What can we really know about romantic love? It is like a whirlwind sometimes; defying reason and physics, sweeping us up in its storm and placing us somewhere far from where we began. It comes with such ferocity and intensity, and we are so caught up in it, that we rarely have the opportunity to investigate it before it’s gone.
We usually only stop to consider the love that we are caught up in when it has lost its life and lies windless and dull, with a mess all around us. And by then it is too late. Love’s reasons to have begun are no longer there and you are left only with the reasons it thinks that it should stay. Because you have put in the time. Because you are afraid to be alone. Because it’s what you are used to.
But if we had the chance to step back and observe love in nature; peek in on it from infancy to maturity, from middle age to death, I think that we would find that loving someone else is mostly a reflective and self-affirming thing. What we come to love is what we find of ourselves in another and the joy at what we see reflected back to us – a validation that we have a same out there somewhere. As Scottish poet Alexander Smith said;
“Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.”
But where there is love there is also the potential for loss. Of losing ourselves in the whirlwind and of losing the whirlwind of ourselves. So there are lessons to be learned from loving and losing if we know where to look.
We often hear the pithy words that you can not love another until you love yourself, but I disagree. Loving yourself is not a necessary component of love. Love must start alone, that much is true, but it begins with self-awareness. Love – true, lasting love – is only possible as you begin to know yourself, question yourself and search for yourself. Love is a quest to find your mind in the body of another, so that you may be sure of the validity of your vision of the world. We love deeply so that we can connect enough with someone else – to trust them enough – that we can come to have reliable confirmation that someone, anyone, can see with our eyes and feel through our hearts and that we are not alone in how we see this world.
We come to love because we want to be confirmed. We want to find ourselves – the reflection of us that is not us – so that we can be sure we are a real thing in a real world. Slipping into love is our way to bring ourselves out of ourselves. To find validation in the way we see the universe because it is a shared vision with another person. It is momentary authentication of a world in which we realize that we are all subject to our own experiences and we have no means to truly connect with the depth that we so desire.
We love ourselves all the more when we come to love another. And in “delighting in the recognition” of another distant soul that shares our spaces, we come to form a whole. Like the Roman myth of Zeus hurling lightning bolts to split us from our other half, we feel complete when we meet another that may be the fulfillment of us. Because the heart seems like a thing that has been parted, that it is missing something that it lost. Even if you have never loved at all, the want of another half pushes you to look for it. A thing that can be found. So you go off to find the one that shares your mind.
But you realize quickly that love is not merely a finding thing. It is a learned thing. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche compared the learning of love to learning how to appreciate music:
“One must learn to love.— This is what happens to us in music: first one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life; then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity:—finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing: and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.— But that is what happens to us not only in music: that is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty:—that is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way: for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned.”
Learning how to love comes from awareness; of yourself and the other. It is an approach of appreciation in the familiar strangeness that we find in the person we come to love and dedicating our time and energy to understanding that strange melody of difference because we see the impression of our own oddity and we find the rhythm of our own hearts in the song of another. And then you see the beauty that can be produced when you truly learn to love.
It is a process that comes with failures and successes. Every love we have is another opportunity to further appreciate the nuance of what loving means for us and how we can better approach, understand and be gentle with it. Every love is a different melody and if we can learn to be patient and attentive and inquisitive we can find the harmony that best fits the song we now sing.
But even after learning how, love is walking the thin rope bridging the gap between isolation and intimacy. That trembling trip where we are so precariously balanced; our teetering, clumsy steps inching us closer towards the other side, but threatening a tumble to the abyss of heartache should we fail to step too quickly or too widely or too broadly. And we are clumsy animals in love, so it is often that we fall.
The sad reality is, although we ache to find someone who understands us completely, who occupies the same space in the world and who sees with the same eyes that we do, we can never truly find the understanding that we so desire. Even the closest and deepest of loves is left separated behind a thin fog of the individuality of our experiences, emotions, and thoughts. We can never truly know the other person with a completeness that we ache for.
It is the origin of nearly every misunderstanding in a relationship that we should be expected to know the thoughts and desires of another in such detail and strength that we can know what the other will think before they do; know what they will want before they do. We are expected to read minds because being in love makes it feel like you are sharing one, but that expectation is a killing thing in love.
We want to maintain the facade of total understanding of another person, so we make accommodations in order for it to fit our vision. We change ourselves a little to make the love last. We find the reflection of ourselves in the other person fading, but still, we try to hang on and make it look the same because we swore we saw it once and we know the other person understands us to completion. We tell ourselves that without them we might just be alone in our understanding of this big, black universe and the thought of not having someone that can corroborate our story is too much to bear.
And because of that, our hearts often break. The expectation of understanding dissolves and arguments ensue or we no longer appreciate the strange melody that the other person produced because the oddness is now so unlike our own, so we go off to search for another that might be closer to our own. No matter how it breaks, it always breaks, because we put too much expectation on the understanding of another.
But that breaking of a heart is a pain worth having because hearts are good at being broken. They are fragile things that shatter all the time, and nature gives us the adhesive to put it all back together again – time.
You will slowly forget to remember that they are gone. The hole that they left will eventually grow over; with weeds at first. Harsh things that demand to be pulled, but if you tend to your heart by using the loss to know yourself in a deeper way you can plant something there that would never have had the chance to grow before, because it’s a different sort of soil now.
But you ask, how do I love with a heart that’s broken? And I tell you to look at the scattered remnants of your heart and you find the piece that loves. You reclaim it from the broken pieces of everything else of your life that losing love makes and you push it back inside your chest. The rest of your life will reconstruct around that still, small piece that loves.
Because something broken begs for, not just repair, but reconstruction to be better. We can remodel our hearts in any way we like, using anything we have on hand. Friends. Family. Nature. Meditation. Exercise. Travel. Hobbies. There are a million ways to build a better heart that will be better at loving the next time it comes around. And it starts again with getting to know yourself, who you are now that you have loved and lost, and who you want to be after.
The truth is, loving or losing, all of it is mere moments. The first nervous ones of exploration and expectation. The languid, liquid moments that seem to stretch out like a river where you are learning about the other; their hopes and dreams and visions that you share. The roller-coaster-heart-thumps of first kisses and the tremble of fingers on skin. The blinding moments of distress and pain and sadness and hurt. The ache of absence and the confusion of argument. They are all just tiny moments that eventually add up to a thing we chase again and again.
Because when you expose yourself to love – opening to the explosion of your soul at the recognition of another or the potential pain and eventual death by a million tiny cuts – you risk a disaster that is worth the price. You choose to fly too close to the sun, enjoying a view and a wind and a freedom to find yourself that few people ever get to touch, knowing that it could melt you down into a tumble to earth and you could lose it all in a moment.
But you always remember; losing in love does not make you unlovable or unloved. You are never unlovable or unloved because all it takes to be loved is for someone to recognize the part inside you that reflects the part inside them. A recognition of the common things that you share and the unique melody of your music together. There are so many of those reflections possible in this world if we only polish the mirrors of our minds and hearts by living the lives that we want for ourselves and learning about what it takes to appreciate the love that we find.