Dictators rise to power. Countries wage war. Economies crash. Streets erupt in civil unrest. Much of the world is mayhem and madness.
In his infinitely illuminating guide to finding value and purpose, The Meaning of Life, British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that— though life is often an unmanageable mess— work can give us a consoling sense of tidiness. At home, many of our problems are complicated: we might find it impossible to summon the stamina and enthusiasm to sleep with our partner after a long day at work and two decades of marriage; we might harbor homicidal fantasies of killing our teenage son for— yet again— not washing his dirty dishes; we might struggle to find time for ourselves amidst the endless demands of raising children.
But at work, we can “get on top of a problem and finally resolve it.” The doctor can diagnose an illness and prescribe medicine. The entrepreneur can pitch an idea to investors, design innovative new products and fill holes in the market. The plumber can fix leaky pipes and broken toilets.
Most of life is dictated by things beyond our command: natural disasters, politics, stock markets. But at work, we’re no longer powerless. We might not be able to control whether a deadly hurricane devastates the Gulf Coast or who wins the next presidential election, but we can teach our students how to solve a system of equations using the substitution method and lead a meeting of directors with poise and self-assurance.
In this life, there’s many things we cannot know: why we were born, when we’ll die, the purpose of it all. We can’t know why humans have 23 chromosomes or why— of Earth’s 8.7 million species— the ability to formulate thoughts into words belongs to us alone. We can never fully understand ourselves or unravel the mysteries of other people.
But through our work, we can know at least one subject in great detail. A biochemist can understand how CRISPR can genetically engineer cells. An art professor can give riveting lectures on the bold, expressive colors of Van Gogh and explain the cultural significance of Picasso. A sommelier can decipher the exact year the grapes of a vintage Merlot were harvested and detect that they originated in Bordeaux. By becoming an expert in a particular field, we can— to paraphrase Susan Orlean — whittle the world down to a more manageable scope.
Though many of us resent having to go to an office, work is crucial to our contentment. Without work, we’d be lost in the wilderness with no sense of direction, no meaning, no purpose. Weeds would overgrow; bushy brambles would choke our path; there would be no water or food for nourishment. But in the lovely words of Botton, work can help us create a harmonious, comprehensible garden from a tiny portion of the wild surrounding forest. When we devote ourselves to something larger, we bring a pleasing order and symmetry to our existence. Work transforms weed-engulfed fields into beautiful botanical arrangements.
What’s the secret to finding love? Is it a convergence of chance and fate? Is it hard work or just dumb luck?
Why are some people blessed enough to find the man of their dreams the first week of college when so many more of us have to wait what feels like eons until we find the right person for us?
If we complain about our doomed single fate to the happily-coupled, they’ll give us practical advice. “Get on the dating apps!” “Put yourself out there!”
In the swipe-right age of Tinder and astonishingly in-depth compatibility tests, it seems like there’s no excuse for being single. Of the millions of men at our finger tips, there has to be someone out there with whom we’re compatible.
Despite the seemingly boundless sea of possible partners, we’ll never find love if we don’t first do the difficult work of finding ourselves. In her tough-minded interview in Conversations on Love, author and transgender icon Juno Dawson suggests you can only discover long-lasting love after— as the old adage goes— you learn to love yourself. After twenty-nine years of living as a man, Dawson made the courageous choice to transition. Now as a woman, she has learned to embrace the truth of who she is, stop pretending in her relationships and ultimately create meaningful, authentic connections. When asked how her relationship with her fiancé Max was different from her former failed relationships, she made an astute observation:
“What I would say is that this relationship isn’t necessarily different— I’m different. There’s so much emotional literacy that goes into being with someone: instead of dramas, there are compromises. Instead of tantrums and storming out, you learn how to read signals and when to back off and which hills to die on. These are all things that are difficult to navigate without self-understanding.”
In the end, you are the common denominator in all your connections. The quality of your relationships is directly proportional to your self-awareness. You can find a handsome, intelligent, successful man who shares your love for Thai food and Otis Redding but— if you haven’t done the hard work on yourself— you’ll continue to encounter the same issues time and time again.
Say, for example, your first boyfriend cheated on you. Your current boyfriend might be the most loyal partner on the planet, but if you’ve never taken the time to cope with that first betrayal, you’ll continue to have trust issues. You might be so paranoid and distrustful that you snoop through your boyfriend’s phone. You might pick fights with him for staying out too late at the bars because you’re convinced he (like all people of the male persuasion) is incapable of keeping his penis to himself.
Your unfounded suspicions and rampant insecurity cause such an irreparable rift in your relationship that your boyfriend breaks up with you.
Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” Being in a committed long-term relationship requires basic compatibility but it also requires patience, understanding, forgiveness, mercy, compassion. Love demands we become the best person we can be. For love to last, we have to possess the self-awareness to know and communicate our needs; the willingness to examine and improve upon our shortcomings; the self-confidence to not be overly jealous or possessive; the selflessness to occasionally sacrifice what we want for the sake of maintaining harmony. We have to know when to bite our tongue, when to just listen and shake our head sympathetically, when to have a difficult conversation to maximize our chances of being heard and minimize misunderstanding (not right when our husband walks through the door or when either of us is sleep-deprived, hungry or grouchy).
Though love is our most demanding work, it should— to some extent— be easy. Yes, all couples encounter difficulties; however, we should never use the truism that “love is work” to rationalize staying in a tumultuous, dysfunctional relationship that is ultimately harmful to our well-being. Love should be a source of joy— not torment and anxiety. As Dawson writes with equal parts plainness and poetry:
“It’s like mixing paint: sometimes when you mix two people together you get a horrible color. Some people do bring out the absolute worst colors in you and, if that’s the case, it’s the relationship that’s flawed, not you. You’re not meant to lose sleep or cry over love. You shouldn’t have to fight for it. If it feels like a fight, don’t waste your time.”
