It’s been almost two years since I lost someone I loved. The relationship was short, tortured, unhealthy (as all my romantic relationships have been, but that’s another story…) However, I fell particularly hard for this one. When we separated, the pain was unthinkable. I was surprised by how deep it ran. I didn’t know until he was gone how much I really cared about him. I became physically sick, and even now there are days when I only have to bring him to mind to conjure a familiar pressure behind my eyes and in my throat.
Why did he leave? Why did I love him so much? What went wrong? How can I stop suffering from this? I’ve discovered that satisfactory answers are nonexistent.
All I could find were platitudes. “It’s his loss.” “Now you know his true colors.” “You’ll find someone else eventually.” And then there are the hollow religious comforts like, “God has someone better.” Unsurprisingly, these flippancies don’t help much, but they are predictable and forgivable.
More ensnaring axioms come from those who claim to be oriented toward deep meaning-making. Authors, thinkers, clergy, the ones you expect to have deeper answers— so many seem to serve reductions along the lines of, God sent him to you to teach you a lesson you needed to learn. I remember a church leader once telling me that she prayed regularly, “God, don’t let me waste any suffering I go through by not learning something from it.” Similar ideas come from those in the New Age: Your souls needed to meet in this incarnation, to learn karmic lessons from each other. From the psychotherapy-minded: We are attracted to those who epitomize elements in our Shadow. Unhealthy attractions will dissipate when these Shadow elements are integrated.
Lessons to learn. Shadow elements to integrate. Not long ago, these sounded like helpful steps toward maturity, healing, freedom. Until a few weeks ago, I handled my grief using advice along these lines. I would get quiet and introspect for lessons I could glean from the experience. I wrote down each prescriptive gem. I meditated on my discoveries, tried to absorb their wisdom. I faced the rejected parts of my psyche I felt were similar to undesired elements I saw in my lover. Greed. Pride. Selfishness… One must face and integrate these qualities in order to heal!
And yet, his painful imprint remained— and it remains— salient. It has gotten better over time, but I despair at ever being fully “over him.”
Recently it dawned on me that that these approaches to creating meaning from relationships, while well-intentioned and of a certain wisdom, are not entirely sound. First, they flat-out don’t work in alleviating the pain of grief. Secondly, they draw on the contestable “redemptive suffering” model of dealing with the Problem of Evil. The main concern for this article, though, is that this kind of advice effects a de-personalization of the Other. It treats the Other as something to assimilate, use, take from. It reminds me of the nutritionist’s advice that when you crave salty foods, your body is really saying that it needs potassium, so eat some apricots instead, to stop the cravings. This may work for food, but wait! Do we really believe people are like food to be consumed?
There is always some assimilation of the Other’s qualities in any relationship. Of course. But Love is not a flat, predictable formula. Person X has quality Y; I need Y; therefore, I need X. Love is so much richer. Every person is a unique universe of traits, mannerisms, potential, preferences, activities, ideas, and so on. When you love an Other, whose universe somehow resonates with your own, you can’t pinpoint specific reasons you want to be with them. It’s a multi-dimensional, ever-changing, immense experience. A person cannot be reduced to the sum of her/his qualities.
People can teach us things. Of course. But Love isn’t only about how the Other can serve Me, or vice-versa. Love transcends Transaction, whether we’re talking about exchanging physical services or spiritual lessons. When I miss my ex, I’m not missing his lessons; I’m missing him. Some ineffable quality, a unique expression of life that defines him as himself and nobody else.
Funny. I don’t seem to hear this kind of wisdom when the loss is familial instead of romantic. Who would tell a child whose mother just died, “Don’t worry, there are plenty of women out there who can take care of you”? While this may be true at a certain level, the fact is, nobody can replace your mother. Orphans aren’t urged to learn the lessons they’re supposed to learn from the lost parent and move on, nor to introspect on what caused them to be attracted to that family member in the first place. The child may find someone else to parent him, but it won’t be the same, nor should it be. A romantic Other feels, at some level, like family. Why is their loss assumed to be less painful, so easily bargained via self-improvement tactics?
Another problem with this “Other to Assimilate” idea is that it opposes itself to the feelings and experiences of those who love. It essentially says, “I know you feel like you love that person, but your feelings are lying. You actually love yourself.” If our feelings are not accurate indicators of our inner reality, which is, by definition, intangible and immeasurable, then what can we trust? Maybe your feelings are right. Maybe you do love the other as an Other. Maybe there’s no way, or need, to explain the unexplainable.
The lesson I finally learned from my grief is that, ultimately, there isn’t a lesson to learn. Love is greater than lessons. Love sees the person, not the lessons. Love insists on loving. Can I maintain this perspective? My hope is, since the love in my heart proved stronger than my misguided attempts at self-healing, ultimately it will also prove stronger than grief.
Abigail Smith has a Bachelor’s degree in Music Composition, and is finishing a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design & Technology. She is currently job-searching in Phoenix, AZ. If nobody will hire her, she will find a commune and live off the grid… She may or may not be serious about that… She enjoys gardening, bicycling, politics, reading, audio engineering, and referring to herself in the third person. Her personal blog is http://sleepingrealities.blogspot.com, and her singer-songwriter website is www.musicbyava.com