A New Take On Love

“The core problem with romantic love is that it hopes to freeze a beautiful moment.”

~Goethe

 

I believe that romantic love is over-emphasized by culture.  People become convinced that love is a perfect, enduring paradise blooming with deep happiness and boundless understanding.  But that image is often painfully shattered by the realities of living.

 

Romantic love is idealized in popular American culture.  Pop music is laden with the melodrama of heartbreak and the rapture of infatuation.  Romantic love is imbued with impossible qualities in movies and television shows. Depicted in fiction, lover transcends all boundaries of culture, language, moral orientation, and personality.  Love is the closest thing to heaven on Earth.

People feast on the depictions.  It’s encouraging to believe there exists Love as an everlasting sanctuary of bliss from which all woe is excluded.  It’s difficult to imagine that it’s not.  To even suggest that tastes of heresy.

But a strange thing happened to me while I was walking the dusty streets of Siem Reap one sultry afternoon.  I was on my way to drink cheap beer, eat peanuts, and sweat under a slow-spinning ceiling fan.  I wanted to sit at the bottom of an ocean of dense air and watch the noisy traffic.

This was a solitary act.

I’d traveled so far, for so long, that my head was full of wonderful things to think.  I could watch a street corner from a bar seat for hours in silent reflection.  It had become one of my favorite hobbies; to sit, commit to a vice, and think big things.  Ideas I wouldn’t share with casual backpackers.  Strange insights of a strange mind.

While walking along a dike that day, I was struck by a numbing sensation.  It hit me like the emotional equivalent of a popped joint.  A sudden empty feeling where once was a comfortable tension.  I don’t know how else to put it.

The effect was a startling disaffectation.  In that moment, I no longer idealized that romantic version of love touted all my life.  My sentiment drastically and radically shifted.

The cause, I think, was that I’d spent the prior month in a blissful honeymoon fling.  I’d spent the three before that basking in all-consuming, frivolous debauchery.  I had gorged myself on a buffet of romance of every depth.  And then the floor on love, as a priority, dropped out.

With this new thing to ponder, I kept walking.  My peanuts were waiting.

 

It was a few weeks later when I stumbled upon the insights of the 18th century philosopher Goethe.  He warns against the perils of single-mindedly seeking romantic love.  Goethe is a critic of romantic ideology not because he’s cold-hearted or lacking in imagination, but because he so deeply and intimately understood the attractions of romanticism, and therefore its dangers.

I’ve let his viewpoint take root.  I’ve grown, alongside my craving for the passions of romantic love, an inclination towards the solemnity of classic love.

Classic love abandons the heady hopes of romance for the sake of tranquility and administration.  It’s not rose petals and candle wax, it’s folding clothes and washing dishes.  It’s not tuxedos and ball gowns, it’s dirty work jeans and rubber gloves.  It’s not sipping Champagne, it’s stirring oatmeal.  It’s not tender embrace, it’s oblivious blunder.

Classic love accepts, and if done well appreciates, the plainer, duller aspects of life.  It endures the hardships because it accommodates the woeful nature of reality; the squabbles, exhaustion, and confinement.

Romanticism on the other hand becomes, in the reality of marriage, a shattered dream.  Like a cackling devil who’s tricked his victims with false promises.

Love is indeed a virtue worthy of high praise.  It should be strived for.  No doubt.

But the fiery, passionate love felt in the nascence of a relationship, the kind unduly over-represented in media, should be viewed only as the ostentatious opening act to a deeper, more subdued version.  A vow of that initial, flashy love at the altar, expected to last eternal, is foolish and doomed.

Maybe some can find a partner who understands their deepest inner-self; who comforts them always exactly when they need it and knows when to give them space; who supports their growth in just the right way; and who gazes into their eyes with an undiminishing passion year after year.  Those lucky souls have found something truly rare and should strive to keep it.

But for the rest it helps to cultivate a taste for the plainer side of love.  It helps to refine our view on that sacrosanct devotion.  Injecting pragmatism into my definition of love has enriched my life experience.  With it I’m able to create a love that isn’t wounded by a partner’s misunderstandings.  A love that is patient with a partner’s blunders and weaknesses.  A love not doubted in times of sadness.

In accord with Goethe, I’ve moved away from a romantic ideology of love, and towards classicism; an acceptance of the troubles that afflict all couples over time.

In my search now for love, I watch for this preference in potential lovers.  In my practice of loving others, I cultivate this kind.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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