Love as Choice

Volumes upon volumes have been written on love. The melancholy of heartbreak and the fervent ecstasy of attraction have both driven countless pens to paper. In expressing our love, whether it be in song, poem, painting, or long hugs, we simultaneously attempt to understand it. Despite all of the time we humans spend contemplating the concept, though, it seems we are no closer to understanding it than we were thousands of years ago. Massive sums of time and money go into researching the neuroscience of love, the characteristics of satisfied couples, and the algorithms behind dating websites, yet we are still vulnerable in facing the challenges of romance. All the data in the world doesn’t heal the agony of loss and has yet to make a significant dent in the 50% American divorce rate. The bulk of this exploration of love falls short in recognizing one fundamental truth: Love – deep, unconditional love, is not a feeling, but a choice.

Romantic comedies and media narratives tend to create the expectation that our soulmate (spoiler: they don’t exist) will eventually fall into our laps – and that, following a predictable bit of turmoil, we’ll live happily ever after. Silly or not, this is the notion we often naively carry in our hearts. It’s easy to be shocked, then, when you and your girlfriend have your first fight or you begin to notice the first habit of theirs you don’t like because it defies the narrative of a perfect relationship. Plenty of couples learn to ignore or deal with the friction, though, perhaps believing that the strength of their attraction, the profundity of their love, will triumph over any issues in the relationship. We look at the examples of our mothers and fathers and it seems that their love for each other obscures their imperfections, that my Gamama (Grandma for the unimaginative) and Grampa have been together for 50 years because they’re a fantastically compatible match.

We like to think that we’re incredibly good at knowing who’s going to make us happy, but let’s be honest – our test is passed with something as simple as a smile, a joke, a long conversation. The idea of having a soulmate is laughable – that there are 7 billion people in the world and you’re not only going to meet them, but you’re going to meet them early enough to live your life alongside them? No, no, rather there are millions upon millions of people in the world who could make us happy, but we choose one and decide to make them a promise. We promise to recognize their imperfections and the nuances that make them unique and love them anyway. Unconditional love means making the conscious decision to not only accept but to cherish a person’s flaws and failures, to immerse yourself in their whole being and thrive in it.

Stop waiting for Mr. or Mrs. Perfect, they don’t exist and never did. Find not the person whom you love at first sight for this is mistaking lust for love. Find instead the person you can learn to love and let them teach you how to accept and cherish every last fiber of their being – the back hair, the tiny butt, the obnoxious snoring and the obsession with cereal, the ketchup phobia and the late-night affinity for Rage Against the Machine.

Choose to Love.

“We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.”
-Sam Keen


Expectations III: Enlightened Optimism

New to the series? Check out the first post in the series: Identity, here, and the second: People, here.

Optimism is a dirty word. It carries with it connotations of youth and naivete, of blissful ignorance. The lips that form it in speech or the fingers that write it typically belong to a bubbly 20-something; the kind of person who hasn’t experienced enough pain to have their belief destroyed – the honest belief that there is nothing but good in the world and all problems are those solely of perspective. Or perhaps, if not blissful ignorance, then deliberate escapism, where optimism means a forced detour from realism in favor of subjecting oneself only to the joy around us. Ignorance and escapism, however, can never match the satisfaction of a deep acceptance of reality and the confidence that comes from looking the true world in its eyes without fear.

I speak of an alternative optimism where suffering and ecstasy are equally acknowledged, where the depth of life is wholly accepted. An optimism where we do not contradict our perception and lie to ourselves, where we do not shield our inner child from horror and trauma. I propose an enlightened optimism, one where we shift not our awareness but our attention and focus it on the best elements of our experience. When the enlightened optimist is faced with a challenge, she recognizes the possibility of failure but chooses to expect success and thereby sets the gears in motion to achieve it. When the enlightened optimist meets someone new, they are fully aware that they may despise every bone in this stranger’s body, but they expect to love them and so focus on the qualities they do admire and consequently make it pretty damn difficult to make enemies. The enlightened optimist possesses the beautiful virtue of a selective memory; they remember fully well the tragedies and hardships befallen them, but elect to spend their bar nights recounting their greatest triumphs and their heartiest laughs over a beer they can’t stand but have already forgotten about.

