As everyone gets in on the Love fest this week, Adrian Chew sounds a reminder to us to feel and look a little deeper.
ON A RAINY NIGHT MORE THAN A DECADE AGO, I was driving an old Volvo 240 through the narrow streets of Kuching, unfamiliar with the car and fumbling between the levers for the turn indicators and the windscreen wipers every time I reached a junction.
I was alone at the front trying to drive the car steadily and trying even harder to impress the two passengers at the back that I knew my way around the city when I really didn’t.
This was his car, her night, their city. I was only visiting.
In the darkness of the car, they were seated at opposite ends of each other on the backseat. Their shoulders were hunched; bodies turned towards their own windows. In their hands were bulky mobile phones that they held close to their faces, thumbing the keypads and giggling as message alerts sounded intermittently.
Like teenagers in love. I sighed to myself as I looked at them in the rear view mirror – both just inches from each other but sending text messages to each other as if there were continents apart.
There they were, sickeningly sweet and gooey, my aunt and my uncle – both in their late 50s, the most loving couple I’ve ever come across – behaving the same way I’m sure they did some 40 years ago when they passed love notes in their school classroom. Aging classmates at class reunions must surely look at them and remark, “Ah, here’s one that was built to last. One that’s defied life’s hurdles and obstacles; an enduring love story of eternal romance.”
Now, let me tell you what’s true and what isn’t.
These things are true: Your lover’s roses will droop and wilt. The wallpaper in your love nest will peel. Your cherished photographs together will fade and stain. Mould will grow in the bathroom sealant. Your pet dog’s poop doesn’t turn white anymore because dogs these days eat commercial dog food loaded with rice and corn, and not real bones with real calcium. Many hopeless romantics who travelled to India’s Ashrams after watching ‘Eat, Pray, Love‘ totally hated their experience. I also personally know of a friend who got pick-pocketed in Bali during her search for the medicine man.
These ones aren’t: Love is unconditional. Love is timeless. Love is real. All you need is Love. Romance is beautiful.
For a start, love is not unconditional. If you’re born ugly, chances are even your mother would reject you. I’m not making this up. It’s scientific and comes from a study by Harvard University. Unconditional maternal love? Think again.
There’s no such thing as love. It’s just not real. Adam probably cooked up the idea as an excuse for his stupidity in conspiring with Eve to bite the apple.
It’s a lazy, catch-all word employed by the lazy lover to sum up the jumble of emotions that come from being in relationships; a word used mainly to appease the womenfolk and sometimes complemented with chocolates, diamonds and ribbons. Saying “I love you” and “We fell in love at first sight” is a velvety cover-up of the cruder truth, which is – “Me see you. Me track you. Then me club you on head. And me drag you to cave.”
Love, some say, is what happens when you set your friendship on fire. The simple appreciation of just being able to spend time with our friends becomes kindle and the beauty of that simplicity is consumed in the flames, substituted with a lover’s unreasonable demands and expectations. It becomes an unforgiving game of complaint, punishment and reward.
This unrealistic belief about Love is at its zenith when those afflicted by it make wedding vows of unconditional acceptance. They are then licensed to hurt and be hurt; to scream that they’re not being listened to enough and to claim an entitlement to more attention. It turns them into blinkered beasts of burden, no longer interested in taking in the reality of what surrounds them but obsessed with the fantastical quest to reach Love’s promised destination where all is perfect and beautiful.
Using marriage as an example again – ‘acceptance’ is what takes place when a couple frolic with that initially clever solution to the problem of loneliness. At a time when the intended spouse’s physical attractiveness still ranks high and the emotional ropes that bind them untested, acceptance (and total submission) is easy to declare. Don’t forget, there’s the wonderful notion of l-o-v-e to honey-coat any early signs of uneasiness.
But after the sugar wears off, despair must surely set in. All that craving for closeness and intimacy soon gives way to pleadings for more room and breathing space. Suddenly his laughter, so enthralling in the heady days of the relationships, starts to sound annoying. Those piercing eyes so captivating before now inspire instead secretly held wishes she’d undergo cosmetic eye surgery.
Love, you see, is about being possessive and self-centred; it’s essentially about ‘me’ disguised as ‘us’ to justify the involuntary sharing of space, feelings and material things. