In the wake of a heartbreak, some people cut their hair. Some burn love letters and photographs, or launch into a promiscuous rampage. Sometimes they retreat across the country; sometimes they turn to revenge. But this time, my hair is already short, and I’ve learned that fire can destroy paper, but not memories. I know now I can leave a place behind, but the faces that haunt my dreams travel with me. And promiscuity is just a cheap drug; a quick fix that leaves me feeling dirty. As for revenge, it took twenty-five years, but I’ve learned that Confucius was right: dig two graves.
There is little agreement about why we love, but we all know what it feels like when it’s happening. I look around the room at the disaster my life has become, and I am dimly aware that such drastic measures should not be required to get over someone. What is it about love I just don’t understand?
James Baldwin said, “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”
Research traces the word “love” back approximately five thousand years to the Proto-Indo-European root leubh, which meant “to care” or “to approve of.” In the Germanic tongues, it became bileafa, meaning “belief” and “faith,” which evolved into Old English lufu, which, evidently, became love. Essentially, the word we use to describe our most profound capacity is a mispronunciation of leubh, a term that dates back to the invention of the wheel.
By the 13th century, the most popular usage of the word “love” was to describe someone’s sweetheart, or “beloved,” particularly when addressing love letters. In the 14th century, such sentiments overlaying music became love songs. It was possible to fall in love by the 15th century, but you couldn’t make love until the 1570s, which at the time, simply meant “pay amorous attention to.” Love affairs began in the 1590s. Tennis adopted the term love in the 18th century, in the sense of “no score,” which came from the notion of “playing for love,” which had surfaced a century earlier. By 1919 “one’s collective amorous activities” constituted a love life, which was originally used purely in psychological jargon. Making love didn’t even become a euphemism for “having sex” until 1950. In 1967, The Beatles proclaimed that “All you need is love,” and in 1995, Match.com guaranteed you could find such love on the Internet. Are we, as a species, attempting to label, market, and psychoanalyze the oldest feeling there is?
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.”
Presently, my bedroom resembles a tomb. I fell in love five months ago, and judging from these mountainous piles of clothes, that’s around when I stopped folding laundry. On the desk, there’s a past due renewal notice for an expired business license, dated last November. According to the unchanged calendar, in my bedroom, it stayed fall, even while the rest of the world embraced the springtime. The bamboo plant on my windowsill I once watered with dedication is shriveled and grey. The air is thick with memories and cobwebs and my sudden determination to change everything.
Kahil Gibran said, “Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
If I said I couldn’t remember the moment I first experienced love, I’d be lying. As a writer, that isn’t hard to do, but after all is loved and lost, it’s easier to just tell the truth. It happened one afternoon in September, what feels like a million years ago, but was really less than seven. I was eighteen years old, and he wasn’t the first to whom I’d said “I love you.” Ironically, I never spoke those three words to him at all. I was gazing out his dorm room window in New York City when I had the sudden sensation of being home. I was 3,000 miles from my family, surrounded by 8 million strangers. I’d been in the city less than a month. I hadn’t known him for more than a week. I couldn’t explain the feeling, so I disregarded it. I didn’t realize how much he meant to me until he was gone.
Albert Einstein said, “Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”
According to most psychological theories on the subject, love isn’t really love at all. A combination of Freud’s psychoanalysis with Bowlby’s more recent attachment theory would suggest that adult love is the manifestation of every individual’s subconscious need to replicate their first object of attachment. In other words, all love is derived from love of one’s mother or mother substitute. Love is the re-creation of infantile attachment, nothing more.
Another popular theory contends that love is pair bonding, a phenomenon rare among other primates, yet an evolutionary necessity that would have coincided with the emergence of upright walking. With their newly flattened feet, infants could no longer cling to their mothers who, in turn, could no longer hunt or gather food efficiently carrying their babies in their arms. This theory suggests that love (a.k.a. pair bonding) was simply an evolutionary response intended to ensure the continuation of the human species. If the male renounces promiscuity and acknowledges fatherhood, he can help care for his offspring and thereby contribute to the survival of his own genes. It isn’t love; it’s evolution.
A third theory proposes that love is, essentially, the currency of social-exchange. According to the social-exchange theory of interpersonal relationships, your feelings of love for someone fluctuate with that person’s ability to meet your needs. Objects exchanged include social support, sex, and food. The relationship will dissolve if the costs ever exceed the benefits. Love is what you give to the highest bidder.
Of the many psychological theories on human relationships, these are but three, and while each one provides insight into the nature of romantic motivation, their collective conclusion is that love is really something else: attachment, evolution, or social-exchange. It is worth noting, however, that according to all three theories, no one should ever sacrifice their life for their sexual partner. In the world of love psychology, the story of Romeo and Juliet ended differently. After all, why mourn the loss of one partner when you could more wisely devote your energy to finding another? Yet anyone who’s ever loved knows the very concept of love implies the relationship’s distinction. Few people will argue that losing “true” or “real” love is as tragic as death.
