful and courageous causes them to be so by believing, making wishes fact.
Love often has more to do with the lover than it has to do with the beloved, and because it does, there are people who prefer to fall in love with someone they hardly know. It can be more exciting to bounce love off an object than to deal with the reality of another whole human being. A fantasy lover has a mystery that can be fleshed out with your own creativity, and you can make it do what you want it to, when you want it to, which isn’t true of most real loves, at least not the ones I’ve known.
There is loving, of course, and being in love, and they are different again which is why one will accept qualities in a lover one wouldn’t accept in a spouse. Day-to-day contact has a way of causing the intensity of romantic love to dissipate and sometimes when you get the somebody you have yearned for, most of the magic vanishes with the pain. It’s easy to want what you don’t have, when you don’t have it, and hard not to want something else when you do, so the big love in a lot of lives is the one that got away.
Perhaps the most important thing in any relationship is keeping the lines of communication open. Though this sounds simple, it can be difficult at the pace of life most of us keep, and lots of people who have lived together for years have to make an appointment with each other if they want to talk. There are lots of ways of communicating, of course, and you can sometimes say as much with the laying on of hands as with a three-page letter sent in triplicate and doubled-spaced. But letters are nice, too, and so are fireside chats, and a half hour in bed when the lights are out can make everything right with the world.
Some of us have trouble finding words for what we mean, or we speak in cryptic messages hoping the other person will figure out what we want and rush in to save us from ourselves, and when they miss the message, we feel isolated and alone. It’s very important to decode your own messages, like saying “I feel angry” instead of kicking the cat, and people who learn to do this find they are misunderstood less often and, as a fringe benefit, are clawed by fewer cats.
The best men are those who put their cards on the table when something is bothering them, and if possible do it quietly, not blaming anyone, and if they’re faced with a hysterical partner, who is not herself, identify with what she feels even when they can’t make heads or tails out of what she says.
Women find it very hard to express anger, feeling perhaps that men will lose their love for them the moment they are anything but sweet. But men can usually deal with anger more easily than they can deal with guilt, and women who shout a lot can be shouted back at, which is hard to do with one who weeps.
A man once did something terrible to a girl I know that made her feel awful for a while but, when she pulled herself together, she wrote him a long, very definitely worded letter telling him just what she thought. It was a letter in which she tried to make things clear but at the same time not to whine, and it likely did the trick because he sent her back a note that read, “I thought I’d lost you for all time. Was awfully glad to find you were just pissed off.”
If you never get angry, you never know where you stand, and it is also possible that you provoke people into worse and worse behavior just to get your attention or to make sure that you care. People who are loving tell each other what they feel, even when they don’t expect the other to share their point of view, and if they don’t always get what they want, at least they know what they can expect, and that, while it isn’t everything, is at least a start.
One of the problems of the new morality ushered in by “the pill” is that it doesn’t have an equivalent for being in the man’s tent the next morning chewing on his moccasins — or whatever used to be done – so while, “the pill” has made women freer, it has also freed them to look after their psychosexual needs on their own. And many women who aspired to be “great ladies” found it wasn’t so great to be one after all. Sex deepens love and love deepens sex, so physical intimacy transforms everything and playing with it is playing with fire. Men try to ignore the fact that making love creates bonds, creating dependencies where there were none before, and women who try to ignore it with them deny their basic needs.
I’m not sure there can be loving without commitment, although commitment takes all kinds of forms, and there can be commitment for the moment as well as commitment for all time. The kind that is essential for loving marriages — and love affairs, as well — is a commitment to preserving the essential quality of your partner’s soul, adding to them as a person rather than taking away. And if you haven’t got that, you haven’t got loving, although you might have something else. You could have adventure or a postgraduate course, you might have rehabilitation, or a bit of gossamer to highlight an otherwise somber life, but you don’t have loving, and of that you should be sure.
