Don’t many people at some point in their lives long for that certain person, someone they have already met or someone they imagine meeting someday, to look directly into their eyes–the window to the soul, Shakespeare called them–and say “I love you”?
If so, why? What would be so great about that eventuality? Isn’t it at least in part because we think it will give us some satisfaction of our longing for the real? And, from the other side, isn’t one of the things we long for, when we long for the real, some kind of ultimate connection with another person, which the words “I love you” seem to signify?
If so, what does it mean to be real? Is being real solo different from being real in company or relation with another human being? Does the real have anything to do with the quality, texture, and value of human connection?
From the sound of things these days, it surely seems so. In modern times, people in this neck of the woods, anyway, seem to assume they prefer people with whom they can really be themselves. We talk as though we like best those who allow us to be our real selves and who seem to be their real selves with us. These friends and loved ones allow us to take off our public faces, to reveal our private and unadorned selves, to express our innermost thoughts and feelings. We seem to consider our most intimate relationships the most real ones we ever experience. Doesn’t the extent to which a particular friendship, marriage, or other love relationship is real in this sense (of allowing both people involved to take down the façade they might need in public, at school or work, and with other people) speak to its significance? Isn’t realness the very scale on which we measure how intimate it is?
If this quality of realness is how we judge the worth of our connections with other people, we might need a working definition of the real. This line of inquiry would lead us onto to vast terrains: of epistemology; of metaphysics; of empirical science; of theology; and much more. After all, there is a long-standing debate about whether there really is an authentic self, or even a self at all. Some say we do have a self that is true, real, and authentic. Given that we are known to act differently in different settings, they say there are times when are we at our most authentic, and times when our authentic inner core is hidden, even sometimes from ourselves. Then there are those who say the real self does not exist. Removing veil after veil after veil, in their view, merely takes us to another veil.
This is a complex and fascinating question. Here I only gesture to it as part of an attempt to ponder what seems to be riding on the utterance, “I love you.”
What is that elusive quality that makes some relations between two people feel more real than others? And isn’t that real quality just an illusion?
Let me–let us–not keep beating around the bush. When people fall in love with each other, they relish the thought of being together more than anything. When they are together, everything seems right with the world. They stare into each other’s eyes, caress each other’s hair, hang on each other’s every word. Every sense is awakened, every nerve alive. Isn’t this the very definition of real?
Others say even this is just an illusion or better yet a delusion. In their dim view, that heightened state of mind and body is a function of infatuation, the self-deception of romantic love, hormones, biology. This is supposedly the “honeymoon” stage, which is destined to end–sooner rather than later. Sages like C.S. Lewis counsel us against mistaking this feeling for the long-lasting, deeper love of friendship or marriage. There are all kinds of love….
Right. Tell that to someone looking for that connection that brings one into contact with another in a way that feels–no, that is–ultimate.
What is ultimate? Isn’t that what we mean by the most real when it comes to a human’s relation to another human: something that feels like something ultimate?
Let’s take some small measure of human experience, the equivalent of one-trillionth of a given day in a life, like a fleeting moment in which my fingers touch a piece of paper, feeling the rough-smoothness of it. Is that humble, visceral experience where we are closest to the real? In physical encounter with the world of objects? In the small everyday moments of the day at its longest? Is that the ultimate? Or is the ultimate to be found in those parts of the day that make it seem short, in moments and experiences more exceptional than this, as in moments of our deepest connection with another human being (to say nothing here of the divine, though it is everywhere implicated), when we intuit and intimate the existence of someone else’s soul?
If it is the latter, the question becomes: what is the ultimate between two people? In practice, we know this can take a vast number of forms. In life as we live it, is there such a thing as a unifying of two, whatever form that might take, whether a fleeting overlapping or a permanent merging, when it is no longer possible to delineate a boundary? In “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” seventeenth-century poet Anne Bradstreet, presents one of the most affirmative responses of all time to this in her words, “If ever two were one, then surely we.” Here’s the whole poem:
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
From: The Complete Works of Anne Bradstreet (1981)
Yet even here, in this statement of one person’s certain love for another, the first word we read, not once leading a line but thrice, is “if.” It’s an interesting way to phrase it. Perhaps it’s the true way, the only way.
