In which we abandon the fair Pugliese hamlet of Tricase for a while, to discourse on love, lost opportunities, loneliness, despair and other light-hearted subjects. You might want to put the kettle on, and have a Kit-Kat on standby.
7 September, 2021
In part one of this essay, I finished on a question: what leads so many of us, people with qualities – kindness, generosity, courage, intelligence – people with friends, colleagues – perhaps a parent or both parents still living, or a sibling or two– to be experiencing the kind of loneliness in their forties or fifties’ that drains all the meaning and pleasure out of life, and leads some (see part 1) to take their own lives?
There’s no definitive answer, but I can discuss this from my own experience. Until the age of forty-one, it never entered my mind that there might be a time when I would be lonely, or that I would experience an absence of love in my life; and it follows that it never entered my mind what an absence of love in one’s life might feel like. You see, I had two of the most affectionate, doting parents you could imagine, and I could always call on them for advice, conversation, compassion, encouragement, sanctuary, fidelity and all those other things that a human being needs to feel valued in the world. The door to their modest suburban bungalow was always open, literally.
This love was such an ever-present thing in my life that – I won’t say I wasn’t aware of it, or that I wasn’t grateful for it – that’s not the case – but it became something like part of my environment, like the ground one walks on, like the familiar sounds one hears every day in one’s usual habitats. In short, I became as someone who believes a certain resource, like food, or fresh water, or fuel, is boundless, when it is, in reality, finite – at least, it is finite if you don’t leave your familiar lands and sail off to find more of it. The resource I’m speaking of is love.
You have probably heard at some time or another of the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous “pyramid of needs”. Maslow’s theory, in a nutshell, is that human beings have a hierarchy of needs, depicted as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are “basic needs” – physiological and safety needs – food, water, warmth, rest, security, safety. The next level is “belongingness and love needs” – intimate relationships, friends – then higher still “esteem needs” – prestige, a sense of accomplishment – and right at the top of the pyramid is “self-fulfilment needs”, which is defined as “Self-actualization”, which is further defined as, “achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities”.
Well, it’s a long arduous climb to the top of a pyramid (if it is even possible to climb a pyramid, I may be thinking about one of those Mayan temples, but you get the idea), and some people would just like to get to the top and fool around with “self-actualization” as soon as possible, and for as long as possible. You can take a few short-cuts through some of those levels to get up there to the top faster, but you may have to pay for it later.
My attempt at drawing a comparison between Maslow’s pyramid and me might be starting to drift (to quote the title of a Hemingway novel) across the river and into the trees here, and so I’ll put it in simple terms. I underestimated, at a crucial period in my life, the importance of finding love, and did not recognise that it was finally worth the sacrifices that need to be made to keep it. I was not hungry for it. My romantic encounters in my youth, which were sporadic, I viewed – I see now – as temporary detours from the comfortable path of my life rather than as possible roads to a more difficult but also more rewarding and complete life. In other words, I treated these encounters like adventures or experiences, when I should have been treating them – the best of them, anyway – like projects.
But maybe even that isn’t completely true. Some unexamined part of my consciousness understood, I believe, that this was cowardice, masquerading as wisdom. I told myself that getting too involved for too long would lead, inevitably, to marriage, kids, domestic life, dull jobs, responsibilities without end – how would I ever be able to continue to fool around with self-actualization at the groovy point of the pyramid?
With more insight, or courage, I would have answered that one of my favourite writers, Raymond Carver, had just such responsibilities by the age of twenty. Marriage and the birth of children created responsibilities for Carver that made it a titanic struggle to get work completed (something he wrote about directly in several essays for his wonderful book Fires), but it was that titanic struggle that forged him as a writer. He had so little time to write, due to his financial and paternal responsibilities, that when he did, it really had to count for something. He also had the love and support of his wife, Tess, to shore him up through the years of rejection letters, dead-end jobs, and despair.
If I had had even more insight, as I do now, many years later, I would have realised that the love that shored me up, that allowed me always to fall back from love when I should have charged forward, was not from some eternal source, but in fact was the creation of two people, my parents, who had themselves come from families where one parent either had died or was otherwise absent from their lives. They were providing the familial security and support to me and my younger sister they had never had themselves. They found each other, fell in love, and married before they were even out of their teens, and they stayed together for life, happily, even crazily at times (I mean crazy in the sense that couples that stay together for a long time, if they are happy, seem to give one another the confidence to take huge risks, and live without apology). And so, at the age of forty-one, when my mother died, leaving my father broken in half (there is so much truth in that colloquial English expression for a spouse, “the other half”) for six more years, before he followed his love to “the undiscovered country” (to quote Hamlet), I had my first sense of what it might be like to experience the absence of love in my life.
I am not saying my experience was my friend’s experience, or why she had difficulty finding a lasting relationship. Miranda had been married many years before, in her twenties. For some, the disappointment of a failed marriage or relationship leads to a subsequent caution or ambivalence towards love that is, I believe, fatal to the chances of finding it again. I sensed that Miranda and I had that caution or ambivalence in common. We felt we were independent and self-contained, we felt we knew “How to be Alone” (to refer back to the Franzen essay mentioned in Part 1), and that we could find substitutes for that tempestuous and terrifying thing called romantic love – in friendships, in literature, in work, in creativity, in learning, and in Miranda’s case, in her love for her dog, which became finally the only relationship that came close to the kind of reciprocal love she needed.
Reference to Hamlet – “the undiscovered country”