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Soulmates and Sandcastles

July 16, 2008
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Through these posts I’ve investigated various components to relationship building. I’ve argued that we choose mates to complete our own personal identity, I’ve discussed the various factors that we consider when we choose a mate, but I have not discussed the main focus of these meditations yet: Love. So in this post I will discuss what is love, and how it develops.

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As I first discussed in my initial thesis these postings will be looking at “love as a union.” That is to say love as experienced by two people who are to be fully committed to each other. I recognize there are other types of “love” out there, but in this post I want to solely focus on “love as a union.”
What is love? Love has been written about for centuries, yet no words can describe it. Scholars and philosophers have spent a millennia trying to grasp it, yet only come out with empty hands. Poets, musicians, and painters are the only ones who’ve come close to defining its meaning, and despite bloodshed and tears each definition and representation is more convoluted than the next. It has been said to make the world go round, and it has been said to start wars and end cities. But what is love? And where do we find it? In my previous post I’ve discussed where we look. We seek to find our “other half”, a completion of our own identity. But once we’ve found that person does that mean we’ve found love as well? Or is love something more organic? An entity unto itself.
But perhaps I’m jumping into the deep end too soon. Let me back up, and start with a bit more doggie paddling. In order to understand these questions a bit more let me dissect various examples where love can occur:
– You see a girl from across the bar, you lock eyes for a brief moment, she smiles and turns away. She’s no longing looking at you, but the image of her face is burnt into your retina as though you had just looked into the sun. Crossing the bar you strike up conversation with her. Turns out you both are from New England, you both listen to Otis Redding, and you both love drinking Red Stripe on the beach barefoot. The talk flows like a river, and you both just “click”. You both have similar interests, you both happened to be in the same bar at the same time, and you both have perfect chemistry. You fall for each-other instantly and spend the next weeks at the hip together.
– You’re eating out with your best friend. You two have known each-other for six years now. He’s seen the best, and he’s seen the worst in you. Despite your short-comings, and despite his,  you both have learned to overlook them and thoroughly enjoy each-other’s company. You two have never had problems talking, and have always respected each others opinions no matter how different. You two are currently talking about your latest mishap in the war of love, your most recent break-up. He listens attentively, lifting the weight of each word off your shoulders. You realize he’s always been there for you, and the bond you feel for him has always been stronger than any flighting emotion you’ve ever felt for a lover. Scared, you realize that what you’ve developed for him has become much more than friendship.
– It’s the third time she’s broken your heart. It didn’t hurt as much as the first, but it’s definitely made you madder than the second. You feel like she’s the love of your life, but you never thought it was going to be this hard. It’s your fourth year together, and you don’t see why you can’t overcome another heartache. Nobody seems to understand your on and off again relationship, and sometimes you don’t either. But with each passing day you feel your love getting stronger, and with each trial you overcome you become more and more sure of it. You reassure yourself that years from now, looking back on all this heartache, the ultimate destination will be well worth it.
– It’s your wedding day. You’re dressed in a beautiful pink sari, adjourned with jewels and jasmine oils. You hope your future husband takes a liking to you, but you don’t know- you’ve never met him. You know how to cook, be attentive, and raise children; you hope that’s enough to keep him happy and content, and maybe even enough to have him love you. You know he’s successful. A businessman who speaks English and drives a car. You only hope he’s a good husband, and a good provider, and maybe in the future even you too could learn to love him.
In these examples we see four very different ways of experiencing love. Love at first sight, love flourishing from the foundations of friendship, love tempered through tribulation, and a love developed over time. These are three very different loves, both in conception and fruition. In the first example we see a man and a woman meet and love instantly. A classic example of what I’ll call “love at first sight.” That instant chemistry and connection someone feels when they meet Mr. or Ms. Right. When this connection pays off into a long and satisfying relationship one could say they have met their “soul mate”, a term meaning they’ve serendipitously met the love of their life, the only one to make them happy. Of course one could argue against the “soul mate” theory, the belief that there is a single person that could make you completely happy and satisfied in love. Astronomers say we’d be ignorant to believe that ours is the only planet to bear life, and the same could be said in the belief that there is only a singular solitary person in a planet of 6.7 billion that could make you truly happy. Of course the instant connection mentioned above could also be a bright flame which dies quickly due to lack of flammable material. Lust and passion are two powerful things, and can easily sway even the most stable of of hearts. That instant connection could easily turn out to be an infatuation, a short lived obsession with with eerily similar interests to yourself. While the rose-colored lens of love make the world a prettier place, they may not always be your prescription.
In the second example we see love stem from a deep rooted respect and trust of a friend. Using this base for the foundation of a relationship, these two move onto develop a long lasting and strong relationship. I refer to this theory as the “castles made of sand” (coined by a friend of mine). Taken from the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name, he sings, “And so castles made of sand melt into the sea, eventually.” The instant connection and click I’ve mentioned above could turn into a strong and loving relationship, but it’s not built upon a solid foundation. Of course a base needs to get built in time in order to succeed, like any successful relationship. But in the second example that foundation is built first, and a love assembled on top of it. They’ve already put in the leg work, earned each other’s trust, learned to communicate, and genuinely enjoy spending time with each other. Of course there is a thin-line between a friendship and love, and crossing is always a scary proposition. There is no way of knowing whether the relationship will successfully pan out or fail. And there is no way of knowing whether you can go back to being friends should it end.
