The catalyst for this post is an article by Jonathan Franzen in the New York Times Opinion Pages called “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.” In it, Franzen contrasts the “liking” we do on Facebook and our love affair with technological gizmos with the messy world of real love. This isn’t your standard critique of Twitter and Facebook users being disconnected from the real world. It’s a thoughtful contrast between our technological distractions and why we’re all here in the first place.
Franzen quotes fellow author Alice Sebold on “getting down in the pit and loving somebody” and it’s a nice, succinct way to describe the kind of soulful, imperfect understanding of humanity captured in the works of Thomas Moore and James Hillman. Hillman and Moore dive deep into the soul with their writing, as a way to surface what it is to be truly human. It is not always pretty or pleasant in there, but it is always real.
There are two distinct threads that I really like about Franzen’s “Go for What Hurts” piece: the first is the focus of this post, and it’s about love. The second is about why we are so infatuated with our technology and I’ll save that for a follow-on post.
Love Isn’t a Roller Coaster
When I was in my late teens, it dawned on me one day that my romantic relationships felt a bit like two hearts on a teeter-totter. In the early stages of a relationship, both parties are out on the far ends of the board, where the swings are bigger, more dramatic, and more exciting. She loves me, she loves me not. In those early days of a relationship, the slightest movement can create huge upward swings (she called me back!) as well as downward swings (who was that guy she was talking about today?!?).
And just picture in your mind’s eye what happens when “person A” moves in too quickly on a real teeter-totter without the other person moving in at the same time: the weight shifts, the teeter-totter tilts, and “person B” feels a natural pull away from “person A”, while “A” now feels an even stronger urge to get closer. I’m sure you’ve never seen that happen in a relationship, let alone experience it yourself, right?
Figuring out this teeter-totter thing helped me out a lot in my early twenties; it helped me stay cool, and not blow it so often with women. Yep, it worked pretty darn well for me – for a while, at least. But then, something shifted inside. Staying out on the edge was exciting and fun, but it started to feel hollow, and, how else should I say this – but soulless.
I was living in China when I finally set aside my fear of teeter-totter physics and first dared to move in from the edge. My initial attempt ended painfully, but it helped me understand that opening up and making myself vulnerable to love, felt good – even though it hurt like crazy. My second opening to love was also with a fellow expat in China – and it ended up being even more painful than the first one when it ended. But again, there’s no way I would have traded that pain for the safety of the teeter-totter’s edge. My connection with this young woman was wonderful while it lasted, and through that relationship, I learned a bit about what it meant to open my heart to someone, even if it was a bit wobbly and awkward at the time.
Looking back, I know now that it was only through these bruisings of my heart that I readied myself for my greatest teacher on the subject of love – my wife, CJ.
Love at the center of the teeter-totter is more mellow and sweet. It is deeper. It is the stuff of the soul and I can no longer really imagine a world without it. This is not to say that there are no ups and downs at the center, but the movements all pivot solidly from a strong base. That base is our relationship; and on the day we married, I felt this relationship actually transform into something very real, even though it can’t be seen or physically touched. This is the joining of two souls, coming together on a journey through life. There is no other way for me to describe it.
CJ and I have two young boys, both of whom are too old for real teeter-totters, but still too young to know the ups and downs of this relationship teeter-totter. When they do, I hope I will have the wisdom to remember that what may feel like puppy love to me is actually the teeter-totter in its wildest, most hormone-fed gyrations – and that the heartache it creates is very real. It is this ride on the outer edges of the teeter-totter that usually marks our initiation into the rites of love and connection. And as such, it needs to be accorded its due respect.
Love does take courage. It is nothing short of one soul making itself vulnerable in order to connect with another. To love, to truly love, we have to set aside our facades and expose who we really are. Franzen is right. That is scary. And yet, there is nothing more human or more beautiful in this world.
As we look for meaning in this troubled world that we live in, there is one thing that will always ring louder and truer than the cacophony of electronic buzzing, beeping and chiming that surrounds us. That is the sound of your soul, and no matter how spiritual you may or may not be, we have all had glimmers of what it means to be truly alive. Love is one of the strongest of these experiences, but it is not the only one.
The question Franzen poses is emerging as a central theme in much of my own writing. Answering it is critical to the future of humanity. For in an age increasingly defined by the ephemeral and virtual, how do we maintain our connections to what really matters – to what makes us genuinely human?