Today, I waffled over box sizes. I needed one just big enough to fit and mail two headbands, two DVDs, a pair of pants, a fleece sweatshirt, woolen socks and a toothbrush. Duane Reade didn’t have it. CVS didn’t either. The next stop was the post office, but I needed to teach in Brooklyn. It would have to wait.
By the time I was done, however, the post office had closed. So, I went home, put these items in a pile, and cried uncontrollably. It was ugly crying too. The kind that contorts your face and makes you sob so hard you hack up phlegm.
“Why am I returning his shit?” I thought. “He’s ripped my heart to shreds. Again. I should just throw it out.”
I sought a garbage bag and returned to my bedroom to do just that. And then I made a terrible mistake: I smelled the collar of his fleece. First, it smelled a little moldy, because he leaves his laundry on the bed for weeks before folding and thus the bottom items are probably a little damp for long periods of time. Second, it smelled like body odor and sweat; more than likely we’d had sex before he’d put this particular item on. And third, it smelled like him—a musk comprised of whatever pheromones are strong enough to melt me from across the room.
Next thing I knew, I was putting the empty garbage bag back in the cabinet and pondering whether or not I should wash the socks before returning them (I wore them a few times last winter). It didn’t matter I’d just been fantasizing about homicide; I’d buy the right-sized box tomorrow.
This is the nature of love. Real love. Not romantic or infatuated love, which is pink and fluffy and lustily fills the gaps in our hearts with a misty perfume. When infatuated, we are drunk on both the fantasies of our partners, and their fantasies of us, reflected in their gaze. Dizzy with desire, we fall into those wanton depths, wanting because we are wanted. And doesn’t that feel like life’s one truest bliss?
But romantic love is all too threatened by the cracks in our facades. The baggage we’ve been dragging behind us. The dirt under our manicured nails, which split and bleed as we cling to the edge of hope, dangling off a cliff.
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his book titled, The Art of Loving, distinguishes between infantile and mature love, or what I think of as romantic versus real love:
“Infantile love follows the principle ‘I love because I am loved.’ Mature love follows the principle, ‘I am loved because I love.’ Immature love says, ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says, ‘I need you because I love you.'”
In our relationship, my partner could not be sexually faithful. He was not deceitful about it, but it hurt nonetheless. At first, I felt I had to play this game too. Maybe I could enjoy the freedom an open relationship could afford!
It didn’t feel like freedom. It felt like a prison. One of my own making. I was pursuant of sleeping with other people not because I desired them, but because he desired other people. And I had to balance that scale in my head. Had to find a way to accept it because I wanted to be wanted and loved by him so much.
But I alone am the judge and jury for my own actions. And if my actions are not congruent with my feelings, they are not my actions at all, but an ego-based need to be in control. And that is not love. That is not self loving either.
I did not want to waste my time being with someone I did not love. Because while he felt the need to chase what would otherwise become his “missed opportunities,” my time spent in another man’s bed would be a missed opportunity to be with him. Thus, I told him, he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted, and I would honor my feelings, however long it could last.
And then the love started to feel more like hate. Hating him for not loving me as I wanted to be loved. Hating the nightmares of the many women I was sure he was sexting and sleeping with (who were probably doing all things better than me). And most of all, hating myself for still needing what he did offer.
Did I express this openly? Of course not. I acted like everything was fine.
In her book, Necessary Losses, Judith Viorst states:
“We cannot love unless we know what love is. We cannot love others as others unless we possess sufficient self-love, And we cannot talk about love that is infantile or mature, unless we are also prepared to talk about hate. The presence of hate in love is commonplace, but it is only reluctantly acknowledged.”
Love is not threatened by our dichotomous natures, but by our denial of it. Existentialist Rollo May claims that our tangled selves—the interlocking parts of love and hate—characterize the “diamonic,” which includes sex and aggression, the creative and the destructive self, the noble and the vile. It is “the urge in every being to affirm itself, assert itself, perpetuate and increase itself.” It is a force, if integrated into what humanist psychologist Carl Rojers called our “true self” that breathes meaning into existence. In order to love someone else, we must embrace the parts of ourselves that we hate. This flies in the face of the ego, the all-knowing bully that tells us those parts are unacceptable, and must be discarded.
I previously wrote a blog post in which I talk about The Hero’s Journey, and how the black moment in every heroic story is a turning point where the hero must make the ultimate sacrifice. This sacrifice includes setting aside his or her ego and choosing to confront his or her greatest fear, in order to achieve a more integrated true self, and spiritual ascendance (self love and acceptance). Doing this requires an act of faith. Thus, with the abdication of control and a surrender to faith, we find meaning.
Spiritualist Eckhart Tolle would refer to this process as “balancing the form and essence identity.” He says,
“If something majorly disrupts your form identity, such as a physical disability, it can more quickly lead you to your essence identity. The same thing happens when someone loses all the things they identify with in their life, when things are removed that you had considered to be an essential part of who you are…and then, if you don’t have a contraction into a victim identity, it opens up into the formless and the essence identity, the piece that passes all understanding…How can a person who lost everything suddenly feel so peaceful? But whenever there is great loss in your life, the potential is there for the rising of your essence identity. And that is grace. The grace that is hiding on the other side of every disaster.”