Before meeting her fiancé, Dawson— like most of us— suffered a string of shitty relationships. After all the heartbreak, she learned one thing: have high standards for the person you’re with. You should never have to beg for the bare minimum. If a guy likes you, he’ll make the effort to make you feel loved and appreciated; he’ll shower you with attention; he’ll call when he says he’s going to. (One is reminded of Justin Long’s iconic line in He’s Just Not That Into You: “If a guy treats you like he doesn’t give a shit,” he tells a slightly pathetic Ginnifer Goodwin, “he genuinely doesn’t give a shit.”) In dating, there’s no excuse for someone to abuse/mistreat/neglect you.
Though this is obvious, nearly all of us have wasted precious tears crying over scumbags. I can’t count how many irretrievable hours I’ve frittered away dissecting men’s poor behavior. “Where is he? Why hasn’t he reached out?” I’d wonder weepy and inconsolable after some jackass I was dating randomly decided to disappear. How many weekends I’d spend, distracted and depressed, unable to enjoy myself! How many sleepless nights I squandered overthinking and obsessing, worrying that some guy I was seeing was secretly seeing someone else! After all the games, it’s a wonderful relief to be in a stable, long-term relationship with a supportive man who never makes me question his feelings and always directly expresses himself.
With humor and wisdom hard-won, Dawson reminds us dating doesn’t have to be a drama. Love isn’t insomnia-ridden nights or wondering “will he or won’t he?” It’s safety, security, and consistency:
“When [Max and I] met I was seething from a shitty relationship with an absolute time waster. He made me into a crazy nightmare person who couldn’t sleep, because I didn’t know if he was going to reply to my messages for three days. That’s an important lesson in love: no one is too busy to reply to a fucking text message!”
In our culture, a satisfying marriage equals good sex. To have a fulfilling union— we’re told— we must have mind-blowing, multiple orgasm-inducing coitus. Sex columnists inform us there’s a “normal” number of times “happy” couples have sex.
Yet most of us fall short of these expectations. Compared to Samantha’s evermore scandalous sexcapades on Sex & the City and the glossy pages of Cosmopolitan, our erotic rendezvous seem shamefully tepid. Usually after work, we’re not racing to hit the sheets with our husbands— we’re looking forward to dozing off with some NyQuil and heading to bed. Our time in the bedroom isn’t an X-rated porno— it’s most often as routine as reciting a grocery list. After the blissful honeymoon phase, our lovemaking becomes more and more mundane and less and less frequent. We make less of an effort to seduce our partner; we no longer surprise them with racy lingerie or experiment. Our most imaginative sex position is missionary. There’s no more provocative dirty talk or tantalizing foreplay. The majority of our conversations circulate around practical, business-like things: who’s going to get milk from the store, who’s going to pick up Sarah from her soccer game.
For many, this shift in our sex lives is a source of endless doubt and insecurity. Have we— god forbid— become boring? After twenty years of marriage, have we let the fire of our lovemaking fizzle out? Have we lost the lust and longing of our younger days? Is something irreparably wrong with us if we’re not red-hot with desire for our partner or having sex the recommended once a week?
In her paradigm-shifting interview in Conversations on Love, writer, researcher and sex educator Emily Nagoski debunks many of the myths surrounding sex and normalcy. According to Nagoski, desire isn’t the most important thing in a relationship. In fact, biologically, our bodies only want sex because it’s a way to form attachment. In the early stages of a romance, we feel more carnal longing for our lover— not because we’re so head-over-heels or because they’re so attractive— but because we’re trying to solidify our union. Our desire is directly proportional to the instability of a connection. If, for example, we’re dating an emotionally unavailable guy who showers us with affection one minute only to forget to return our call for six days, we’ll lust after him because, from a biochemical perspective, we want to secure the connection. Ironically, the more safe and secure we feel with someone, the less we want to have sex with them.
“This is at the core of why desire is bullshit,” Nagoski says. A decline in desire does not spell the doom of a relationship. Our libido naturally wanes once we’re in a committed, long-term marriage.
In our rose-colored culture, we’re obsessed with romance. Jack & Rose. Rick & Ilsa. Romeo & Juliet. We want passion and infatuation and drama. We hunger after whirlwind wedding proposals and bold proclamations of devotion. We think that if we “loved” our partner as much as Jack loved Rose, we’d be overcome with all-consuming, uncontrollable longing. Our midnight romps— we imagine— should be as fervent and frenzied as their steamy sex scene.
When our sex lives aren’t as explosive as the ones we see on the silver screen, we feel like failures. Why, we worry, don’t we ever just want to rip our partner’s clothes off? Why do we so rarely feel filthy, primal hunger?
Surely, there’s something wrong with us.
For Nagoski, the only thing wrong is our culture. Though movies portray love as a heady, passionate affair, in real life, we rarely feel spontaneous desire. After several years with the same partner, we seldom want sex out of nowhere; we feel what Nagoski calls responsive desire— we want sex in response to the act itself. It’s like writing: when we first sit down at our desks for the day, we’re almost never in the “mood” to write. However, the act of writing inspires us to write one sentence after another (“Writing will create the mood,” the phenomenally prolific Joyce Carol Oates once assured blocked writers.)
In the same way, sex creates desire. We might not be in the “mood” when our husband first longingly looks into our eyes, but— if we’re open— his amorous kisses and playful flirtations will often whet our sexual appetite. If we want to sustain a relationship over the long haul, Nagoski suggests, we need to take a decidedly unromantic approach to sex. Rather than wait until we’re magically “in the mood,” we must make the mood: light some candles, pour a few glasses of red wine, wear our raciest lingerie to bed. The reality is our desire won’t always be a blazing flame— sometimes it will only be a few glowing embers. But love means reaching for our partner time and time again and trying to fan the fire.
When we’re young, friendships are romantic, intense, intimate. We see our friends nearly every day. Usually, they’re are at most a few blocks (if not a few doors) away. Because our most pressing responsibility is turning in our term paper by 5 o’ clock on Friday, we have plenty of time to see each other. Weekends overflow with mimosa brunches, spontaneous day trips, Saturdays in wine country. In our twenties, our pals are there to help us weather life’s catastrophes and crises.
