NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Love” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
When I was 25, living in Manhattan and trying to jump start a career in writing and photography, I visited my parents and brothers in Buffalo two or three times a year. On those trips, I also saw my maternal grandmother, Bubby.
Although I spent more time as a child with my father’s mother, it was with Bubby that I felt a greater closeness, and because of that closeness it was painful to see how she had declined. By the time I moved to New York, she was legally blind, mostly deaf, and unable to manage on her own. She lived in a Jewish nursing home near the symphony, an institutional environment. I was always uneasy there.
On one visit, as I was leaving I noticed two of Bubby’s former neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Klein, sitting in folding chairs on the lawn. Mr. Klein had suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side of his body and had also frozen half his face, so his attempts to talk were unintelligible. Mrs. Klein, on the other hand, looked virtually unchanged since the last time I’d seen her, more than ten years before.
As she and I talked, I could see that Mrs. Klein was as fit and sharp as I remembered her. She asked how I was and what I was doing, and besides describing my hoped-for journalism career, I told her about my girlfriend, with whom I had lived, briefly, after college, and whom I had followed to New York. Our relationship was stormy and difficult but, I told Mrs. Klein, I loved her.
“Love?” Mrs. Klein said, gesturing toward her crippled husband sitting nearby. She looked directly at me. “Love is 50 years.”
In that moment my whole concept of love changed.
Right away I understood that for Mrs. Klein, after 50 years love wasn’t about sex or passion, or even conversation. It wasn’t about getting what we need from the other person, at least not in any way I could comprehend. It seemed, instead, to be about being more than willing to put aside ones own comfort for the sake of the other person, and to feel no resentment for what, from the outside, might appear to be a sacrifice. At that time, 50 years with one person seemed unfathomable – and yet there they were, together, and apparently content to be living in a place I found disturbing even to visit.
Shortly before a long romantic relationship ended not long ago, I was visiting an old friend from college, telling him how things had been going and how the end of this relationship seemed imminent. “You’ve had that problem your whole life, haven’t you, David?” he said.
“I guess I have,” I said.
He laughed. “So have I,” he said. “But with me, it’s been with the same woman.”
Unless I can somehow beat even the most exuberantly optimistic predictions for life expectancy, I will never come close to Mrs. Klein’s 50 years with one person. But I have long reflected on that conversation, and in the nearly four decades since then I have been moving to embracing what Mrs. Klein was trying to teach me. Perhaps, in another decade, I’ll even get there.
At 25, even after my moment with Mrs. Klein, I didn’t understand that love, true love, is not about finding a “soul mate,” which I’d be hard-pressed to believe is how the Kleins saw each other. Nor is it about shared interests, or gratifying mutual needs, or “chemistry,” or even trust and respect, though all of these may help a relationship prosper. Through a path much different than that taken by the Kleins, but which has led me to a similar place, I’ve come to see that love itself is about recognizing the essential humanity of the other being and responding to it with an open heart.
D. H. Lawrence wrote, in his poem “New Heaven and Earth,” about crossing over from a world “tainted with myself” into “a new world.” He writes that before he crossed over, “I was a lover. I kissed the woman I loved, and God of horror, I was kissing also myself. I was a father and begetter of children, and oh, oh horror, I was begetting and conceiving in my own body.” Afterwards, when he reaches out in the night and touches his wife’s side, he experiences her not as an extension of himself, but as “she who is the other.” When we experience others as truly other, with their own needs, wants, and desires, we can begin the process of loving them, of responding with generosity to those needs, wants, and desires.
Love need not be requited, reciprocal, or even packaged with what we think of as the components of a loving relationship. In the surrealistic movie Adaptation, based on the novel The Orchid Thief, Nicholas Cage portrays twin brothers, Charles and Donald Kaufman. Toward the end of the movie, both brothers are pinned down in a swamp at gunpoint by the author of the novel, played by Meryl Streep, and her lover. In this scene, which the brothers believe may be their last, Charles tells Donald a secret he has been keeping since high school. He had witnessed Donald flirting with a girl. She seemed to be kind and sweet when she and his brother were together, but she mocked him to her friends as soon as he was out of earshot. Charles had kept what he’d seen to himself all these years, to avoid hurting his brother’s feelings.
“I heard them,” Donald says.
“How come you looked so happy?” Charles asks.
“I loved Sarah, Charles,” Donald says. “It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away.”
“She thought you were pathetic.”
“That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago,” Donald says.
Being a psychotherapist has helped me refine my understanding of love, both as an observer and a participant.
As an observer, I am sometimes able to help people overcome the historical baggage they carry from unskillful love and move in the directions the Kleins seem to have arrived at on their own.
As a participant, I am able to practice loving selflessly. Therapeutic love is about seeing and accepting the essential nature of someone, what pioneer psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard,” and then drawing it out, reflecting it back, holding it for safekeeping when the objects of that love can’t hold onto it themselves. It is the foundation of the best therapeutic relationships, a love that is seldom directly stated but that is necessary, I believe, for any truly healing relationship.
Like Donald’s love in Adaptation, selfless love asks for nothing in return, and it does not end when the beloved is gone. The love itself lives on.