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What Love is

You know that famous quote on love that they always recite at weddings? The one that starts with “love is patient, love is kind…?” I wrote a post about this Bible verse, but in my quest to discover whether I’ve ever known love, I thought I would revisit it.

Let me preface this exploration by saying that I am not usually the type who interprets the Bible literally, but since a lot of people agree on this definition of love, I figured it’s as good of a place as any to start.

So there are 15 things that love is supposed to be, and I would say that I exhibit 11 out of 15 of them on a good day. Which would be a 73. Which is a C. And as you know, a C is failing in my book.

I have problems with envy, anger, keeping record of wrongs, and selfishness. Selfishness, in particular, is the hardest one for me to improve upon. I try to be reasonable, but the truth is, I don’t want anyone to get over me. I don’t want anyone to be happier without me, even if I am happier without them. Even if I never hope to be with them again. And even though they want me to be happy.

In my defense, this verse doesn’t explicitly say that love is not selfish. It says that love is not self-seeking. This may be splitting hairs, but that’s what obsessive people do. Wanting to be loved the most is clearly selfish, but is it self-seeking? And if so, what is it that I am seeking?

I guess I want to be the most special person they’ve ever known. I want to be able to hold up that gigantic foam finger that says “We’re #1!” that sports fans wear, even when their team sucks. Except it would say “I’m #1!” So, even if it is narcissistic, our culture clearly condones the desire to be the best as socially acceptable, even when it’s delusional.

But that just sounds like a rationalization for my selfishness, so it doesn’t really alleviate my guilt. Plus maybe we, as a culture, shouldn’t be so focused on being the best, either.

But that is for another blog post.

Oh! I just thought of something that helps me to redeem myself!

So you know how I want to be a famous writer and have a best seller and make a lot of money some day? Well despite my desire for fame and fortune, I often pray that my brother’s blog on “The Walking Dead” will be more successful than mine. That he will be the one who knows fame and fortune. Because I will be happy regardless of what happens with my blog, but it would make him really, really happy to have some external validation of his talent. And I want him to be happy.

See? I am capable of putting someone else’s happiness before my own. I do know what love is after all. Because this is how much I love my family.

Love is

What Love is Not

Not love

Sometimes I’m still not sure I know what love is.

I’ve said I love you many times, but often immediately after the relationship ended I was like, what the hell was I thinking?! It’s as if I had been in a trance, and once the person moved out of my empathy range, I could not understand how I ever convinced myself that I loved that person.

Once the person decided that they loved me, I felt obligated to love them back. I felt like it was my job to give people what they wanted, so I tried my best to focus on the person’s good qualities. In positive psychology research, being able to overlook your partner’s negative qualities is actually one of the best predictors of a happy marriage.

And admittedly, sometimes I would try to change the things I didn’t like about them so that they could be more like someone I could love. That’s part of the reason why I’m afraid to be in a relationship: I don’t trust myself to accept the person as they are. In my defense, sometimes I was responding to their desire to be helped. But sometimes it was just because there were things about the other person I couldn’t stand.

But isn’t that true in loving relationships, too? I’ve often heard couples say that there are days when everything their spouse does gets on their nerves. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean that you feel loving towards them all the time. This is what I would tell myself as a way to justify staying.

And like I’ve said before, if Jesus said we should love our enemies, then surely I can overlook the fact that this grown man picks his nose in public. Even though that was a good enough reason for someone to break up with Seinfeld.

In a couple of relationships I actually felt like I hated the person. My friends would explain away my hatred with the the old adage that there is a thin line between love and hate. But that wasn’t why I hated them. I hated them because they exhibited the kind of narcissism that characterizes psychopaths, and I was their latest victim. And I hated myself for trying to love someone who was a borderline psychopath.

I still have nightmares about one of my exes. I’ve had dreams where somehow I am with him again and I feel panicked and trapped. Like Julia Roberts in the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy” where she walks into her house and sees her husband standing there, even though she faked her death and changed her identity in order to be free from him.

That can’t be good. That hardly sounds like love at all.

I don’t want to give the impression that all of my relationships could be turned into psychological thrillers. Most of them were good guys. And I truly loved the two that I married. The problem is that I never knew for sure whether I really loved someone until the relationship was over. Until they were far enough away that I could distinguish my feelings from theirs.

Yet another example of how empathy isn’t always a good thing.

These are not easy relationship patterns to change. But I have not given up hope. I like challenges. I’ve figured out knitting patterns that were beyond my skill level.  Surely I can learn to choose love, rather than have love choose me.