In our thirties, things change: people get married, have children, move several cities (or states) away. Rather than see each other every day, we see each other only occasionally. Burdened with the responsibility of working a full-time job and raising a family, we might only see our closest confidante once every few months instead of nearly every day.
In her poignant interview “The Beauty of Vulnerability in Friendship,” one of many profound pieces from Natasha Lunn’s Conversations on Love, millennialmemoirist Dolly Alderton explores this at times heart-wrenchingly painful change. In an insightful moment, Alderton explains why it becomes harder to be honest in friendship:
“…you spend your twenties figuring out who you are, and so by the time you’ve carved out an identity you share less with each other, because the stakes are higher. I think that’s true, you do spend your twenties trying to work out what your job is, what your politics are, what part of the world you want to live in; and you do that with a band of brothers and sisters. You create an identity patchwork in a group, as well as on your own. Then when you get to your thirties, you have to declare who you are in a permanent way. It’s either, ‘I’m someone who is going to live in the suburbs’ or ‘I want to be a stay-at-home mother’ or ‘I want to retrain and start a new career.’ Your identity hardens. You have to defend this edifice of who you are, because it’s too late in the game to change it. One you declare that, it can feel more dangerous to say, ‘I don’t know if I should have married that man’ or ‘I don’t know if my job makes me happy.’ To admit that in an authentic, vulnerable connection with someone close to you is scary in a way that it’s not in your twenties, when everything is in flux. For all those reasons, letting people in and allowing yourself to be unsure or vulnerable becomes harder. It’s more of a potential threat.”
In our thirties, lives diverge in several different directions: many buy houses, settle down, have kids. If our friends choose one path and we choose another, it’s hard not to feel abandoned. Why isn’t our married pal making more of an effort to stay connected? Sure, she just had a baby, but she can’t spare 5 fucking minutes to return our call? Is she really so preoccupied with the all-so-important, all-so-consuming task of changing diapers that she can’t reach out?
It’s heartbreaking when we see our close friends, who were once starring characters in the story of our lives, fade into the background. Rather than play one of the lead roles, they become minor characters who show up every few episodes.
In college, our best friend knew everything about us: they understood the dance move that signaled we were blacked out drunk; they could decipher the hidden meaning behind our text messages (ellipses meant we were upset about something/”I’m fine” translated to mean “I’m verging on a mental breakdown…come over with Cruel Intentions and some Haagen Dazs”).
10 years later and our best friends no longer know the most basic facts about us. When we do reconnect, we have to tell them what’s going on in our lives— they’re not there to witness them themselves.
At first, this shift in our relationships is devastating. As she transitioned to her thirties, Alderton found herself missing her friends, who were once her surrogate family. She yearned for the simpler days when she could spontaneously call one of the gals and meet up for martinis. Now her former partners in crime were too busy juggling mortgage payments and engagement rings. If she wanted to hang out, they had to make plans months in advance. She missed their former intimacy. Though her twenties was a turbulent period in her life, her friendships were marked by an effortlessness and ease. Then her life was manicures and margaritas; now it was unanswered text messages and the blaring silence of the phone not ringing.
Though Alderton initially struggled to cope with the shifting topography of her friendships, she eventually learned to navigate the terrain. Part of growing older, she realized, is coming to terms with how friendships change. Yes, her and her friends might not see each other as often and yes, many of her friends with spouses and children might occasionally forget to return a text message, but that didn’t mean their bond was any less significant:
“…because your twenties are a fraught time, you spend a decade adjusting to the fact that you’re parentless. I spent those years creating a surrogate family within my friendships, and that meant that I could go out and have a wild, risky and exciting time, both creatively and romantically, because I always had that unit to return to.
Now I’m more relaxed about how often friends and I speak or meet up, or how much time they spend with their partner as opposed to me. I’ve sunk into the safe, precious solidness of their love for me, and I know that, although it will take work, it is also a love that will be there forever. True friendship is about taking it easy on each other, knowing that life has tides that take you to various places, and that you’ll find a way back to each other at different points.”
Alain de Botton once said our lives are defined by two great love stories: the quest for romantic love and the quest for love from the world. I’d argue our lives our defined by yet another story: the quest for friendship, what the ancient Greeks called philia and regarded as the highest form of love. Though our culture glorifies romantic love, in many ways, the love between platonic pals is more long-lasting and far less fraught. Lovers come and go— lifelong friends take up permanent residence in our hearts. So though our friends might momentarily sail out to sea and stray far from shore, if they’re true friends, they’ll always return to port.
Though “love” is an expansive word containing a multitude of meanings, most of us have a rather restricted definition of the term. Love, we believe, is limited to wedding bands and chocolate-covered strawberries, candy hearts and Valentine’s Day cards. Rather than celebrate love in all its fathomless forms, we tend to glorify romantic love. Indeed, our monomaniac obsession dominates films and top 40 music charts.
Despite our cultural fixation with eros, there are many perhaps more important and enduring types of love. In her gorgeous, glorious book Conversations on Love, generous spirit Natasha Lunn celebrates reading (and writing) as one as of the purest, most perfect expressions of love. If love is— as Lunn suggests— “a way of understanding and being understood, of seeing and being seen,” nowhere can we find more love than in the shelves of a local library.
Like a close friend who comforts us during dark nights of the soul, a good book can cheer and console. Books remind us we’re not alone in our anxiety and neurosis, our despair and sorrow. Losing ourselves in the world of another, we realize our feelings belong to the whole of the human race— not us alone. Books are rafts we can cling to when life’s thunder-stricken storms leave us stranded far from shore.
In her insightful interview from Conversations on Love, unflinchingly honest memoirist Sarah Hepola suggests reading can be an inexhaustible source of love. Though she has yet to meet someone in her 40s, her life isn’t without a love story: she has the love of family and friends and, most of all, of books and writing.