Since the problem is with our expectations rather than with marriage itself, a lot of people are living together today hoping that way they can start fresh. If no one says the word “marriage,” it’s easier to evolve a plan of your own. There isn’t any single formula for marriage which all couples should find right, and attempting to run your life by your parents’ standards or your neighbors’ is bound to run aground. Marriages should be as diverse as the people in them are, which means some will be of one kind, and some totally different still. And those who don’t want to love, honor and obey, should be able to promise each other anything they choose, without having to ask anyone what they think of that, particularly themselves.
There are many fringe benefits to being alone. You tend to have far more real, intense friendships when you are single, perhaps because you can be more honest when you do not have the marriage or someone else’s feelings to protect. That means friends can share a larger part of you, and you of them as well, and friendships can be really intimate rather than activity-oriented associations that only meet to do some special thing.
If one of the problems of marriage is that safety can lead to complacency, then one of the advantages of being single is that one is never safe enough to grow complacent, and constantly having to prove oneself often leads to growth. Being alone means swimming in many waters and that can mean a more interesting life. And, if it is true that a single woman hasn’t got one man she can count on, it is also true that, by living on the fringe of many men’s lives, she is privy to many ideas and interests denied most married women — and, indeed, most men. Men tell women to whom they are not married truths they cannot tell their wives and fear to tell to men, and what one learns one day from one man makes you more interesting the next day for another — as well as for yourself.
There were women in the golden age of Greece, called hetaerae. who were celebrated by Socrates and philosophers of his time. Although they existed solely for their own pleasure and that of men, they were respected for their independence of mind and spirit and thought of highly by the Greeks. Single women in today’s world can function like hetaerae, learning from many and giving back to whom they will, and for the woman who enjoys such a life, it can be a good one, and one both she and society can be the better for.
While married women must adapt to the perimeters of their marriages, single women can expand in all directions, developing as they will. Women who have realized themselves make good companions, and women as well as men find associations with them rewarding and fun — not only because they are more often interesting but because they haven’t grown neurotic making a virtue of doing what they most dislike. And time with them is generally given freely, little asked in return.
I remember when I was first married how important it was to me that my husband find me beautiful, talented, womanly and bright. And when he didn’t always, I was not these things — as if he’d turned off my light. After we parted and went on to other lives, from time to time a man thought me beautiful and occasionally another found me bright. Until, in time, I was those things even when no one was around and, today, because they are mine, I can give them to whomever I choose. Women who have had a chance to find out who they are don’t need as much reassurance from men, having come to terms with themselves, and while it is always nicer to be around people who see you as you want to see yourself, you can’t be done in as easily by ones who don’t.
There is a lot to be said for being single — and more today than ever before. It is a new world we are living in now and, although there are rules for virginal females under eighteen and for married ones twenty to eighty-five, there are no rules for single women, so we are able to make our own.
Many a superior woman spends her lifetime looking for a man who is more superior instead of for one she likes, not realizing that demanding that a man be superior isn’t much different from demanding that he be rich. Men who are required to be superior will always be insecure, and a man who feels his wife should get her identify from his success rather than from her own finds himself having to run all day just to keep up with her demands. Impotence for one is always impotence for both, and men and women who don’t recognize this inadvertently become the killers of their own best dreams.
A man who insists that his woman lay her head on his shoulder and lean on him doesn’t realize that if she takes her feet off the ground in this position and hangs on, she will be a drag. Psychiatrists are plagued by men who want to know what to do with dependent wives who can’t make a move without them, and rising young copywriters are plagued by men who call them after dinner parties to confess that they wish their wives were as interesting and ask if they might have time to meet for a drink. Many marriages between two people become marriages between one and a half very quickly, and people who fear invested the “his and hers” towel culture and are now thrashing around inside.
Women who suffer loud and lengthily and weep copious tears make men feel guilty, beleaguered and anxious to get to the door, and little-girl acts of coyness get them somewhere in the short run but cost them dear in the long. Not only do women despise the men they catch with them and turn them into Jiggs, but men who are manipulated and patronized long enough declare emotional bankruptcy and give up the store.
