“In this short Life
that only [merely] lasts an hour
– Emily Dickinson, from The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems
“I feel like you want to think that what you’re feeling is really deep, like some seriously profound existential shit. But to me, it looks like the most tired, average thing in the world, the guy who is all interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what you can’t have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere.”
– Adelle Waldman, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
“In a relationship, one mind revises the other; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love, as our Attractors [coteries of ingrained information patterns] activate certain limbic pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them.
Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love…”
A General Theory of Love is one of my favourite books and the kind of work you return to again and again, finding new layers of insight each time.
An honourable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” – is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.
Why do we feel slightly crazy when we realise we have been lied to in a relationship?
We take so much of the universe on trust. You tell me: “In 1950 I lived on the north side of Beacon Street in Somerville”. You tell me: “She and I were lovers, but for months now we have only been good friends”. You tell me: “It is seventy degrees outside and the sun is shining”. Because I love you, because there is not even a question of lying between us, I take these accounts of the universe on trust: your address twenty-five years ago, your relationship with someone I know only on sight, this morning’s weather. I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads, across statements such as these, statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways, on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you.
I also have faith that you are telling me things it is important I should know; that you do not conceal facts from me in an effort to spare me, or yourself, pain.
Or, at the very least, that you will say, “There are things I am not telling you”.
When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For awhile, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting edge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.
The liar may resist confrontation, denying that she lied. Or she may use other language: forgetfulness, privacy, the protection of someone else. Or, she may bravely declare herself a coward. This allows her to go on lying, since that is what cowards do. She does not say, I was afraid, since this would open the question of other ways of handling her fear. It would open the question of what is actually feared.
She may say, I didn’t want to cause pain. What she really did not want is to have to deal with the other’s pain. The lie is a short-cut through another’s personality.
Truthfulness, honour, is not something which springs ablaze of itself. It has to be created between people.
The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities. When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.
When someone tells me a piece of truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, seasharp wash of relief. Often such truths come by accident, or from strangers.
It isn’t that to have an honourable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.
It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.
The possibility of life between us…