Poet J.D. McClatchy once observed that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”Sadly, most of us overlook the simple pleasures and little delights our lives bring. The first cup of coffee in the morning. A bouquet of tulips. The fact that nearly every day we possess the freedom to do whatever we want. Instead of notice the magical and miraculous, we focus on what we don’t have, what we have yet to achieve, why who we are and what we’ve accomplished isn’t good enough. Our habit is to stumble mindlessly, mechanically. Our natural state is discontent, dissatisfaction, craving. But to be happy, we must shift our perspective and appreciate our bountiful blessings. As Hepola writes so beautifully,
“As humans we have a default setting that’s cranky and lazy and self-interested and slothful. The people that I see that live good, meaningful lives have rigorous exercises to push back against that setting, whether through prayer, meditation, gratitude journals or running. We’re creatures of wanting, but also of consciousness. So the way that we can push back on longing is to pay attention to what we have. I can see the fact that I live in a house alone as a prison sentence. Or, like this morning, I can wake up and spend time with my beautiful cat and feel so grateful to be alive in this world.”
When Hepola feels lonely or self-pitying, she finds company in her library. For her, reading is a passionate love affair, a marriage of two like-minded souls. The pages of a book are a one-of-a-kind space where two people— of different genders, of different races, of different ages, of different sexual orientations, of different cultures— can infiltrate the walls of “us” vs “them” and find commonalities where there seem to be none. In those magical moments when a book expresses exactly something she’s seen or heard or thought or felt, she remembers her interconnectedness with all of humanity and feels less alone:
“[Reading] is an emotional realignment, like somebody’s cracked my spine. If I get lonely, I reach for those pieces of writing that feed the soul. That can lead you back to the best in yourself, or articulate the things that you can’t find words for. When you stumble on something you didn’t know that somebody else felt too, you think, oh my gosh, I’m not the only one. That is a falling in love— it’s the self recognized in someone else. A union of souls.”
When asked Lunn’s final question— “what do you wish you’d known about love”— Hepola responds:
“That the love of a partnership can be an incredibly important and transforming experience, but only one of many important and transforming experiences…I think that the search for love, as I understand a lot of my life and my work to be, is also the search to see that I already have it.”
After you’ve broken up with someone, your calendar transforms into a terrifying abyss. Without a significant other, weekends becomes an agony of loneliness. While you used to look forward to the weekend, overflowing as it was with adventure and excitement— mimosa brunches and flea markets and seaside picnics and romantic dinners and day trips — after a breakup, Friday thru Sunday feels as interminable as a root canal at the dentist. As Elena Ferrante once said, an empty day is a “noose to hang yourself with.”
The weekend feels especially lonely if most of your friends are in serious long-term relationships. While your married friends are busy with soccer games and children’s birthday parties, you have too many hours and too little to fill them.
In her lovely essay “The Unbearable Unknown,” one of many insightful pieces from Conversations on Love, wise, warm-hearted writer Natasha Lunn reflects on the sometimes intolerable loneliness of being single. As a single twenty-something, Lunn always made an effort to visit a cafe on Sunday mornings to combat weekend loneliness. Though she was still alone, she felt comforted by the grinding of coffee beans and murmur of strangers’ conversations. On weekends like these, empty hours beckoned with possibility: she could read a novel, she could take a yoga class, she could go on a hike, she could visit an art gallery, she could take the tube to the city. Yet none of these things sounded appealing without someone to do them with. “I resented time for underlining my loneliness,” she writes, “and I resented myself for wasting it.”
What’s the most difficult thing about the quest for love? Lunn argues it’s the torment of not knowing whether you’ll ever find it:
“The obvious story was that I was unhappy being single. Beneath that, a private fear that I always would be; and worse, an anxiety born from not knowing either way. The simple fact of the unknown was one I could not resist wrestling with. Like hauling a heavy suitcase up the stairs at a station, I imagined it would be easier if there were an endpoint in sight, because when you see the top of the station stairs or the finishing line of a run, it’s easy to dig deep for an extra bit of strength to get there. What I found tiring about looking for a romantic relationship was that there was no way of knowing for certain if there would ever be an end point. I would tell friends, ‘I don’t mind if I don’t meet anyone for another ten years, I just want to know that it will happen one day.'”
Unfortunately, uncertainty is a fact of our existence. We can never know if a meteor will strike Earth, if Europe will erupt in world war, if the stock market will crash or if human civilization will obliterate itself in the next hundred years. We can never know how long we’ll live or when we’ll die; we can never be completely assured that our choices were “right.” Did we make the right decision when we walked away from our tumultuous ten-year marriage? when we quit our office job to study French cooking in Provence? Though this “not knowing” is often torturous, it’s what fundamentally unites as humans. As Lunn so beautifully writes,
“Unless you believe in psychics, all of us will face some measure of this uncertainty— it’s part and parcel of existence. Maybe there is comfort in knowing that, whatever we have or don’t have compared to each other, we share this same vulnerability to randomness.”
The unknown is a terrifying void, a fathomless, frightening darkness. However, it can also shine with potential and possibility. Not knowing when (or if) she’ll ever find a partner, Lunn finds herself suspended between two possible futures: how will her story end? She isn’t sure but she knows the experience of being single will teach her invaluable lessons in resilience and self-reliance:
“Maybe not having something you want wakes you up to another kind of romance. And when life forces you to live in the intensity of the unknown, between two possible futures, it’s also a chance to develop the inner resources and love that will serve you well in the years ahead.”
In her pursuit of romantic love, Lunn forgets a crucial fact: love can take many forms. Though she doesn’t have a partner, her life never lacks love. In fact, her so-called “lonely” life already overflows with many of the things she wants: connection, companionship, passion, tenderness, intimacy, physical touch.
