Though we’re told relationships require we sacrifice our independent identities, a loving, lasting union is only possible if both partners preserve their own separate sense of selves. Real love— not the idealized love peddled by Hollywood and Hallmark cards— is a union of two autonomous I’s: it’s a concentration, not a dilution, of self. As prolific poet and dedicated diarist Sylvia Plath once wrote, love is not one person eclipsing another but a coming together of “two over-lapping circles, with a certain strong riveted center of common ground, both with separate arcs jutting out in the world.”
Relationships cannot complete us nor can they rescue or redeem. We might imagine love— to borrow the lovely words of Edna St. Vincent Millay— can “clean the blood” and “set the fractured bone”— but love cannot mend the broken soul. Despite prevailing myth, prince charming will never gallop in on a white horse and save us; we have to save ourselves.
And though we romanticize love as champagne and chocolate and roses, love is difficult, at times, unbearably so. For every romantic proposal of marriage, there’s a heart-wrenching divorce; for every declaration of undying devotion, a broken promise; for every tender kiss and affectionate nickname, a spiteful word and slammed door. Love demands we let down our defenses and allow another to penetrate the usually impenetrable fortress of our hearts. When we love someone, we’re essentially lowering a drawbridge so they can sidestep our moats. If we let them infiltrate our castle, we risk being heartbroken when they leave or otherwise betray us. Ultimately, to open ourselves to love is to open ourselves to loss. As the great Rilke once said, “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.”
The inherent difficulty of loving is what poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran explores in his breathtaking masterpiece The Prophet, a trove of wisdom on such timeless topics as joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, love and work. In one of his most beloved passages, Gibran implores us to obey love, though it always has the capacity to hurt:
“When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to
Though the sword hidden among his
pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he
crucify you. Even as he is for your growth
so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and
caresses your tenderest branches that quiver
in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and
shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred
fire, that you may become sacred bread for
God’s sacred feast.”
Since biblical times, man has imagined himself the almighty ruler of the universe. God, we believed, made us in his likeness and gave us dominion over sea and earth. Unlike the beasts and babes, he endowed us with disproportionately large brains. Over the course of our history, we’ve accomplished extraordinary feats from painting the Sistine Chapel to cloning sheep. Yet despite our impressive artistic and scientific achievements, we’re not all-powerful or all-knowing. No matter how hard we try to unravel the mighty mysteries of love, certain things will always lie beyond our control or understanding: we can never command passion or know why, exactly, we prefer brunettes to blondes. As Gibran reminds us, we’re not at the helm of our own hearts:
“And think not you can direct the course
of love, for love, if it finds you worthy,
directs your course.”
Gibran concludes with a list of commandments meant to embolden us to love despite its inseparability from loss. In matters of the heart, he argues, we should resolve:
“To melt and be like a running brook
that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart
and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the
beloved in your heart and a song of praise
upon your lips.”
For more illuminating insights into love, read Alain de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a form of performative playacting, love as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning significance. Disillusioned from one too many disastrous relationships? Find hope in Mr. de Botton’s impassioned plea to never relinquish love.