My third example speaks of the enduring love of an “on-and-off-again” relationship. The kind where two just can’t let go of each other, yet the breaks are frequent. In the human body our muscles and bones become stronger from damage. When we lift weights or run hills we make tiny tears into the muscle which grow back stronger, when we break our bones the oddly shaped minerals fuse together in an even stronger pattern. Even plants flourish from pruning. With these examples found in nature, it’s not so strange to believe the same can be said about the heart, that for each heart break we survive we become stronger as a person. As a person surviving heartache we learn what we want from a mate, and we learn what we don’t want. We learn how to treat others, and we learn how we’d like to be treated ourselves. But does a love get stronger as well? Surely this statement depends on the context. For a break-up over infidelity is vastly different than a break-up due to distance. The two parties involved are also variables. Can they communicate and overcome the obstacle? Is the love strong enough to overcome the obstacle? While a plant may spawn more flowers after shearing there are more factors than simply to cut. Prune too much and the plant will die. Prune at the wrong time and it will stunt its growth. Prune without supplying enough nourishment and the plant will regress. Healing and growth do go hand in hand, but there are many variables which determine the outcome.
The last example is an arranged marriage, and the foreshadowing the possible love afterwards. This example points out that love can be born between two people, even if the factors of time, chance, and similar attributes don’t exist. Of course this is only a single example. This type of love could arise from a blind date, “settling” due to various reasons, or marriage due to an unplanned pregnancy. Surely this is the least romantic vision of love. It’s not instant, it’s not hot passion from the start, it’s a slow long process to find that glimmer in the dark. When people think of love they don’t often think of the long slow struggle uphill. But perhaps love is just that. A long slow struggle to find someone you love. There are enough poems, songs, and paintings to support the theory that love is the agony of pining for someone. But is love such a strong thing it can grow from poor soil? Suppose you are stuck on a desert island with X person. Given enough time could you fall in love with just about anyone? Investigating these various examples, it certainly seems like I’ve come up with more questions than I had initially, and have yet to come up with any answers. Let me now dig through these discoveries, and see what I’ve found so far from this mental exercise.
Given that all of these examples speak of love, then love must be the constant variable in all of these examples. So let me now strip away the differences to uncover this constant. But before I do that let me first point out the difference between “loving” and being “in love.” Not all of these examples show people “in love.” The first and third examples show people “in love”, while the second shows people who love each-other. “In love” implies the being completely surrounded by that persons love. Consider a body of water, by perceiving it you may love the sounds of the ripples, the cool breeze off the surface, and the smell. But this perception is very different than when you are in the pool. This is analogous to the difference between “loving,” and being “in love.” Of course being “in love” is the ultimate goal for any love. One wants to be “in love” all of the time. Yet this is a difficult task. Surely the couple in the third example love each other dearly, yet are not always “in love.” The couple in the fourth example can love each-other, and lead a very happy and successful companionship together, yet never feel the thrill of being “in love.” One could certainly argue that being “in love” is not a constant that follows love. So with that in mind let us look at constants that can be found in love.
Love cannot be defined by its inception, nor it’s follow through, as can be found by differences between all of the above examples. Love is not defined by a set of similar interests and activities, as can be found in example four. Love cannot be defined as a singular feeling; in the first example it sweeps them off their feet, it is a steep precipice the two must jump off in the second, and an enduring trial to the third couple. Love is not always found between strangers, as seen in the second example. Love is not a continual and self-fulfilling prophecy, as seen in examples two and three. What we’re left with seems to be the need to find companionship, find someone who we find ourselves in, yet also supply us with a fulfilling life. Given this conclusion it seems like the behaviorists have won. Love is nothing more than a way of connecting us with someone who makes a good mate, and helps us fulfill our biological need to continue our genetic code. In Lori Gottlieb’s article Marry Him!, she discusses her case for settling. She argues that our ideals of romantic love and finding “the one” has become so idealized by popular culture that we find ourselves chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. She argues that we should settle for a “decent” and “imperfect” mate, for “Marriage isn’t a passion-fest. It’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business.” But if love is to be courted in the halls of behaviorism, then how can we explain its existence? Consider the romanticized definition of love; Romeo dishonoring his family for love, Pocahontas risking her life for love. Surely emotional attachment isn’t a very good survival mechanism. So why does it exist at all?
A few nights ago I was having drinks with some friends and the topic of love entered into the conversation. A few glasses of wine in we were discussing the topic quite vehemently, and quite freely. Being the devil’s advocate I raised Gottlieb’s point on the idealized concept of love in popular culture. My friend quite rightly responded, “Who says there can’t be romance? I’ll make my life romantic if I want to.” Perhaps that is what love is. It’s something you have to work at, something you can create through effort. But that does little to explain our natural affinity towards feeling love. As elusive as love may seem, it’s a real and tangible thing, felt by everyone. We watch romantic films, read love poems, and we can all relate. Perhaps love is both. The paradoxical self-fulfilling attachment towards another. It’s everything we make of it, and more. It’s not something that we can expect to sweep us off our feet, but sometimes it is. It’s that persistent work to be a good partner, and it’s doing nothing yet being completely content. It’s starring into each-other’s eye and getting lost, and it’s being so mad you’re unable to look at that person.
There is a story from ancient Greece that tells how a few men traveled to the Oracle of Delphi to discover who the wisest man in the world was. The Oracle replied, “Socrates.” The men confronted Socrates and asked him what he knew that made him so wise. Socrates responded that he, “…knew nothing.” But it was not his ignorance that made him the wisest man, it was his modesty, his acceptance that he was mortal and could not comprehend the many mysteries of this world. Love is one of these mysteries. The more we try to define it the more we fail to grasp what it truly is. About the only certainties we have on love is that it’s felt differently by everyone. We can’t always help who we love, but we can help how we love. And that love is not a constant and unchanging, it’s a living organic thing that we can only nourish, sit-back, and hope it grows healthy and strong.
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