Let’s say there’s something you need and want badly. It’s something you’ve spent half your life trying to find, because the lack of this thing has kept you from being happy. Now let’s say you’ve found what you’ve been looking for. It’s in a box in the next room. You’ve examined it and determined that it’s what you need. What do you do next?
If you’re like most people — and that thing in the box you need is love — you start inventing reasons to walk away without the box. And then you leave it behind, relieved that you made the right decision before you were stuck with what was in that box.
I’d say this is precisely what most of us do at one point or another. And though many end up being thankful about the decision to walk away, many others look at themselves quizzically and wonder, “What was I thinking when I walked away from that?”
I think most people today are desperate for love. I think it’s what we need and want more than anything else in our lives. Sure, we’d all like to have more money or more success or more power at work. Or some other random thing. But I think we pursue many of those things as substitutes for the love that’s missing from our lives.
Researcher Brené Brown has studied connection and vulnerability between people and has come to a simple conclusion about love. In her lecture series called “The Power of Vulnerability,” she was emphatic about what she has learned about what people need.
“…Love and belonging are irreducible needs of men, women and children,” Brown said. “I will go on the record as saying, in the absence of love and belonging, there is always suffering. Period.”
Whether this need afflicts half the people or 75 percent or 99 percent, there are a substantial number of us who are missing love. Some of us know it and want it badly. Others have given up on finding it. Others are in denial and believe that another chunk of money will stop the gnawing feeling inside. Or a promotion will do it. Or a vacation home. Or another bottle of booze or pills. Or an affair. There are a million possibilities.
For some of us, it’s another carton of ice cream that we irrationally believe will make everything better. My need for love is so great that I become paralyzed in life and I start eating sugar and my weight goes up and my health prospects go down, because my brain sometimes can’t tell the difference between love and ice cream.
Otherwise intelligent people will pay $20 for a “love forecast,” not because they honestly think someone can magically predict what’s going to happen in their lives, but because they’re desperate — and $20 starts sounding like a small price to pay for the slight chance that some computer program using tarot cards might really predict something. (I frequently get spam from these people. Here’s the pitch I received by email Friday.)
The signs of desperation and need are all around us. People who wouldn’t otherwise be superstitious turn to “spell-casters” and “magic spells.” On a more mundane level, it’s all around us in popular culture. Movies and books are full of the struggle for love in its various forms. Much of popular music recounts the heartbreak of needing it or talks about the powerful hold it can have over us.
Listen to the 1966 hit by Percy Sledge called “When a Man Loves a Woman.” I’ve always been struck by the lines of this song that point out the awful power of love when we need someone. In one verse, Sledge sings:
When a man loves a woman,
He’ll spend his very last dime
Tryin’ to hold on to what he needs.
He’d give up all his comforts
And sleep out in the rain,
If she said that’s the way
It ought to be.
That’s the part of love that scares us — the part that has so much power that we would do anything to have the object of our desire. But we all know the positive side as well. And we all know that the need doesn’t go away. It’s just that we get scared.
We’re scared of choosing the wrong person. We’re scared of the tradeoffs we’re having to make — since no potential mate is perfect. We’re scared of things we might have to give up if we accept the love that’s being offered to us. And this brings me back to where I started — to the place that people make up excuses to walk away from the love in the box that’s being offered to us.
Brené Brown talks in her lecture series about why we indulge our fears while we’re in the midst of what could otherwise be unspeakable joy. She calls this “squandering joy.”
When we find love, it requires complete vulnerability, especially if it’s with someone who has the emotional maturity to offer that to us in return. That kind of love and connection creates pure joy in us — and we are terrified of that joy.
We push joy away because we’re preemptively scared of losing it. We unconsciously refuse to leave ourselves vulnerable to the pain of betrayal or loss, so we hold ourselves aloof and uncommitted. Once committed, we pull back in fear.
We know we want what’s in the box, but getting that close to what we want triggers deeply buried unconscious fears. Do we deserve that love? Are we going to commit to it only to have that person betray us? Is this person going to abandon us, as others in the past have left when we needed them?
Those unconscious fears create anxiety, so the conscious mind then has to come up with reasons to justify the anxiety. What are we feeling? Why do we feel this way? Maybe we’re committing to the wrong person. Maybe these little characteristics we see that aren’t perfect are really serious mental defects. Maybe we will have to give up too much to have this person. Maybe this person isn’t committed enough to us. Maybe there’s a better match and we should keep looking.
Earlier this week, a friend shared with me something he went through before he got married not long ago. He went back and forth about whether to marry the woman to whom he is now happily married.
“Making the right choice was something I got hung up on with Karen,” he wrote. “It all seemed too good, which is why I backed off a few times also. I couldn’t accept that someone could love me as much as she said she did because I didn’t even love myself that much. After I was rejected by the two women I had previously loved [over a period of years], I convinced myself I wasn’t worthy of love.”
My friend found the love he had been looking for, but he almost found enough excuses to leave it sitting in a box and walking away from it.
I’ve done this before, but I don’t think I’ll do it again. I did it seven years ago with a woman who I was supposed to marry, and I’ve spent countless hours thinking about how I made the decision I made to back out. But by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late.
We have to learn to say “yes” to joy when it’s offered to us. There are times when we simply have to say, “I can’t prove this will work out, but I’m going to take this leap of faith — and I’m going to believe a net will be there to catch me.”
It doesn’t guarantee that we will make perfect decisions, but it does guarantee that we won’t spend the rest of our lives hating ourselves for throwing away the love, understanding, belonging and joy that we have craved — and could have had.
Late last year, I had a relationship with a woman that could have provided all of those things — love, joy, understanding, belonging, companionship, family. But it would have required that I move to a place I’ve never lived. I would have had to leave behind everything I know and start over in her world.
There was a time in my life when I would have used that as an excuse to walk away, but I didn’t do that this time. An offer was made and I gladly accepted it. I was terrified of accepting it, because I knew all the things that could do wrong. The relationship might not last. I might dislike the new place. And more.
But I knew my priorities. I knew what matters most in life. I prioritized love. I set aside my fears and I chose to accept the box with love inside. This time, I didn’t play it safe.
In the end, she changed her mind about some things. She decided her priorities were different. So I lost the box. The love disappeared. But I did the right thing to be willing to take it. I’d do the same thing again.
I have a thirst for love. I think it’s a part of every human being. Some very few people have found a way to fill the need with real love and belonging. For there rest of us, there is suffering while we wait to find it.
Nothing can take the place of love, no matter how many substitutes we try. The thirst will remain until it’s quenched with the love that we were designed to need.
For me, it’s worth any risk once I know where real love is, but not all of us have the same priorities. Those people will keep thirsting and keep suffering needlessly as they find love and then find excuses to walk away from it.