When I asked “why exult” in my post under that title a few weeks ago, I really did mean it as a question. I was so plagued by that question for so long—some eon-filled years— that I finally wrote about it here on a wing and a prayer. I was hoping against hope that from somewhere an answer would be given.
My question was “Why exult in true connectedness, given the inevitability of loss?”
The post concerned the almost intolerable pain that can flood in upon the ending of times of utmost connection with another human being—the kind of connection that halts time and instead seamlessly unfolds something else entirely, as though minutes, hours, and days, were replaced by a new unending measure of pure bliss. When one’s entire being has reverberated with this rhapsody, who can calmly accept anything less?
No one. The problem is we have to. Or do we?
We have tried so hard, we mere mortals, to find a way not to. One of the ways is to do away with desire. If only we did not experience so much longing, so much yearning, so much desiring, we would not feel so much pain. Triumph over desire and the self will be at peace.
That might be true. But if so, what kind of peace is this? Is this the blissful eternity- drenched peace of union and communion with the beloved other or a soul-deadening solipsism? Perpetual re-enchantment at the font of the one desired or willed de- enchantment for the sake of an end to want?
So much of our culture seems—seems—to be about desire; signs everywhere seem to be encouraging it. The marketing-purchasing perpetual motion machine says it is right and good to want this thing, that thing, and everything. Even people are things, also to be desired. But of course the collapsing of the distance between desire and the thing or person desired in actuality can actually serve to kill desire. Immediate gratification moves in too quickly before desire can even assert itself.
Instead, the exultation of true connection might actually require the germination of longing, in the same way that it might be suffering that prepares the self for the deepest possible experience of shared bliss.
Why long? Because we have to. That is our story. But the message these days often seems to be that desire is undesirable, that it would be best not to have to long. Only attainment of the desired object brings happiness. But in fact, when we do not have to long, we often lose sight of what is longed-for altogether. Isn’t that a worse fate–permanent and irrevocable and soul-destroying?
This culture’s ambivalence about longing currently stands at epic proportions. It is not sure whether longing is good or not. It provides myths to tell us about where longing goes. Desire is present in the phase of infatuation when the experience of being with someone is new; it fades into oblivion in time. It is helpful, isn’t it, that we have discovered mathematical formulas for such things. Desire is attached to the rise and fall of hormones over the life course; this explains intense longing and its demise. Fixation on flaws in the particular human object itself, with a consumer culture’s cruel calculus, is but a thinly disguised rationale.
Such ideas are symptoms of a culture that does everything possible to starve desire of the very conditions it needs to thrive.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other….The value of a man is not in his skin, that we should touch him.”
This may not apply to all cases of exultation and loss, at least with equal salience. But something can be taken from this idea about the need for a certain perspective or vantage point, which can at least help us think about temporary partings or externally imposed limits or absences. Seeing something too close up at all moments might rule out the kind of contemplation of the loved one and the cherished connection that establishes an indelible impression of his or her value on the mind, heart, and soul. The time that lapses without the best is a painful reminder that the best is the best.
The desirability of allowing desire full play seems clear if desire is what allows the bond to be understood as a sacred one. This is a different kind of desire, thus it allows for a different kind of fulfillment. The enchantment and exultation that result from this rare kind of connection might only be possible because of the awareness of the possibility of separation as well as the experience of loss.
The other day I read a note from a dear friend whose company I miss, to say the least. The riptide of feeling felt nearly unbearable, the pain temporarily as bad as some of the worst physical hurts my body has borne. As it subsided, it was replaced immediately by gratitude at getting beyond this pain’s fearsome apogee, but simultaneously a desire for it not to stop. I didn’t understand that other desire until, in the days afterward, the memory of the painful emotion that had gripped me returned—now in fondness. It was an experience of exquisiteness, of supreme poignancy, of fullness. It brought a kind of completion, through a moment at the very heart of which, by its very definition, was separation, partiality, incompletion. But the completion was now in the longing, at least for the moment.
Just as longing can provide for the fulsome memory of the precise melodies of genuine conversation, conversing–the old term was, so aptly, intercourse–and all that is possible between human beings, the experience of those unending echoes initiated in time yet continuing out of it transformed the moment of longing into an experience of the presence of the longed-for. Who is to say that this apprehension of the one who was missed was any less real than the real-life observances of those who are lucky enough to share time and space but who have lost the capacity to experience each other in full? Very few seem to know how to experience someone anew in each new moment rather than taking him or her for granted and thus ceasing to notice the individual as someone unfolding, growing, circling back, despairing, exulting, doubting, becoming, believing, living, and dying. How is “togetherness” under these circumstances anything like union? How is it even close to what can exist between two souls rendered as vulnerable as humanly possible by the pain of desire and the hope for satisfaction in the full knowledge there is only one fragile path to this release? While time and space and other logistical considerations can interfere with the glorious experience of the “skin” of another, as in Thoreau’s quote, the experience of oneness, when the other is really understood to be the other and thus able to be loved and capable of loving in return, can break out of those bounds into a less time-bound realm.
Isn’t it longing–albeit a painful path to this infinite immersion–that makes this so?