Is love the best thing in the world? Or the worst?
Do you remember your first love? I remember mine well. The world seemed perfect. Everything was right as long as I could be with her. Do you remember your first heartbreak? I remember mine painfully well. The world seemed black and dark. I couldn’t possibly be happy again, because I couldn’t be with the one I loved. You’ve felt that way, haven’t you?
I’ve been thinking about love all week, both the good and the bad, because of an experience a friend has just gone through. He sent me a note Tuesday to tell me what happened to him and ask for advice. I’ve been slow to respond, because I’m not sure what I can say that’s useful. How can you help a man whose heart has been broken?
My friend just experienced his first love and then his first break-up. The relationship didn’t last but a couple of months, but it’s changed so much for him — and he’s left confused and hurting.
We’re going to call him Josh, but that’s not his name. He’s a smart and insightful young man, but he’s struggling to reconcile the horribly conflicting emotions that took him from an amazing high to a devastating low. He described everything that had happened and then asked, “Any advice?”
Josh can’t talk to his family and most of his friends about the relationship, so that makes it worse. He and his girlfriend were of different religions and he’s surrounded by people he says are bigots. So they never knew about what was making him so happy and now he can’t talk about what’s making him so miserable. For the very few who he feels comfortable with, he says he doesn’t feel like weeping around them.
“So far I can manage it,” Josh writes. “I try to be grateful. My decision is to be grateful. But there is something that happened that feels like emotional roulette. My mood swings now. My emotions switch quickly. I’m angry, proud, sad, happy, disappointed, angry again. In the morning I can sing out loud and feel awesome, by afternoon I feel like crying, but by the night, in the hours when we used to talk, I feel various negative feelings and wishes creeping in. My decision is to let it go, to let her soar. But with this storm of emotions, I may succumb to not move on and end up chasing her again.”
Although Josh is hurting from the loss of love, he said he tried to deny and avoid the feelings in the first place.
“My first reaction when I fell in love with her was to deny the feeling,” he wrote. “I tried so hard not to give in to the alien emotions I’d never felt before. But I felt sick trying to push them aside like that.”
Despite his fears about feeling love, he confessed his feelings and she accepted him, “despite all of my shortcomings.” He says her acceptance healed him. And now the loss of her love and acceptance have left him in bad shape.
“The energy is lost,” he said. “My willpower to do things is drained. Maybe this feeling of being broken won’t last very long, and I’ll be fine later. But the present is still hell.”
What do you say to someone who’s experiencing that? How can you react other than telling him that what he’s feeling is normal and universal? Is there any emotionally healthy person who hasn’t experienced both the ecstasy and healing of love that he describes? And is there anyone who hasn’t experienced the pain and brokenness that he describes?
I honestly don’t know whether love is the best thing or the worst thing in life. It’s probably both, depending on which part of it we’re experiencing. But the thing I’m most certain of is that there’s nothing in the world as necessary as love. There’s nothing in the world that can give life meaning. Nothing.
When something causes pain, the natural reaction is to avoid it. If you burn your hand on a stove, you learn not to touch the stove. But it’s not like that with love. It burns us and the pain is searing. But for most of us, the need for love is stronger than the most powerful addiction in the world. At our core, there’s an emptiness that can only be filled by love of various kinds — and few are as powerful as the need for romantic love.
To Josh, I’d say that this is the central contradiction of love. Nothing will ever hurt you as much as the hurt you’re experiencing. You’ll love again and you’ll be hurt again. Probably over and over. And your need to be loved will be so great — and the feeling of satisfaction and healing will be so strong when it’s there — that it will be worth taking the risk again and again and again.
Then, finally, there will come a love that’s different. It will be a love that might stay for good. It might be a love you can trust and count on.
You can’t know for sure. Each time you fall in love, you hope that this might be that one that lasts. Even though you keep being disappointed, you try again.
And it’s worth it. Love is worth all the pain that comes with losing it.
There are only two choices with love. You can remain vulnerable and keep pursuing the right love for you or you can give up and watch yourself die. English writer C.S. Lewis expressed this more memorably than anyone I recall.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable,” Lewis wrote. “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
The woman who broke your heart this time is probably gone, Josh. There’s a possibility she will be back, but it’s not likely. Several times in my life, I’ve been desperate to regain love that I’ve lost, but I’ve always had to accept the loss in the end. A few people get lucky and have a second chance with the same person. I tried something like that a few years ago and it failed. Losing the second time hurt even more than losing her the first time.
So what do you do? You let yourself cry. You feel the hurt. You grieve with a pain that’s just as bad as losing someone to death. And then you slowly start to heal. Very slowly, in many cases.
Then when you least expect it, love will suddenly return. It might be when you meet a woman on the street who’s a stranger. It might be when a friend introduces you to someone else. It might be a random email from someone who has absolutely no intention of loving you.
But at some point, you’ll love again. When that happens, the world will seem bright and shiny and new again. You’ll be happy and joyful again.
That love might or might not last, so I’m not promising it will be any better. You might be hurt again. But there might very well come a day when love comes and stays, when there’s someone you can trust and love and be happy with.
I can’t make any guarantees that it will happen. I can only say that it’s worth pursuing.
Love isn’t rational in any of its forms. It will make you do irrational things at times. But love will change you and give you what your heart most needs. It’s worth pursuing — and going through the hurt.
Have faith in love. It’s the only thing that makes life worth living.