Musings on whether vulnerability is
a consequence of bravery or idiocy
I form opinions quickly. Strong opinions. Gray space – the weird hazy middle ground between yes and no, for and against, black and white – is a is an uncomfortable chair for me to sit on, one of those bar stools with no foot rest that leaves my legs dangling awkwardly like a small child’s. I can weigh the options (sit on the chair) but I’m uncomfortable there for any length of time. I like decisions. Categories. Clarity. So this question, the one that I don’t choose to think about so much as I happen across it, this question makes me uncomfortable.
Love is vulnerability. Honest love is, anyway. And I don’t mean the saccharine love, drummed into our brains by TV shows and rom-coms and $5 Hallmark cards that use rhythm to assure someone that they’re The One with a pre-written mass-produced message. If every person is a mess of thoughts, plans, hesitations, scars, passions, insecurities, and the baggage of lessons-learned and lessons-in-process, then love – the sharing of those things with another person all for the possibility of being Known by someone, Understood by someone, one someone – that is the ultimate vulnerability.
And every time it hurts too much, every time it goes sour, every time the timing isn’t quite right, every time one person has baggage to deal with while the other one is ready to move forward…every time it breaks in the myriad ways that we can break things…it becomes harder to believe. We have different colloquialisms, different ‘red flags’, but whatever the words and identifiers, walls are constructed as a defense from the pain. The urge to share oneself, to be open, to choose that vulnerability…that is pushed back, pushed down, pushed off – until some future moment when it seems safe. Or at least safer. This is written off as emotional scarring by those with negative inclinations, and life lessons by those with positive. There are optimists out there, the internet is full of them, who will tell you that real love is on it’s way. There are websites full of beautiful photographs with uplifting quotes superimposed on the sunset or the footprints in the sand or the hands intertwined. There are Tumblrs and Instagram and Pinterest collections, hundreds upon hundreds of them. They assure you that the loves you thought were real just weren’t quite right, whether in terms of timing or some combination of your personalities, or both. They assure that there’s this person out there on some life track, making their way towards you, already. That’s why THE modern-era ode to Love, How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) was such an epically popular TV show; it presumes from the beginning a happy ending towards we – the audience – know the main character is moving. It presumes this and so we follow the bumbling mess of what would be an otherwise depressing love life that he has for NINE years with optimism, because it’s just a matter of time and we know that he falls in love with someone, has a family, that there is a happily ever after that happens, eventually. The rest of us don’t have that guarantee, we are quite unfortunately NOT a sitcom, but we extrapolate from this show and other shows and pop songs and movies and advice from friends and aunts, and we believe that our lives will be that as well, that it’s just a matter of time until our person arrives.
I have, for the majority of my adult life, been a romantic optimist wearing a thin mask of brash sarcasm. I cry when that Sarah McLaughlin commercial about neglected pets comes on, I can’t turn off a Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy if it shows up on TV (Maid in Manhattan, the Wedding Planner…ugh), I melt when I see an old couple doing a crossword at a cafe. I believe(d) in love the way weird super-religious people living in certain areas of the Midwest believe in God, in redemption, in the approaching apocalypse, the coming of a messiah, and the ensuing judgment of humanity.
But I’m getting a bit worn down. If life is a series of eras, marked by hairstyles, jobs, locations, and the people around us…every era has me believing a little less and a little less, and awareness of that, feeling the decrease…it sucks. I am getting worn down by life, and find the idea of Love to be something much like the idea of God or an afterlife; something comforting that we create for ourselves and attach significance to as a way to hold back the scary, possibly-meaningless void that is our existence otherwise. If we all just live for a few years, build things, reproduce, destroy other things, and then die off much in the way that an ant colony does, what does that mean? Marx called religion an opiate, is love not an even happier distraction from reality? I won’t go so far as to say that the romance industry is an intentional one (a romance industrial complex, if you will! [air high-five to anyone in sociology reading this instead of grading papers]) constructed to keep us dopey contented members of society who spend their lives pursuing our Soulmate instead of noticing and reacting to the shit going on in the world…but the parallel with Marx’s critique of organized religion is there, and it’s not as weak as that worn-down optimist inside me would like it to be. Why continue to toil, to live this painfully difficult and more-often-than-not boring as hell life, if there’s no guarantee of something beautiful, eternal, and rewarding waiting for us at an undetermined serendipitous moment carrying a yellow umbrella?