One of the reasons men fear loving is that they don’t want to take responsibility for another total human being. The kind of woman who loves out of need and desperation frightens even the best men off, and women who want someone around they can count on won’t feel better until they can count on themselves. The whole superiority-inferiority, passive-submissive business is a bum steer. Women who don’t expect the men in their life to give them fulfillment on a silver platter aren’t as likely to hold them responsible when it isn’t so easy to come by. And men who are not expected to be superior, only human, generally accomplish both more of the time.
Loving someone means helping them to be more themselves, which can be different from being what you’d like them to be, although often they turn out the same. When you ask someone to live through you and for you, they warp like a Japanese tree to suit the relationship which you are, and cease to be what you chose them for, that is, cease to be themselves. So men who are loving like as they love, and somehow they find the courage to let their partners grow in the direction they need to grow, even if that contains the risk that they might grow away.
Good people can’t be possessed and those who can, one never wants for long. No one gives you security — you have to do that for yourself. Love can’t buy happiness, marriage can’t buy happiness, only happiness can buy happiness, so it is also unwise to think of finding happiness in terms of roles.
Being someone’s wife or being someone’s mother or even being the best plumber or the best brain surgeon may give you some security for a while, even for a long while, but you always have to be ready to find it somewhere else when the time comes, and it tends to come oftener than one would have thought.
Santayana wrote in a essay entitled “Cloud Castles” about the virtue of impermanence, pointing out that clouds are all different and that, as well as there not being two clouds the same, the clouds themselves keep changing and, hence, are never the same for very long. Marriages work best when both the people in them allow each other to be like those clouds, delighting in each other’s changes. And those who attempt to find security by eliminating inconsistencies eliminate the miraculous with the same deft hand.
There is no security in a relationship that tries to hold on to what was, nor is there security in the one that dreads what might be. There is only security when we accept what is here now, with its limits and its surprises and, when it goes, in accepting what comes, as we would turn over the pages of a book.
There is a difference between needing and wanting and a difference between wanting and needing and loving, and both partners have a right to what they need, although not always to what they want. Each partner has a right to one life and to that life he has the sole right. He hasn’t a right to his spouse’s life, and he hasn’t a right to his child’s, but he has a right to his life, and no one should interfere with that.
It is not possible for one person to meet all of another’s needs, and marriage partners who expect this soon find each other wanting. When people don’t meet all of our needs, they are not always rejecting us — more often, they are saving themselves — and in a good marriage this is perfectly all right. People who are loving toward each other set up their marriages so that it is possible for both partners to get what they need from life and so that no one is expected to give up his needs to meet those of his spouse.
And when their partner meets one of their needs, they accept it as a gift instead of viewing each unmet one as if it were a betrayal. Our times are obsessed with finding fulfillment, so they are times of more than the usual strain between men and women and a good deal of that strain is blamed on marriage, although it should not be. There was a movie a season or two back called Lovers and Other Strangers which had a scene in which a son tries to tell his Italian father that he and his wife of only a few years have decided to get a divorce because, as he puts it, “We feel there must be something more.” The father, not understanding what that has to do with anything, answers, his eyebrows raised for an explanation, “We all feel there must be something more,” to which his son replies,” Then why don’t you leave Mom and get out and get it, Dad?” And the old man shoots back, “Because there isn’t something more!”
They don’t have romantic love with its emphasis on nostalgia, tragedy, and loss in cultures where children are raised by groups of adults instead of parents, so there are those who think romantic love is oedipal love, with the real love object being the image of the parent — ageless, perfect, and unattainable — that the lover hungered for as a child. Falling in love at first sight is transference then, and well it might be, because romantic love – as in knights who served their ladies, as in people who are married but not to each other, as in star-crossed lovers of every kind — tends to be a love that is thwarted, if just slightly, keeping the lovers like those in Keat’s Grecian urn, “forever panting, forever young.”
There are men who are addicted to the magic of falling in love, and the ego-aggrandizing, intoxicating splendor of it all, and never learn that loving is better still. For them, there is no help for a love that is losing its excitement but to fall in love again, with someone else — and, when that too loses its intensity, with someone else again. You can’t maintain a constant state of falling in love, except through artificial means, but loving can go on forever and get better all the time.
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372.