Most of us imagine we’ll be happy when we attain “x”:when we buy a house, when we get married, when we land the promotion. Happiness, we contend, exists in the future— not this moment. Lunn is no exception. Throughout her single years, she believes the equation for happiness looks something like this: happily ever after = finding the “one” to share her life with. The result? She misses boundless opportunities for contentment in the present. Love, she soon realizes, isn’t going to gallop into her life as a charming prince— it’s right here, right now in her life as it’s currently constituted:
“[I was so] focused…on receiving love instead of giving it; on waiting for it, instead of building it. Many of the things I was looking for a relationship to provide— physical company; connection; the opportunity to be a mother— were actually available to me without one. And yet, at the time, I could not see the role I played in my own loneliness.”
Rather than bemoan her unfortunate fate, Lunn decides to write a more empowering story about her singledom. She doesn’t have to be a lonely cat-lady spinster who dies alone under mounds of decades-old newspapers— she already has the love she desires. In the end, romantic love is only one piece of the puzzle: the good life consists of the unbreakable bond of family, the miracle of friendship, the unparalleled feeling of fulfillment upon reaching a long-awaited goal, the magic and marvels of small moments.
After what feels like an endless stretch of singledom, Lunn eventually does get her “happily ever after.” In a contemplative moment, she imagines looking through the space/time continuum at her former self, the sad, lonely girl at the cafe who worried she’d never find a partner:
“Part of me wants to…tell her…that one day she will sit at the exact same table, eating pancakes with a primary schoolteacher she’s been seeing recently who she’ll grow to love. And that, even then, even though that will be wonderful, it will only be one of many memorable mornings she will spend in that cafe. There will be the coffee with a new friend who will become a great love; the one time she will come there to grieve; the breakfast she will share with her brother in the sunshine when they first to decide to move into a flat together round the corner. And then all the Sunday mornings she will come there on her own, to write this book, to understand— finally— the difference between loneliness and solitude, and the romance of trying to find meaning in the latter. But perhaps I would not tell her, even if I could, because to do so would be to steal the strange, complicated, sometimes tiring gifts of the unknown. The thrill of all the places she has yet to go, all the faces she has yet to know.
Maybe, then, this is how you try to bear the burden of the mystery with grace: by finding humility where you once saw self-pity, and opportunity where you once saw absence. By saying, ‘Even if I don’t get what I want, I have a good life,’ then paying closer attention to the small details that make that life beautiful. And by never forgetting that not knowing what will happen next also means that anything could.”
What is love? Though we often imagine love is restricted to the romantic arena, there are many kinds of love: there’s the helpless obsession a young girl has for her first crush; the tender, unconditional love a parent has for their child; the deep intimacy shared between a brother and sister; the miraculous mutual understanding of friends who’ve known each other since they were 12.
Love can be romantic, platonic, erotic, familial. It can last a single night or persist over a lifetime. It can be as red-hot as an affair in Paris or as routine as folding laundry, as fun and frivolous as flirting or as serious as cosigning a mortgage, as giddy as a middle school crush or as steady as a 25 year marriage. As Cheryl Strayed so beautifully said, love “can be light as the hug we give a friend or as heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children.”
In her lovely, large-hearted book Conversations on Love, Natasha Lunn explores this mysterious element of the human experience. Determined to shed light on this oft-uttered, but often misunderstood concept, Lunn asks artists and writers, philosophers and psychologists, sex experts and advice columnists to share their experiences. Her conversations focus on 3 central questions: how do we find love? how do we sustain love? how do we recover when we lose it? Part personal memoir, part reportage, Conversations on Lovefeatures interviews with wise, wonderful minds along with Lunn’s own musings and meditations.
“One of the best models of love is how parents love their children. At the same time, sometimes they don’t like them— they get bored of them, they think they’re awful, they want a break from them. And all those things go on in the love that an adult might have for another, too; sometimes we’re fed up and aware of someone’s glaring faults, but still very much on their side. They annoy us and we still love them.”
Botton defines love not in terms of what it is but in terms of what it is not. Despite the romanticized portrayals of love in cheesy rom-coms and sappy Hallmark cards, love is not idealization— it’s seeing (and accepting) someone for who they truly are. As Botton observes,
“No one really wants to be idealized— we want to be seen and accepted and forgiven, and to know that we can be ourselves in our less edifying moments. So to be on the receiving end of somebody’s idealizing feelings can be alienating. It looks like we’re being seen and admired like never before, but actually, many important parts of us are being forgotten.”
For those of us who have yet to find a life partner, how do we hold on to hope, especially when our society expects us to “date in our twenties, find the ideal partner by twenty-eight, and have children by thirty one”? Botton maintains we must let go of timelines and relinquish control.
Sometimes we’ll love someone and they won’t love us back.
Sometimes we’ll endure countless dull conversations in dimly-lit bars and go home alone to an empty bed.
Sometimes we’ll sign up for every dating app and go on date after date after date and still not find someone.
Our fates are a convergence of choice and chance. The idea that we’re masters of our fates is a reassuring but ultimately untrue myth. We can’t control if we’ll meet someone— or when. We can only create a Tinder profile and put ourselves out there again and again.
No matter what our society says, there are no “right” partners, no “right” choices, no “right” ways to live. We can follow the well-trodden road— get married, have children, buy a house with a white picket fence— or forge our own path. We can find the love of our lives in college or when we’re 77. We can choose to commit to one person or stay single. We can get married in a poofy princess dress in a formal ceremony or barefoot on a Brazilian beach in front of only a few people. Our dream life can contain toothaches and play dates and Play-Doh or world travel and boundless freedom. When asked what he’d wished he’d known about finding love, Botton says:
“To be calmer about the whole process. And that things would work out or they wouldn’t, and even then, that would be fine too. This black and white model of ‘it’s got to be like this and then it will be perfect’ just doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter who you meet or when you meet them; there’s pain and joy on each side of the ledger. So don’t stick rigidly to one story about what your life means, because it’s likely to be wrong. In fact, there are many ways of living this life.”