The number of uplifting “you’ll find the right person, the one for you, he’s out there” talks I’ve received from friends, family, hell even the guy who changed his mind about me being his Person…is not surprising, and I can appreciate the sentiment. They saw my pain, this spring, this summer, and believing that it will fade, think this is the easiest way to endure it, hope for happiness to be eventually replaced by actual happiness. Beyond that, encountering someone who doesn’t believe puts into question the validity of the things upon which you rely. It brings up the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I’m right, and even if you doubt it, it’s there. It seems quite similar to the many non-athiests who get quite aggressive in the way they confront non-believers.
I haven’t believed in God since I was a child. I’ve never (since I’ve been able to think critically about such things) been able to quite make myself believe in something, whether that something is a big bearded white dude in robes watching everyone, dead relatives listening to my thoughts, some sort of cosmic universal connection…none of it. Don’t get me wrong, it’d be SO much more comforting to have someone “up there” that heard me in my most difficult moments, something to look forward to after I endure this life, somewhere that my soul would be, something eternal. But knowing how comforting it would be is has not been quite enough to make myself believe. Wanting Santa Clause to exist does not conjure him up, though an argument could be made for believing in Santa Claus having a positive influence on morale and sense of community and light-heartedness. Love…how is that different? Should I work – as people are suggesting – to convince myself that he (Santa) exists because I want him to?
Believers (in God) often argue the “well what if you’re wrong?” point with atheists, and this is probably the most common rationale for agnosticism. They also point to how sad and lonely and insignificant one would feel, without the “presence” of something bigger to believe in. If we apply this to Love, the analogy still fits. If Love doesn’t exist, if it’s a temporary aligning of personalities and desires and needs that can’t possibly last, an emotion that converts to comfort or mild-distaste, depending on the scenario…then the whole thing is an opiate that we feed ourselves and each other because the alternative is sad, lonely, and not a little meaningless. Vulnerability, opening up, this could very well be buying into something irrational because we want it to exist, and that would put it – vulnerability – in the “product of idiocy” category.
But that optimist, that person has always believed that vulnerability is bravery. The world is intimidating and lonely, yes, but the only way that you find that person who will be your Person is to run the risk of the worst sorts of pain. That person believe(d) that the only way to have the highest of heights is to survive the lowest low points on this roller coaster, that it is the contrast that makes it so damn fascinating. I want(ed) to be raw and unguarded. I’m not normally one for inserting quotes into things, I feel they’re a weak alternative to expressing thoughts on my own, probably a leftover from teaching freshman at UW how to write research papers, repeating the mantra “only use a quote if you can’t say it better yourself”. But last week I ran into the quote (to the right I believe) by Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians in the US…and it still resonates. I can’t tell if that is just resonance with the vestiges of opiate left in my system, much the way I can live outside of the US but certain things I say or do are just very American…or if there is really just something brave in remaining open despite repeated injury, heartbreak, letdown.
So where does all of this leave me? Is breaking down walls, allowing people in, opening yourself up to the possibility of injury…is all of that worth the risk? I have no idea. Maybe it’s one of those flawed parts of the human condition, a gullible optimism in the face of what seems to be a whole lot of “sham, drudgery and broken dreams.” That in the face of negativity, of “aridity and disenchantment, [love] is as perennial as the grass.” If idiocy and bravery are one and the same…what then? (quoted bits are from Desiderata by Max Ehrmann)
I’m not sure whether to hope I forget my new feeling of awareness or to hope that I hold on to it – even if it means a certain amount of emotional solitude. If you could choose to believe in Santa Claus, knowing now that he doesn’t exist, would you? Is believing in magic itself wonderful enough, existence of it notwithstanding?
So do I believe, want to believe, or want to not believe?
I don’t know.