“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”
— Edgar Allan Poe, in a letter to George W. Eveleth
I had just spent most of a year wanting to be rid of a woman I had been dating for three years. I broke up with her one time but I felt so guilty that I changed my mind a few days later. I wanted her to decide I was right — that we had no future. After months of this waffling from me, the day finally came.
She was giving up on me and moving on. Suddenly, I felt hurt and stricken. I had made a terrible mistake. I wanted her back.
I was in my first year of working full-time after college. My work suddenly suffered. There was one day when I didn’t show up for work until halfway through the day. I was a basket case.
A co-worker had the perfect solution for me, though. She said I needed to pretend to be seriously ill, enough to get put into a hospital. I don’t recall the details, but she had a very serious plan. She was sure this would bring my ex running back in fear that I was dying.
Although I didn’t seriously consider her plan, this has always stood out to me as the height of love’s insanity. People in love can be desperate. They can do insane things.
But I’ve had crazy thought. What if these periods of love-driven insanity are the very best parts of life? What if it’s the period of “horrible sanity” that make life unbearable? Without the unbearable insanity of love, does life have any meaning?
I’m of two minds about this, of course. One part of me knows it’s nonsense. The desperate and crazy feelings that come when we want someone can feel dangerous. We can feel as though we’re just one step short of breaking down. I’ve felt that way before.
I’ve written about that more than once. In fact, there’s no other subject that brings as much email response to me. I’ve noticed that things I’ve written about missing someone or feeling desperately alone get the highest readership very late at night. And I often get emotional emails from heartbroken people who write to say they feel the same way.
More than one person has written me to say that he or she thought that nobody else in the world felt as he or she did on the inside — about loving or missing someone — but that I had expressed what this person felt deeply inside. Some of these people write just because they’re hurting and lonely. Others write to ask for advice.
I try to give people reasonable advice when I can, but maybe I’m the last person who should be giving advice. After all, I’m just as alone as they are. My choices about love have left me hurt and alone, too.
When I do give other people advice, I give them a rational analysis of whatever situation they tell me about. I can see their situations clearly and objectively in a way that they can’t. For the most part, they can’t see the people they love any more objectively than I can see for myself.
In some of the cases I’m asked about, there are clear and obvious solutions. Most of the relationships that people ask me about sound as though they need to end. Many of them sound as though they never should have started. But even as I’m giving people reasonable and rational advice, I know they’re unlikely to listen.
People who are in love mostly want to hear that they should hold onto love, even love they have for people who don’t love them anymore. Even love they have for people who abuse them. People who’ve hurt them. People who they no longer trust.
People who are truly in love don’t typically act like rational people. In fact, if you’re not acting at least a little bit insane — as a result of the love you claim — you’re probably not really in love. And that contradiction sounds insane to me, but it’s true.
I was driving home from work one evening recently when a phrase hit me out of nowhere. I was thinking about love and its effect on me. I was thinking about how love can limit my choices and keep me from pursuing things I might otherwise pursue. Out of the blue, I heard these words in my mind.
Love constrains me, but it saves me, too.
I wasn’t entirely sure what I meant by that at first, so I pondered it for the rest of my drive home. By the time I pulled into my driveway, it seemed to make sense.
Love is what I live for. Love in all its forms. I don’t love as widely as I wish I did. I wish I could love more people, but that’s hard for me. When I do love, it’s something that causes me to be unreasonably devoted. Desperate. Determined. Blind, even.
When I love, it’s not just words. It’s a fierce fire that burns brightly inside me. It’s a blazing fire that’s almost impossible to put out. If I love a woman, I’ll do anything for her. This isn’t so unusual. It makes me willing to sacrifice anything and everything — if she will just love me in return.
If love didn’t exist, I’m not sure I would find another reason to live this human life. If I could live for another thousand years — but I would experience no love along the way, only limitless pleasure — that wouldn’t be a life I would find worth living.
On the other hand, even a short life with the right love would mean everything. I recently found myself so overwhelmed by a particular love I was feeling that I thought something odd. If I were told that I could have just one year with this love — and then I would die, giving up the rest of my life — I knew I would gladly accept. It wouldn’t even seem like a sacrifice.
Is that insane? Probably. But it’s the sort of thinking and feeling which can make life feel completely meaningful to me. I need to love and be loved. I need that more than I need life itself.
Love is a power source for me. Even though it can be insanity, it’s that flame of absolute love that might save me from the nihilism of “horrible sanity” which life would be without love.
Note: The art above is from 19th century French painter Gustave Courbet’s self-portrait called “The Desperate Man.”