When a relationship ends, we often find it difficult to move on because we imagine the life we could’ve had is infinitely better than our life as it actually is. We’re haunted by the phantom of our other possible existence. What if we could have actually worked things out? What if I/they finally changed? What if we suddenly reconciled all our issues and fundamental incompatibilities: our dissimilar taste in movies, our contrasting views on marriage, our completely opposite political beliefs? What if we finally moved to our dream city and built our own life in our own house?
In a poetic, profound passage, Lunn suggests it’s unproductive to romanticize what could have been. Would we be happy if we didn’t end our relationship? Perhaps, but that doesn’t negate the possibility for happiness in our lives as they’re currently constituted. Every choice involves gain and loss. If we chose the other path, our lives wouldn’t necessarily be better— just different. As Lunn writes,
“Alain made me see the situation of being alone not as an unflattering reflection of my ‘less impressive sides,’ but as an unimaginative story I was telling about connection.
All the times I had been casually rejected, I realize now were either future blessings or facts to be accepted, rather than resisted. I had wasted energy trying to keep these relationships afloat; there was no need to waste more asking why someone didn’t love me, what I could have done differently to change the outcome. The only outcome was the one that happened. And as Alain pointed out, ‘There’s pain and joy on each side of the ledger.’ If I’d stayed with someone I’d met in my early twenties, moved to the seaside, got a dog and had a baby at thirty, there would have been wonderful and mundane chapters to that story, just as there were wonderful and mundane chapters to the life I lived in those years instead. For every depressing date, there was a precious friendship formed. For every lonely Sunday, a new ambition discovered.”
What are TikTok’s most viral videos? Women shaking their asses. These videos spark two opposite reactions: passionate support or violent condemnation. Some men point out the hypocrisy of so-called “empowered” independent women so sexually displaying their bodies for the admiration of men (“We’re not objects!” several men say sarcastically in one such comment section) while others lavish the viral video stars with excessive compliments (“Damn” is probably the most common). Women’s reactions are equally ambivalent. While some demonstrate a “go girl” feminism (“Yes, get it queen!” some enthusiastically applaud in the comments), others criticize these women for reinforcing the idea that we’re just pretty faces and fat asses to be objectified and ogled at.
No matter how you feel about women posting sexually suggestive content, the reality is when beautiful women show their bodies, they get millions of views and comments.
In feminism, sex is a historically contentious topic. Indeed, probably no other issue is more divisive. Sex-positive feminists challenge traditional, religious notions about sex. They believe the idea that women have to be virginal to be “good” and “pure” is outmoded. Instead, women should be free to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh without being slut-shamed or punished. No longer is sex restricted to heterosexual couples within the confines of marriage— women can explore their sexuality before tying the knot and in all kinds of relationships.
According to sexologist Carol Queen, sex positivity is the “cultural philosophy that understands sexuality as a potentially positive force in one’s life.” Rather than view sex as something shameful, sex-positive feminists encourage women to prioritize their own sexual pleasure and resist sexual repression. To them, anti-porn feminists are puritanical and priggish. Expressing sexuality is not exploitation but empowerment.
Sex-negative feminists, on the other hand, question this notion. They’re not against sex per se— they’re merely critical of sex that’s grounded in unequal power dynamics and tailored mostly for male pleasure and the male gaze. Unlike sex-positive feminists, they find strip clubs, burlesque, BDSM, prostitution, and pornography degrading. In a patriarchal society, they contend sex for women is most often disempowering.
In her at turns heart-breaking and beautifully-written essay collection, My Body, supermodel and Instagram influencer Emily Ratajkowski asks a pressing question: is sexuality a kind of exploitation or empowerment?
As a feminist, I’ve never been entirely sure where I stood on this question.
One one hand, I completely support women’s sexual freedom: I think women have the right to exhibit their bodies as they choose and would never slut-shame a woman for dressing provocatively or posting a thirst trap. On the other hand, I’m not so sure I buy into the sex-positive sham that sexualizing ourselves is a kind of empowerment.
For Ratajkowski, a tantalizing beauty with an otherworldly physique and dark, striking features, her sexuality has been a source of power. Her good looks have made her one of the most recognizable supermodels on the planet, earned her millions of dollars, landed her coveted movie roles, and attracted 28.9 million Instagram followers. By commodifying her body— posing in racy photos for Sports Illustrated, posting pictures of her impossibly perky breasts in bikinis— Ratajkowski has achieved worldwide celebrity.
But does objectifying our bodies give we women any real power?
Ratajkowski suggests the answer is no. Her stunning exterior may grant her access to glitzy Hollywood parties and some of the most glamorous places in the world (at one point, she’s treated to 5 days at a luxury Maldives resort for posting an occasional Instagram photo and paid $25,000 to accompany a Malaysian billionaire to the Super Bowl) but it also makes her a target for harassment and assault.
In one of the collection’s strongest essays, “Blurred Lines,” Ratajkowski expertly explores the blurred line between sex as powerlessness and sex as power. In 2013, the then 21-year-old was catapulted to superstardom after she starred in the now infamous music video for Robin Thicke’s song of the same name. In the uncensored version, Ratajkowski and two other models prance around in flesh-colored thongs as Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. gawk at their bare-assed beauty.
Ratajkowski describes the women on set as friendly and accommodating. “Are you comfortable?” the hip, cool costume designer asks as she gets ready. “She was was the kind of girl I’d want be friends with,” Ratajkowski writes, she “wore Doc Martens” and had “bleached hair cut into a pixie.”
Interestingly, the video’s director, Diane Martel, viewed “Blurred Lines” as a feminist project. Though detractors denounced the video as mind-bogglingly misogynistic, she claimed it supported women’s empowerment. In her words, the women in the video embodied “the best kind of girl” who was “100% confident.” In her eyes, their nudity wasn’t demeaning— it was a testament to their “unbelievable sensual visual power.”
And Ratajkowski certainly has visual power. She commands the video like a star: her banging body, messy bedroom hair and sticky red lip gloss virtually render the male singers unnecessary props.