The words most of us want to hear when in love are “I love you.” Would we be content with something, à la Bradstreet, like, “If it is indeed possible to love you, I love you”? I don’t think so. Would we really be satisfied with hearing the qualified version?
The statement, “I love you,” seems to stand alone, apart from other things we might choose to express in words, even things that also suggest happiness, like “Spring is on its way.” “Spring is on its way” has connotations of the hope and promise of a beautiful future opening, but “I love you” has those and much more.
When conviviality hums along, as in a close friendship, one might enjoy a person’s company, deriving pleasure from the interaction. But the realization that one loves the person can come as a bolt of lightening. It changes everything.
Under these circumstances, it is tempting to put this into the words, “I love you.” Aren’t these the right words? Aren’t they beautiful–and accurate? Don’t they best capture and convey the reality of the situation, the experience of the ultimate in one human being’s feelings for another?
If the declaration does suggest the ultimate, maybe saying those words is something we should absolutely not do.
Many would immediately point to the most mundane reasons, which are readily apparent, all coming down to the revelation that they might be a lie: we might think it’s love but it’s not; we might “love” at that time but later we might not; we might love, yes, but our love might prove not to be of the ultimate kind. Something else trumps it or gets in the way. Is loyalty an essential part of love? Longevity? Exclusivity?
But even beyond this practical line of reasoning, there could be cause for reserve.
Some situations make saying the words easier than others. When one can readily speak of the ultimate in human affection, the ultimate might already be receding beyond our ken. But when one must hold back, for whatever reason, it is possible that the ultimate remains ever present. If one can say anything at any time, with minimal difficulty, there is no greater guarantee that a certain necessary disposition–something like the most careful and deliberate stewardship, as of a garden unseen–will be cultivated by means of speech than there is with an eternity of expressive silence. In an episode of “Roseanne,” she and her husband are sitting under the covers, both lazy by disposition and genuinely exhausted from a day of work and parenthood; rather than make love, they agree to something like, “Let’s not and say we did,” then turn out the lights. This gets a laugh as a statement on a kind of mundane comfort of long-enduring relationships, in which the sublime is revealed to be unreachable. But reaching for the stars by saying so rather than doing so is not reaching for the stars. It is not the same as leaving open the endless possibility of doing so even if it sometimes means refraining from saying so. Instead, let’s do and not say we did.
More important than saying “I love you” is keeping alive that delicate, ineffable, soul-quickening spirit that is needed for something that holds every promise of being the ultimate actually to become and keep becoming the ultimate; to become and keep becoming the real. For the cosmic promise of a real love to be fulfilled, there perhaps needs to be a continual reminder that it might never be, for by nature, love cannot be taken for granted and remain itself. The ultimate in love brings with it the ultimate in loss, the every-present “if.” The only true fulfillment might be one that has to struggle constantly–that has to find a way to endure–with the agony of longing.
These, the most magical words in any language, when arrayed just so: like so many others before me, and so many to come, I too long to hear them from the right person.
But for it to have even the slightest chance of meaning what it says, we need to be aware that the declaration of love, precisely in parading as the be all and end all, risks being just that, the end all. It is not to say the words aren’t beautiful and meaningful; sheer music to the ears. They can be. But only when they nurture the reality they claim to represent. And they can only do this when they are a beginning, not an end; when they bring with them an ever-renewing return to the possibility of their unreality.
One might refrain out of the fear that the words could compromise the very love of which they speak. The words could bring a loss of mystery, of the visceral reality of the unspoken, of the unfolding of an infinity in every moment. Words can capture, in the sense of represent, sum up, or signify. But words can also capture, as in imprison.
And that just might make things less real.