Almost a year ago, my teacher gave me the task to write a text about love. Love is something that has occupied my mind a lot, especially during the last five years. Five or six years ago, I experienced something that turned my world upside down, and it made me start questioning the idea I had about love, especially what we tend to call ‘romantic love’.
The last weeks, I have been listening to an audiobook called God Speaks to Each of Us which is a compilation of lectures Thomas Merton had using Rainer Maria Rilke’s texts to talk about different topics related to the meaning of life and how we interact with each other.
One of the last lectures is about what Merton calls human love. In it, he quotes from Rilke’s book called Letters To A Young Poet:
‘For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation[…] Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.
But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing: they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment. And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? And so each of them loses himself for the sake of the other person, and loses the other, and many others who still wanted to come. And loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for an unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into one of the many conventions that have been put up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous road. No area of human experience is so extensively provided with conventions as this one is: there are life-preservers of the most varied invention, boats and water wings; society has been able to create refuges of every sort, for since it preferred to take love life as an amusement, it also had to give it an easy form, cheap, safe, and sure, as public amusements are.
There are many things in this quote that resonate with me. To begin with, the fact that love is hard work. Any love. To love each human being we interact with requires that we are willing to accept the good and the difficult. To love is to observe ourselves reacting and rejecting what we don’t like and be curious enough to discover why we react so strongly. To love is to grow because once we decide we will love, we have to move away from our instinctive way of clinging to what we like and pushing away what we dislike.
We have to accept that our happiness doesn’t come from other people fulfilling our needs, it comes from our ability to see our neediness and work on it. We have to learn to accept the emptiness and fear that come with the realisation that regardless of how much we seek in the other, we are in reality alone. Once we have taken the first step of acceptance, we can gradually feel comfortable in this loneliness and build a relationship of trust with our own self. We are ok on our own. This relationship with the self can then be the bridge between us and the other. We can then see the same vulnerability in the other and show understanding and compassion. That is when the real love happens.
My teacher often says that not all love needs to become a relationship. I think that what we call ‘romantic love’ is a kind relationship and as my teacher defines it, relationship is a contract. We all have our explicit and implicit terms for the different contracts we have with people: mum, teacher, lover, children, etc. There is nothing wrong with it, but we should learn to make the difference between being ‘in a contract ‘ with someone and loving someone from the deepest of our hearts.
I like how Rilke writes that to love is to become world. To me, this means that we become space for the other to be, without judgement and without neediness. It doesn’t mean that we have to put up with whatever the other brings. Some relationships are toxic, some people hurt, and sometimes it is necessary to part, but we can still love without the contract, without the relationship.
Only this kind of love will set us free.
PS He keeps referring to ‘young’ people, I am not in that category anymore, and still, I know that I have a long way to go to be able to fully understand and live up to this kind of love.