However, her beauty doesn’t give her any real power: at the end of the essay, Ratajkowski reveals Thicke groped her. Though the incident constitutes assault, no one— not Ratajkowski, not even Diane Martel, the so-called “feminist” director— even acknowledges Thicke’s completely inappropriate behavior. “No touching” is the only thing Ms. Martel says after the incident, addressing no one in particular.
“Robin Thicke reminded everyone on set that we women weren’t actually in charge. I didn’t have any real power as the naked girl dancing around in his music video. I was nothing more than the hired mannequin,” Ratajkowski writes with equal parts dejection and disillusionment. Despite her status as one of the most famous models of the 21st century, Ratajkowski is still at the mercy of men who control the industry. Throughout My Body, we witness how Ratajkowski is powerless in the face of the artists, photographers, and fashion designers who profit off her image. Much like the women who came forward during the Harvey Weinstein scandal and helped launch the #MeToo movement, Ratajkowski didn’t speak about her experience for fear of ruining her career and burning bridges. After all, what if Thicke retaliated? At the time, he was a star on the rise; she was nobody. Challenging Thicke would have been career suicide.
Is it problematic that Ratajkowski criticizes an industry that she willingly participates in?
that she— too— profits from exploiting her body and tailoring her image for the pleasure of men?
that her seductive photos encourage men to continue to see us as objects— not to mention contribute to wildly unrealistic beauty standards for women?
Of course, but these issues don’t undermine the brilliance of her essay collection. Though some might dismiss it as just another celebrity memoir, My Body is timely and thought-provoking. Turns out Ratajkowski is more than just a body— she’s a literary talent with something to say.
In 2017, there was one name that dominated news cycles: Harvey Weinstein. After journalist Ronan Farrow published his explosive exposé in the New Yorker, you couldn’t turn on the television without hearing yet another woman accuse the movie mogul of rape. Their stories were horrifying. Many said Weinstein assaulted them after luring them to a hotel room under the guise of a “business meeting.” Others spoke of relentless phone calls, unwelcome, middle-of-the-night appearances, inappropriate sexual propositions, groping.
For decades, many of these women didn’t speak for fear of retribution.
In Farrow’s latest book, Catch & Kill: Lies, Spies & a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, these women finally break the silence. A masterpiece of reporting, Catch & Killtells the story behind the story: how Farrow first began investigating Weinstein for NBC, how he spent 10 grueling months interviewing, rigorously researching, and courageously collecting these women’s stories. At its heart, Catch & Killis about stories: whose gets told and whose doesn’t. As Farrow descends deeper and deeper into a disturbing plot of cover-ups, corruption and conspiracy, he experiences firsthand how powerful men like Weinstein control the public narrative and dictate history. Though Weinstein brutally abused women for nearly three decades, he was never held accountable because he controlled the story.
He could use his influence in Hollywood to intimidate his victims, many of whom were models and actresses. It’s no understatement to call the Weinstein scandal a tale of David and Goliath (or the “white whale” of journalism as The Hollywood Reporter’s Janice Min put it). Weinstein was an industry giant: he founded a major movie studio, earned over 300 Oscar nominations. If you challenged such a formidable opponent, you’d be crushed. Weinstein could spread rumors about you and make it impossible for you to get parts.
He could muzzle the women he’d wronged with non-disclosure agreements and six-figure settlements.
He could leverage his connections in the media to bury damaging stories and savagely smear anyone who spoke out against him. Weinstein, for instance, encouraged his friend Dylan Howard, editor-in-chief of the trash tabloid the National Enquirer, to “catch and kill” a damning story about him groping Italian model and actress Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. (To prevent an individual from revealing information that might hurt a third party, newspapers sometimes “catch” or buy the exclusive rights to stories in order to “kill” them— in other words, make sure they’re never printed).
When Weinstein couldn’t kill his victims’ stories, he’d ruin their reputations. According to Farrow, National Enquirer staffers were asked to pursue scandalous stories on Weinstein accusers. When actress Rose McGowan referenced Weinstein in a tweet, claiming she was raped by an unnamed “studio head,” Howard told staffers, “I want dirt on that bitch.” With the American media machine at his fingertips and countless friends in high places, Weinstein could monstrously mistreat women and never face consequences for his actions.
As Farrow tries to break the Weinstein story, many try to silence him. If he’s not being threatened and intimated by Weinstein himself, he’s being subtly discouraged by NBC executives. Weinstein even hires a secret Israeli intelligence agency, Black Cube, to trace his phone calls and trail him. At one point, Farrow is so fearful he contemplates buying a gun for protection. The fact that he was never deterred from reporting speaks to his character and courage.
Catch & Kill isn’t just a triumph of investigative journalism— it’s an adrenaline-fueled action blockbuster, suspenseful spy novel, and propulsively-paced thriller. Like a shadowy noir, Catch & Kill is steeped in an atmosphere of mistrust: as the story goes on, Farrow realizes everyone can potentially be a “double agent” for Weinstein, even president of NBC Noah Oppenheim, his own boss. Farrow holds clandestine meetings in discreet, dimly-lit places, can’t shake the feeling that he’s being followed and is never completely sure of who he can trust.
Ultimately, Catch & Killisn’t just about one monster— it’s about a culture that conspires to protect predators. What’s so sickening about this story is that many individuals and institutions— Hollywood, the media, in some cases, even law enforcement— were complicit in Weinstein’s crimes. Despite exhaustive evidence (including an actual tape of Weinstein admitting to sexual assault), in the end, NBC fires Farrow and pulls the plug. Had Farrow not continued reporting and brought his piece to the New Yorker, Weinstein would still be luring unsuspecting actresses to his Peninsula Beverley Hills hotel room instead of rotting in a 6 x 8 foot prison cell where he belongs.
Rebecca Solnit once said that part of the job of a great journalist is to “examine the stories that underlie the story, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them.”For centuries, the story was men mattered and women didn’t. Men’s stories were taken as fact while women’s stories were generally invalidated, ignored, silenced and suppressed. Catch & Killchanged the story about whose stories counted and gave voice to the voiceless. As we all know, Farrow’s remarkable reporting went on to spark the #MeToo movement and ignite a long over due conversation about rape, sexual assault, and consent. Today we’re not only listening to women’s stories— we’re believing them.