The Dilemma of Being Human

I am currently reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which is awesome! It’s about this guy who decides to walk several hundred miles to visit an old friend who is dying of cancer because he believes that it will keep her alive. His walk is a form of penance for all of the people he has failed, including himself. To make up for his passivity, he decides to take a leap of faith that he can walk 600 miles in yachting shoes without a cell phone, a map, or a plan, and be redeemed.

I like this book because it explores how loss and grief can change us and our relationships with the people we love. It has always bothered me that someone who had once been so important to us can become someone who we can’t stand the sight of. Even though it’s less romantic, I would prefer to think of love as a weed that sticks around no matter how hard you try to get rid of it rather than some high maintenance flower like a rose that is easy to kill.

I also like the book because I’ve had this fantasy of walking the Camino de Santiago because some Catholics believe it will halve their stay in purgatory. I don’t know if I believe in purgatory, but if it does exist, I would definitely like to shorten my stay there. I can see why a pilgrimage would be therapeutic. It’s like self-therapy with a rigorous physical activity component.

Along the way, Harold meets people who share their own sorrows, which he feels both comforted and burdened by. The other night I read a line in the book that gave me pause: “Harold cold no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and this was the dilemma of being human.”

This statement is at the heart of what my blog is about. I have always felt different from others in a way that makes me feel alone in the world. For being Filipino and for not being Filipino enough. For thinking too much and for being too shallow. For not being married, for being divorced, for not having children. For having depression and anxiety. Even without these specific differences to point to, I have felt fundamentally flawed in a way that I can’t quite put into words.

But as I blog about my flaws, I realize that other people feel just like I do–alone in their craziness. The details make us unique, but the pain of feeling separate from others is universal.

So in a way I feel like I am Harold Fry, on my journey to self-acceptance, but with a much less rigorous physical activity component. And as I tell my story, I give others the opportunity to reflect on their own story so that we can share the joy and pain of being human together.

The Dilemma of Being Human

Photo: Maria Roman

Heartbreak

Regret

I’m working with a student right now who is heartbroken. I’ve always been bothered by how adults distinguish puppy love from “real” love.  I remember when I was in grad school a fellow student was talking about how boring it would be to work in a counseling center where all you do is help students with insignificant problems like breakups. No one questions that divorce is painful, but heartbreak as a teenager or young adult is apparently no big deal.

It took me a long time to get over my first love from high school. It also took a long time to get over my divorces.  I can’t say that my pain was more real or more legitimate as an adult than it was in my teens. And to be honest, I’m not sure I have been any wiser about falling in love or more mature at handling heartbreak than I was when I was a teenager. I feel like I keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

I  think that dismissing someone’s feelings as puppy love is just one of many examples of how we trivialize emotions in general. We judge some feelings as being more or less legitimate.  Puppy love is not to be taken seriously. You can’t be angry without a good reason. It’s better to be depressed if you have a “chemical imbalance.”

And because we haven’t learned helpful ways to deal with pain, we try to push people along too quickly.  So we tell them that they are better off. Tell them to suck it up. Shame them out of their feelings if we have to.

I never talked much about how I felt when I’ve had my heart broken. Certainly not as much as I wanted to. I knew that I wouldn’t hear what I needed to hear. At the time I couldn’t even articulate what I needed to hear, but now I can. I needed someone to tell me that my feelings counted. That my pain was real. And that when I was ready to move on, I would.

This is still what I need to hear, even if I’m just saying it to myself. And this is what I tell my clients when they are heartbroken. And I keep repeating it until they are ready to move on.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia

Today I heard a song on the radio that reminded me of my first husband. Memories of him come up every day–sometimes multiple times a day. Depending on the memory, I may feel a variety of emotions, but I almost always miss him. I almost always wish he could still be in my life.

I’ve always liked romantic movies like “Bridges of Madison County” where two people love each other but can’t be together. I guess in some ways the appeal is that you can experience the intensity of their love without having to be in pain yourself. Because in real life it’s pretty terrible, living with so much longing.

I know I’m not unique in this regard. I’ve seen the Facebook posts where people remember someone they love. I’ve heard people say the pain never goes away–that you just get used to living with it. The prospect of losing someone I love and facing a lifetime of pain has always terrified me. And then I remember that it has already happened.

It’s not that I spend my life pining away for him. I have a good life. I have a loving family and good friends. I love my job. I love tennis and blogging and college football. I have things to look forward to–like Federer being in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. (So exciting!) And yet the sadness is still there, right alongside the happiness.

People have this misconception that you can’t experience positive and negative feelings at the same time, and this is perpetuated by the field of positive psychology. That’s why they tell you to think happy thoughts and count your blessings and remind yourself of why you’re better off without him. These strategies help some, but they don’t make the sad feelings go away.