The person I describe is not a superhero, nor a celebrity airbrushed into oblivion and plastered on the cover of People magazine. They are not perfect and do not strive to be. They are simply and only the individuals who have recognized the capacity within each one of us to expect the best out of themselves, their peers, and the world around them.

“There’s no triumph waiting.
There’s no sunset to ride off in.
We all want to be great men and there’s nothing romantic about it.
I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given.”

-The Wonder Years, I Just Want to Sell Out my Funeral 

Expectations II: People

New to the series? Check out the first post: Identity, here

It’s 2010. The leaves and the leaf peepers had come and gone long ago, but the first flakes of snow had yet to fall on Maine soil. I stood on the sidelines of my fourth high school football game, with Wayne Gretzky’s legacy painted on my back and a quiet expression of excited nervousness hidden under a Riddell helmet. It was the fourth quarter and we must have absolutely dominated the first three, because the defensive coordinator decided it was safe enough to put a complete rookie in at defensive end – yours truly. Without time to process the choking fear of playing in my first real game, I hustled out to the line of scrimmage and got into position. With only ill-remembered practice experience to rely on, I focused on the only thing I did remember – what my stepfather had told me before my first practice – “On the first play of the game, you hit the guy across from you with every ounce of power in your body and you set the tone for the entire game.” The offense settled in on the other side of the line and I dug my toes in and got ready to hurl everything I had at him. The ball was snapped and I launched all 200 lbs of my nerdy 17-year old build at a complete stranger with every intention of communicating the appropriate level of terror he should feel towards this third-string defensive end. Unfortunately, he pulled a chop block and dove at my knees, sending each one of my 200 lbs straight into the dirt, from where I watched the running back sprint past without so much as a glance my way. Despite my failure, the lesson stuck- expectations are an essential defining characteristic of every relationship – whether on the gridiron, in the classroom, or at home.

In the classroom, teachers and professors have their own version of the first hit of the game – the first day of class. They’ll ditch their usual tweed blazer for a suit and their warm disposition for one of pure academic intensity. They’ll walk into class perfectly on time, syllabus in hand, and give a rundown of the idealistic expectations they’ve created for the course. Upon completion of the first class, they’ll listen closely for the phrase that confirms their success: “Man, this is going to be tough.” Why all the effort for one simple phrase? That first day of class is what defines each student’s attitude, and thus their expectations of their own work ethic and what it’s going to take to be successful. By acting like a hard-ass on the first day, or even the first week, teachers get students to adopt the attitude that they’ll have to work hard to be successful, and that attitude will carry them through the semester.

In our friendships and romantic relationships, too, expectations have to be both created and communicated. They may not be done with black suits and syllabi, but they’re even more important. Take gifts, for example. For your first Christmas together with your S/O, you decide to go all out and buy them a brand new pair of $500 skis (hint, hint Morgan). Undoubtedly they’ll be absolutely thrilled, but you’ve created the expectation for them and your future self that your gift purchases will be excessively extravagant – which may not be so fun when December rolls back around and you’re still broke from last year’s Christmas. Consider the tough stuff too – how often will we talk or get together, how much ‘me’ time do you need, what’s considered cheating, who pays for what, is it okay to kiss each other like high school students thinking they’ll never meet again before every class you don’t have together? It’s easy to simply assume that you and your partner understand what the other wants, but these are issues that need to be discussed and explicitly agreed upon for a successful relationship.

We know how much our friends can impact who we are, but expectations are one element of friendships that deserves closer exploration. Occasionally I’ll be late on a blog post or I’ll procrastinate on a school assignment and my friends will bug me about it to remind me that the way I’m acting doesn’t represent who I am. It’s easy to lose sight of who we are and adapt our own expectations to cater to our laziness, but the expectations of our friends and families exist to keep us in check, to encourage us to live up to our own. Expecting the most from your peers ensures that they’ll work to be the best versions of themselves. No one I know would be who they are today without the teammate who tackled their lost running back, or the graduating senior who showed nine naive freshmen that they could make a real difference at their university. Become the reason for other people to actualize their ideal selves.

Also, watch out for chop blocks. They’re fucking obnoxious.