|Maybe it’s the season, but a lot of the relationships of people in my social circles seem to be falling apart these days. Ever since I started reading Tom Robbins’ books, I have been struck by the enormous challenge that he describes in many of his books: How to make love last.
A couple of years ago, Robbins wrote an article in Harper’s called In Defiance of Gravity (it’s also included in his book Wild Ducks Flying Backward). In it, he describes his personal experiences with near-suicidal depression, and how he was able to pull himself back from the brink of what he calls Weltschmerz (world-weariness) The trick, he said, was to rediscover playfulness, or what the Tibetan Buddhists call Crazy Wisdom — “the wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything”.
At the time, I wrote this about Robbins’ article:
Robbins says the epitome of Crazy Wisdom is the cat. I have seen cats of all ages, cats of amazing wisdom and style who otherwise show themselves to be cunning and astonishingly self-sufficient, chase a piece of string dragged by a child around the house for an hour or more, indefatigably and with enormous concentration, creativity and energy. What is the purpose of this unexpected playfulness? Is this the cat’s way of discharging the tension and anxiety that preoccupies her more sombre and sober moments? Is it her way of teaching the child (or the adult, since I get great pleasure from such games, at least until some intrigued child coaxes the string away from me to learn more about this magic trick) important lessons about instinct, about reflexes, about strategy, about the need for play, and a hundred other lessons we are too besotted with Weltschmerz to appreciate?
Perhaps that rediscovery of playfulness is also the secret to making love last. Expecting us to love one person forever, come what may, is demanding a lot of us, and arguably unnatural. Popular music is full of references to this challenge:
You’re here, what if you weren’t, what would have happened to me?
Look at us baby, up all night tearing our love apart
Aren’t we the same two people who lived through years in the dark?
Every time I try to walk away something makes me turn around and stay
And I can’t tell you why.
Nothing’s wrong as far as I can see; we make it harder than it has to be.
— The Eagles, I Can’t Tell You Why
First you make believe I believe the things that you make believe
and my favourite:
How do you keep the music playing? How do you make it last?
Lots of wishful thinking but no magic secrets there. The advice we often get is not particularly encouraging: It takes a lifetime of hard work. You have to compromise, not expect too much. You need to be forgiving. You need to give space.
When I was younger, breakups were tempestuous, and usually provoked by an indiscretion. But now, its just as if the force of gravity that held couples together has been repealed, and they’re just drifting apart. Relationships are ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Perhaps this is nothing new. Maybe it’s been going on for generations and its just that, when you reach a certain age, you start to notice it, you see through the thin veneer and pick up on the signals and tones of estrangement.
The pragmatist in me says that you don’t try to “keep the music playing” — when the music stops, you acknowledge its end to your dancing partner and move on. The idealist in me says that the problem isn’t trying to make feelings of love with one person last, it’s that we don’t love enough people throughout our lives so that, when one love wanes, there are dozens of others to keep us loving. Because I do believe that without love we are nothing.
If we loved more people, freely, openly, would we feel less grief at the loss of love from one person? I’m not so sure. We might, however, be able to cope with that loss better, because we would see and feel love as an abundant and indefatigable resource. In our terrible modern world where love is treated as a scarce resource, jealously guarded and limited to one person at a time (and in some societies, to one person in a lifetime), its loss is inevitably more profound in its impact on us.
Here’s an analogy: People with enormous financial wealth don’t worry much about losing a small part of it. People with no wealth at all, when they acquire something briefly and easily, don’t worry about losing it — easy come, easy go. It’s those people who have just a little wealth, acquired with difficulty and all tied up in one thing, who feel the greatest stress and grief and sense of loss when it suddenly disappears. Is it the same with ’emotional wealth’? Is that why some people who have lost love become unable, or refuse, to love again?
What do you think? How do you keep the music playing? Is more playfulness the answer, and if so, how do we engender that? Is it even important to keep the music playing? And do you see “half the couples you know disbanding” (disengaging psychologically if not legally), or is it justme?
Cartoon: By Peter Steiner from The New Yorker, in the Cartoon Bank.
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