“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” -Author Unknown
To change my room, I begin by tearing down the posters, beginning with my old subway map of New York City. The Rolling Stones, Hunter S. Thompson, and Dali all scowl at my impulsivity, but this paper plastered wall is a mosaic of memories, and I suddenly feel no need to be surrounded by proof of the past. That, and I’ve decided this wall should be painted red. Next, the furniture needs to be moved. As I unload my dusty bookcase in order to slide it across the floor, I come across a book I’d all but forgotten: The Velveteen Rabbit: Or how toys become real. I don’t know what possesses me to open it; from what I recall, as a child, I found it disturbing. The inscription on the inside cover was written by my late grandmother, a Christmas gift when I was one year old.
It’s the story of a toy rabbit who is really quite splendid in the beginning. He is made of the finest velveteen, though he is still stuffed with sawdust, and is thus the mockery of the more complex, mechanical toys. Contemplating his lack of gears, one day the rabbit asks the Skin Horse, the oldest and wisest of the other toys, “What is Real?”
“‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ says the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’”
At this point, something stops me. I read the last sentence again, slowly realizing this children’s book was never about toys at all.
“‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ says the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’”
I finish the book and time stands still. I’ve just found the answer I was searching for.
Eden Ahbez wrote, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
The second time I fell in love, I fell reluctantly. A part of me knew from the start, we were attempting the impossible. We were almost perfect total opposites, and he convinced me that I was crazy, and his parents simply hated me, but for a while, he took care of me, and he promised he’d always love me, even though he’d marry someone else. For a long time, I found it easier to hate him than to believe he could have really loved me and still let me walk away.
“Love isn’t a decision. It’s a feeling. If we could decide who we loved, it would be much simpler, but much less magical.” -South Park
The ancient Greeks had four distinct words for love. Philia was what they called the platonic love of friendship, while their word for divine, unconditional love was agape. Storge was the term for natural affection, such as that parents have for their children, or humans should have for one another. Eros meant romantic love, even desire, equated with “lust” and linked to the word “erotic.”
Here in the 21st century, we pretty much have one word for love. And as a stand-in for a feeling, it endures the daily assaults of scientists, artists, and evangelists alike, each attempting to boil it down to something manageable and explain it accurately, maybe for the first time. It’s almost as though we, as a species, are threatened by this emotion that can cause us to behave in ways counterintuitive to our survival. Almost as though it scares us to love someone more than we love ourselves. So, we attempt to disarm it by saying it’s something else. Love is blind. Love is a game. Love is nothing but the release of hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin in the brain. God is love. Love is a battlefield. Love is the answer. But does anyone still remember the question?
Zelda Fitzgerald said, “Nobody has every measured, not even poets, how much a heart can hold.”
At the end of The Velveteen Rabbit, after being loved so deeply, his satin faded and his fur all but rubbed off completely, the toy rabbit is thrown away. All alone and forsaken, he stares up at the night sky and wonders, of what use is it to be loved, if everything ends like this? Then, the Nursery Magic fairy visits the rabbit and tells him she has come to make him Real.
”’Wasn’t I Real before?’ the rabbit asks.
’You were Real to the Boy,’ the fairy says, ‘because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one.’”
It’s funny, what we remember from childhood. I never enjoyed The Velveteen Rabbit; the story upset me. As a child who loved to the point of obsession, to suddenly abandon something felt unnatural, and to be abandoned was a possibility more frightening still. So I cast the book aside and experienced the world for two decades before I stumbled across it again. Amazing, how much can happen in twenty years.
Now, when I regard my reflection, I know that fiercely loving child is still in there; her eyes are the same, though her smile has faded away. I have loved, and I have been loved, and I have left, and I have been left behind. Each time it happens, as I stand in the smoldering wreckage of my favorite dream, left with more skeletons than my closet can hold, I wonder, if this is always how it ends, why keep loving? This time, I have an answer to that question: Love is what makes me feel Real.
“Nothing spoils the taste of peanut butter like unrequited love.” -Charlie Brown
The third time I fell in love, I finally knew better. This time I recognized it as it was happening. This time I saw a future, one that compelled me not just to keep fighting, but to keep forgiving. We lived in the moment, and we valued each other for the very things we wanted to cultivate in ourselves. He felt like home, and this time, I told him I loved him before it was too late. But it didn’t change the outcome. In the end, I realized he was someone I had to leave. Few things in my life have been harder than walking away from him. I made the right choice, but sometimes I miss him so much I can’t breathe.
William Shakespeare wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Though it’s been five weeks, my room is only halfway painted. It didn’t take long to recognize, the transformation I’m seeking won’t happen overnight. In my rush to re-vision my world, I forgot real change must start within. My explorations of love find me now at my own doorstep; the one thing I never learned is how to love myself.
At the end of the day, self-love can’t be inspired by a haircut. It isn’t a subconscious reaction to external stimuli like affection or success. Researching the origin of love, etymologically, its evolution, and every theory ever recorded about why it happens, won’t make self-love any easier. All my life, I’ve substituted self-love with the love another has for me. This works flawlessly…until the love affair ends. What I didn’t understand about love, until now, was why the loss of it destroys me. Now I realize, all these years, I’ve been counting on the love of another to make me Real. It feels like time I finally learned to love myself.
Freud blamed your mother, scientists dismiss it as adaptation, and as long as humankind remains diverse, its definition will be a matter of semantic variation. In the end, you will define love for yourself. There is no wrong answer. Our ancestors called it leubh; to me, it’s becoming Real.
Becoming Real by Chelsea Bets is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.