Why couldn’t I assert myself in this relationship? What was my ego afraid of, ultimately? Was I afraid of losing his love? Or in losing his love, was I afraid I wouldn’t be able to love anymore? Did I fear my Humpty Dumpty heart couldn’t be put back together again? That I would be left hollowed out and empty? Would my well dry up?
Finally, during what had become my ritual morning sob in the shower, I realized I couldn’t love him more than I hated myself any longer. And we decided to end the relationship. Well, I decided. He had little objection. It was all very polite and civil. We would remain friends, sure. How mature of us to be able to walk away with our lessons neatly folded and tucked in our back pockets! No harm, no foul, right?
But then the day after he left for a long trip abroad, I started cramping and bleeding. I felt exhausted, nauseous and moody. It lasted for two weeks. I figured it was because of the stress of the relationship, his subsequent departure, and my income coincidentally falling well below the poverty line, all at the same time. Added to the regular stress of being the single mother of a four year old, of course.
The doctor said, “Yes. All of those things can lead to miscarriage. That and continuing to take birth control when you don’t know you’re pregnant.”
I did not cry. In fact, it felt like there was a beam of light streaming down from the heavens, filtering in through my crown. I had this complete feeling of elation. In that moment, I realized a door inside me that had been long shut and padlocked, had suddenly opened. I knew in my soul that I was willing to compromise on the most immutable obstacle between us; I could be willing to have another child. I wasn’t empty. My well hadn’t dried up. I still had love to give.
Though he was gone, we still communicated. We texted, and FaceTimed and spoke on the phone. He read my writing and I read his. We flirted even. My body ached for him. I started to think, “Maybe we still have a chance.”
For what is real love, if it is not forgiveness? What is real love, if not the bearing of our ugliest flaws—self hate and all—and the subsequent acceptance of those imperfections? And what more transcendent experience can there be than to love without shame, pride, or fearful restraint?
I realize this article has painted my former lover a certain way, but the assembly of facts is not always the sum of the whole. I did not love a man undeserving of my affections. I knew the moment that I loved him, and it was not a moment painted in a pink, fluffy lust or scented with perfume. In fact, it was scented with a pungent odor, “hot boxed” beneath a down comforter.
My lover strongly believed “holding it in is not good for you” and so many an evening spent snuggled up and watching HBO would be punctuated by, at first, a seemingly endearing embrace, then the appearance of a sly smile (like a warning shot) at which point I would begin to struggle; it was never to any avail. My flailing legs only ever served to fan his flatulence into a greater radius around us.
The moment I loved him, however, was the moment I decided (cheeks burning) to share my flatulence too. He responded like a parent does when their child demonstrates a new skill for the first time, “Hey! Good for you, babe. Let’s smell them together.” Then he pulled the blanket up over our heads and we agonized in the cocoon of our fused stench, laughing. I thought, “This moment is perfect. This moment is love.”
I also knew the moment I could love him forever, and that was a moment all his own, to which I simply bared witness.
A veteran of war, he entered college later than most, and is ten years older than his classmates. Because he is blessed by genetics and a head of thick, black hair, these students are often oblivious to the gap. On this special occasion, he’d been asked by his instructor to read a short story he’d written in front of 100 attendees, at an annual event. Sitting on a folding chair three quarters of the way towards the back with my iPhone dutifully poised, I watched him rise to the challenge.
He stood up, took the podium, adjusted the microphone, and shared with those young faces the experiences of his youth. He read a portion of a longer story. A portion we’d spent the previous evening editing and practicing, so he would remain within the allotted time. It was a love story about war, or a war story about love. A story that wasn’t entirely his own, and wasn’t entirely not. A story about death, grief, duty, and friendship. A story about surviving. And a story about guilt.
His voice was a little low and he spoke a little too fast. He rarely looked up from the page, and not once cracked a smile. But the hushed conversations in the back had quieted. The audience members in my row had leaned forward to hear him better. A straining attention had swept over the cramped and crowded pre-war architecture, enraptured by his prose. And when he finished a moment of silence descended, followed by a resounding applause.
Finally, he came back from his time abroad. And after three months apart, as you might expect, I threw myself at him.
Tactfully, he evaded my advance and informed me he had started seeing someone else. He still loved me, if that made it any better, but “love is not enough,” and it all came down to the things I am not and could never be, or understand. Thus, while I had sat around waiting for him to return, he’d spent the summer finding my more suitable replacement.
Clearly, we were not on the same page.
And so, here I am. Surrendered to faith. At the bottom of the ego-less black hole of my worst fear—that of rejection and abandonment—beginning the work of integration. Drowning in my own hate, I am forced to acknowledge love’s products.There were moments when he challenged me to be better than I was, rise above my ego and expand my capacity for empathy and forgiveness. Intellectually, he challenged me as well, which has been non-existent in my romantic history. I was my most childlike with him, when I was never allowed to be a child. And, the sex was good.
But at the heart of it, I never felt like I was enough for him. And I never felt fully included or considered in his life, or decisions. Ours was a relationship in which his identity conflicts demanded dominion, whereas mine had to be obliterated before a true baseline relationship could even be considered. And I had been all too willing to allow that to happen.
Perhaps these are the lessons I will take with me. Maybe their meaning feels small and insignificant in comparison to the aching desire for him to touch me again. But that’s now. The feeling will fade with time and more black, integrating moments to follow. One day, I will finally purchase and mail that damn box. One day–far, far away from today–I might even dare to become Hate’s lover again.