I don’t allow myself to pray that God will put him in my path again. That would be too close to having hope, and I’m afraid to have hope. That seems like a delusion that wouldn’t serve me well.

Today I considered the possibility that God hasn’t put him in my path for a reason. Perhaps he is a different person from the one I knew, and I wouldn’t like this person as much. Perhaps knowing about his life would hurt me more than not knowing.

The scene that stands out to me the most in “Bridges of Madison County” is when Meryl Streep tells Clint Eastwood that she can’t run away with him because eventually it would turn what is extraordinary about their love into something ordinary. That they would grow resentful of one another and their resentment would destroy their love altogether. That the only way to preserve their love is to walk away from it.

I’ve had many opportunities to pursue the ones that got away, and the encounters were ultimately disappointing; the fantasy was always better than the reality. And now I have no fantasies left to sustain me. No daydreams about what might have been if I had chosen a different path. In some ways it’s a good thing because I don’t have to live with regret. But there is something to be said for having something that you can dream about.

Perhaps God is allowing me to keep my dream without giving reality a chance to destroy it. Perhaps God is helping me to preserve the memory of our love as I knew it. That possibility gives me some comfort–for the moment, at least.

Hiatus

I have always prided myself on being open to love, even after heartbreak. I’ve met people who have closed off their hearts after being betrayed by their loved one, and while I don’t judge them for their decision, it is not how I want to live my life. This is also why, although I’ve had partners who have been dishonest, I still choose to start off a relationship trusting the other person.

A few weeks ago, my therapist suggested that I consider getting a cat. She thought it would help to combat my loneliness and to discharge negative energy. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not an animal person, but I, too, have considered getting a cat. But after talking to my friends about it and imagining what it would be like to have a cat here in my darkest moments, I have decided against it. For now, at least.

I realized after this deliberation process that I am not in a place where I am ready to love, take care of, or lose anyone or anything. I am not necessarily closing off my heart, but I still feel too vulnerable, too raw to be open to love at the moment.

I don’t like the person I have been in relationships. In my most negative moments, my inner critic uses this against me as evidence that I deserve to be alone. I think it has more to do with the super-empath in me who identifies so much with how the other person feels, I cannot separate my wants and needs from theirs. I think that’s one of the reasons I convinced myself that I loved people who loved me; I became what they needed me to be.

As cliche as it sounds, I really don’t know who I am or what I want in a relationship. I am hoping that if I can be free from the wants and needs of others, I will eventually have a better sense of what my own wants and needs are. I have already been surprised by how much I enjoy my solitude–most of the time. How freeing it is not to have my mood be so tied to how my partner is feeling. My mood is all over the place as it is. I now realize how overwhelming it was when I felt everything for the two of us.

So I’m taking a long overdue hiatus from relationships. I am hoping this will lead to wiser decisions about matters of the heart. And if the hiatus ends up being longer than expected, I can always take my therapist’s advice and adopt a cat.

Joy and Pain

I finally saw The Fault in Our Stars the other day. I thought that the movie was true to the book but wasn’t long enough to include all the scenes that I loved. But I guess no one else would be interested in a 10 hour movie.

One of the things they left out was the discussion of whether we need to experience pain in order to know joy. In the book Hazel repeatedly says she doesn’t believe this: “the existence of broccoli in no way affects the taste of chocolate.” I thought that this was such a compelling argument that for awhile I forgot all of the research I’ve read that supports the joy-pain connection.

Hazel worries about how her death will hurt the people who love her. She is afraid that her parents won’t have a life after she dies. She pushes Augustus away because she doesn’t want to be a grenade. But Augustus cannot be dissuaded: “you don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in who hurts you.”

This whole joy and pain thing is actually why I have so much trouble with endings. I look forward to having the summer off but by the 2nd day of summer I start obsessing about how my vacation is running out. I suffer from existential anxiety about death and aging. Even coming to the end of books like this one is difficult because I don’t want to have to say good-bye to characters like Hazel and Augustus.

When I read the book I didn’t fully appreciate Hazel’s obsession with knowing what happens to the characters at the end of “An Imperial Affliction,” which ends in mid-sentence because the narrator dies of cancer. But after watching the movie, I understand. Hazel wants reassurance that life will go on for her parents after she dies.

I’ve always thought that life was kind of cruel in this way. My heart may be broken but the world doesn’t seem to care. Life goes on, despite my pain. It’s kind of insulting, really.

But now I think it’s a good thing. Life isn’t like a book or a movie that begins with joy but ends with pain–and wisdom. Life is more like a series of stories, where we have more joy–and pain–ahead of us. More people to love. More summers to look forward to.  More books to read. So I’m looking forward to the next installment.

I think this doodle looks like lightning bugs.