For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
There are vampires amongst us. Those who have had their hearts broken, and have therefore become heart-breakers themselves; those who have imprisoned themselves in a fortress of defence mechanisms originally designed for protection; those whose jaded spirits have been drained of innocence and trust; those who have foolishly convinced themselves that love is a cage and that they can be happy alone forever. Our first impulse upon encountering one of these sufferers of syphilis of the soul is to ‘save’ them, which is a dangerous game indeed, for in so doing, we put ourselves at risk of infection. Love is a two-way street, and only allows you in when both ends are open. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz advises us that “Love is an attempt at penetrating another being, but it can only succeed if the surrender is mutual.”
One wonders what gave birth to such vampiric monsters? They are the inevitable casualties of the romantic massacres that have plagued humanity since our brains tragically evolved to such a level to grant us the ability to experience such absurd pain. They have fallen flat on their faces chasing that first indicator of love – butterflies. The euphoric feeling of butterflies in your stomach is caused by a release of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, which are themselves released when one experiences anxiety and stress. Therefore we fall for people who produce these traumatic emotional states. No wonder then, that we so often give our hearts to those who hurt us! The Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges beautifully observes that, “To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.”
Researchers tell us that love is not an emotion, but an evolutionary drive, a mental addiction to another human being arising from primitive regions of the mammalian brain, and is characterized by “focused attention on the preferred individual, rearrangement of priorities, increased energy, mood swings, sympathetic nervous system responses including sweating and a pounding heart, emotional dependence, elevated sexual desire, sexual possessiveness, obsessive thinking about him or her, craving for emotional union with this preferred individual, afﬁliative gestures, goal oriented behaviors, and intense motivation to obtain and retain this particular mating partner.” But for all that we know about this drive, which has been the almost obsessive focus of our novels, plays, poems, operas, ballets, songs, films, and conversations throughout history, we cannot seem to protect ourselves from its adverse effects. As Shakespeare plainly put it, love “pricks like a thorn.”
The English expression to fall in love is one of the most poetically accurate in our language. The defining characteristic of falling is a lack of control, as in falling down, falling ill, or falling apart. Perhaps what makes love and romance so difficult is the lack of control we feel. In falling in love, we truly do give our heart to another in faith, never really knowing what they will do with it.
In no other sphere of life do we have such little control. Work hard at your job, and you can’t be arbitrarily fired, unless you are laid off, in which case you will at least receive a positive reference, crucial work-experience on your resume, and even a compensation package. If we get sick, or are hurt in an accident, we have doctors, hospitals, and an endless variety of modern medications. If someone wrongs us in any other aspect of our lives, we have recourse via the police, the judicial system, social services, or the press. However, when we are hurt in love, we have no recourse. Breaking someone’s heart is quite legal. There are no love police to bring cheaters to justice, no compensation packages or positive references after a breakup, no love doctors, and no unrequited love insurance.
All we are left with is pain, a silent telephone, a cold, empty bed, and a memory stuck on repeat. First, we usually experience denial, then anger, and then depression. Some of us rebound, desperately trying to fill the gaping void with someone else. Others try to fill it with alcohol, drugs, sex, work, or even travel. Emily Dickinson wrote that “Parting is all we need to know of hell.” The feeling of loss can be even more difficult to overcome than that experienced from death. Perhaps this seems an exaggeration, but speak to someone at the end of their life, ask them about the hardest, most enduringly painful experience they have ever had, and they will likely tell a tale of a broken heart.
As one of the world’s foremost experts on love, the biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher writes, “Being rejected in love is among the most painful experiences a human being can endure.” The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain which registers physical assault, is the same part which registers rejection from a romantic partner. Indeed, rejection sometimes even results in death via stroke, heart attack, or suicide. Perhaps the reason for this difficulty in coping is that the particular pain felt from the rejection of a loved one not only comes from the feelings of loss, but it also damages and often obliterates that which is most dear to us – our self-love. Rejection from the one person whose opinion means more than everyone else’s combined can deal nearly irreparable damage to our self-esteem. When a relationship ends, it can be accurately described as akin to losing a limb, since the amount of time we spend with our romantic partners is disproportionately higher than that which we spend with anyone else; going from seeing someone nearly every day to perhaps never seeing them again is a powerful, life-changing transition. And then begins the long, arduous process of moving on. As Pablo Neruda wrote, “Love is so short, and forgetting is so long.” However, the philosopher Henry David Thoreau provides us with a more useful quote: “There is no remedy for love but to love more.” So perhaps the poison is also the cure.
In closing, I would invite you to consider the following: Suppose we meet someone who we could potentially fall in love with, with whom we feel that special connection, about once a year. For those of us in our late twenties and older, further suppose that approximately two-thirds of these people are unavailable. That is now one available person with whom we may fall in love every three years. And now let us realistically assume that about half of those people would simply not feel that same connection with us. So that is now one available person who we have the potential of falling in love with, and who may fall in love with us, every six years. And even then it’s just a chance, frought with obstacles. It is a daunting thought, no?
The implication derived from this hypothesis is to never take such a thing for granted when it does happen, especially in this current unromantic modern era of unapologetic individualism, careers being cherished above all else, and the commoditization of romance. It is naive to think that romantic love alone is enough for happiness; you must first love yourself. However, it is no less naive to believe that we can be happy forever without it. As Jonathan Swift once said, “As love without esteem is capricious and volatile, esteem without love is languid and cold.” When we are children, we believe in true love, and often this belief is robbed from us later on in life, but beware, for caution in love can be fatal for true happiness. Some of us fall into the trap of believing that success in a career is incompatible with falling in love, but what is the point of success if we have no one to share it with? Others meet that special someone, but sabotage it before it even has a chance, claiming that “the timing is wrong,” or “the logistics don’t work.” But love is not a product you buy, and we should not submit it to the same hyperpragmatic criteria. It never comes in a convenient form, so don’t expect it to. If you are lucky enough to find true love, make it work any way you can. And hold on for dear life.