Something about today’s date felt oddly familiar to me this evening. It seemed as though it used to be important. Who did I associate it with?
And then it hit me. It was her birthday.
It’s really hard to explain my relationship with her. I’ve written about it before, so I’m not going to rehash it. But her birthday has me thinking about that again. And about other relationships. And about love itself.
Why are my memories of love so mixed? I’ve experienced some of my greatest joys in love, but my deepest agonies and hurts have also come from love and its aftermath. I need love, but the fear of being hurt again is so awful that it’s devastating.
The woman whose birthday is today is happily married and we haven’t spoken for a very long time. She eventually realized that I would never love her. She wasn’t willing to be my second choice. And she was wise enough to walk away instead of remaining my “back-up plan.”
Why is it that one person usually loves more than the other? And why do those relationships hurt the worst?
After a different woman gave up on me — after I backed out of marrying her — she married someone else. She quickly started dating another man and married him less than a year later. It was a very bitter period for both of us.
A couple of years later, we ended up having extensive conversations — long emails and intense phone calls — for many months. I asked her forgiveness for some of the ways in which I had handled some things between us. She expressed deep and painful regret about her subsequent decisions.
She once asked me to watch a German film called “Nowhere in Africa.” She had just watched it and the movie had made a profound impression on her, mostly for one point about love.
“One person always loves more,” a man in the film said. “That’s what makes it so difficult. And the one who loves more is vulnerable.”
When I had backed out of marrying her, she felt that she had loved me far more than I loved her. So she was badly hurt that I backed out. She was the vulnerable one.
When I later decided I had made a mistake — that I should have married her and that I still wanted her at the time — she had moved on and married someone else. She was afraid of me hurting her again, she said. I loved more at that point, so I was the vulnerable one.
She came to see love in a way that I see as very cynical. She saw love as nothing but the actions you do for someone, completely disconnected from the emotions of the heart. We were both hurt and she ended up believing it was better not to feel love beyond the conscious decision to care about someone.
I believe she locked her heart in a box — to keep it safe — because it was the only way to deal with something which had hurt her terribly. (She might very well disagree with my interpretation. I clearly don’t speak for her, but I’m making a point that goes beyond her.)
It’s true that one person frequently does love more. I’ve been on both sides of this. The only thing I can say with any certainty is that as long as one person loves more, there’s only pain and alienation. In many cases, that eventually turns to numbness. Even to hatred.
The only love that survives is the one in which two people love equally. Those are rare, but they exist. I still hope to experience that miracle once again. Very soon.
The safe way to deal with this fear is to hide your heart away in a box. To turn love into a series of obligations and promises and duties. Not to allow yourself to feel anything. But the great English writer C.S. Lewis made the case against this in his book, “The Four Loves.”
“There is no safe investment,” Lewis wrote. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to 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. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
To live without love is a special kind of hell on Earth. To live with deep love for someone else — and not to be loved in return — is a very different kind of hell. Both are deeply painful.
So on this birthday of that long-ago girlfriend who was never going to get the right kind of love from me, I’m grateful that she moved on and found the man who wanted her as much as she wanted him.
And as I experience the painful memories of past loves and past hurts — for which I have nothing to show at the moment — I hope to remain constantly aware of the warning we get from Lewis.
I don’t want to put my heart in a box. I want to allow my heart to love — however it needs to — even when the feeling of not being loved in return makes life an emotionally hellish and depressing experience.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable.”