We usually think of storytellers as novelists, playwrights, screenwriters. However, we’re all writers of the story of our lives. As British philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his wise, wonderful addition to the School of Life library, The Meaning of Life, “we may not be publishing our stories, but we are writing them nevertheless. Every day finds us weaving a story about who we are, where we are going, and why events happened as they did.”
Sadly, most of us are merciless narrators: we downplay our accomplishments, we foreground our flaws, we cast ourselves as detestable villains rather than lovable, if charmingly imperfect, main characters.
The stories we tell ourselves might seem like cold, hard, objective facts, but they’re merely stories, which by definition are interpretations of facts. A break up, for example, is just a break up. How we interpret that breakup will determine its significance. If we tell ourselves a melodramatic, tragic story (“He was the one; I’ll never find a good man again!”/”Now that he’s left me, I’ll die alone and be devoured in my kitchen by dozens of cats.”), we’ll a) find it impossible to move on and b) feel no motivation to leave our coach and potentially find someone else. After all, why go out and date if our ex is the “one” and “only one” for us?
In the end, the stories we tell determine the quality of our lives. Below are 3 ways Botton suggests we can be better storytellers:
1. find meaning & make things cohere
In many ways, life is like a novel: there are conflicts, there are characters. But unlike a novel, life doesn’t usually follow a neat, orderly logic. Rarely do our conflicts build to a dramatic climax or satisfying resolution. Events will be random and unsystematic, side characters will appear and reappear though they serve no real purpose. A conversation with the grocery store clerk will do nothing to advance the plot of our lives or teach us some grand universal lesson. A crow will caw without being in anyway symbolic. Despite what we read in books and see on television, we have never met the love of our lives while shopping for gloves in a crowded New York department store on Christmas. Compared to a novel, our stories seem hopelessly uninteresting and pointless. Indeed, entire chapters might— at first glance— seem irrelevant:
We might spend our twenties waiting tables so we can focus on our writing only to pop champagne on our thirtieth birthday without a published novel or real “career.”
We might devote untold time, money and energy to studying law only to realize the actual practice of law is not nearly as exciting as Law & Order.
We might invest ten years in a relationship that doesn’t work out.
We might go on date after date after date without any of our flings ever going anywhere.
Though these segments of our sagas might seem meaningless, the good storyteller weaves them into a storyline that coheres. Rather than tell themselves a self-condemning story (“You’re an idiot for devoting a decade of your life to writing! Now you’re thirty with no ‘career’!”), they’re kind, forgiving narrators (“You’re brave for so passionately pursing what you love instead of settling for a socially acceptable career”).
The choice of the wrong profession wasn’t an indefensible detour— it was a scenic route. We might not have taken the most direct road to our destination, but— because we wandered from the main highway— we were able to see some breathtaking panoramic views and get a better sense of what we did want to do.
The decade-long relationship that didn’t work out wasn’t a “waste” of ten years— it was a requisite 3,650 day course on how to love and be loved, our most important work.
The countless flirtations that never metamorphosed into something more weren’t humiliating failures— they were stepping stones on the path to finding a loving, long-term partner.
2. recognize you’re not the sole narrator of your life
Despite the much-loved myth of meritocracy, we’re not in complete control of our lives. Whether we graduate from an Ivy League university and win the Pulitzer-prize or spend our days mopping floors and doing other people’s laundry isn’t only determined by our talent, work ethic or ability. Our fates are influenced by many things: our parents, our families, our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our culture, our particular moment in history. Whether or not we have a good career and money in savings is largely dependent on the state of the economy. Whether our industry continues to thrive or is squashed by new technology depends on consumers and tech giants in Silicon Valley. How long we live depends on our day to day choices (what we eat, how often we exercise and rest) but also on modern medicine and genetics.
According to Botton, “the good storyteller recognizes, contrary to certain impressions, that there will always be a number of players responsible for [our life’s] negative events.” Circumstance, chance, fate: each will contribute its share to our stories. We might be 35 and mortgage-less— not through any fault of our own— but because, for the past few decades, wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living. We might be single— not because we’re unattractive and completely unlovable— but because online dating has made it seem as though we have an infinite number of potential partners and, consequently, made many men less willing to settle down.
Therefore, if we want to be better storytellers, we should stop cruelly castigating ourselves for our “failures.” As Botton so wittily writes, “Sometimes, it really will be the fault of something or someone else: the economy, our parents, the government, our enemies or sheer bad luck.” Man may have mastered many things— fire, language, electricity, atomic energy, small pox— but he will never completely master his fate. His story will always be cowritten by the stars.
3. be courageous enough to write your own story
Rather than possess the daring and boldness to write our own completely original scripts, most of us cowardly follow our society’s formulaic templates. We let our lives be determined by custom and convention. We go to college, we get a job, we get married, we have children. We uncritically accept the standards of our family, our friends, our countrymen. The result? Our stories become no more than dull copies of someone else’s manuscript.
However, we don’t have to mindlessly rewrite our society’s stock stories, recycle the same tired conventions, reuse the same cliched character types— we have the power to pen our own script. Take, for example, the official story about “success.” Most people would say success is power and prestige, acclaim and awards: earning a six-figure salary, buying and selling companies, driving a Ferrari, landing a spot on the “30 Under 30” list at Forbes.
But we can define success for ourselves. Maybe for us, success doesn’t possess all the glitter and glamour of celebrity. Maybe it just means doing what has to be done with grace and dignity. Maybe teaching school children to read is just as impressive as leading a Fortune 500 company or climbing Mt. Denali.
“Good narrators appreciate that events can count as meaningful even when they’re not recognized as such by powerful authorities,” Botton writes, “We may be holidaying in a tent rather than the Presidential suite, hanging out with our grandmother rather than a pop group…and nevertheless lay claim to a legitimately meaningful life.”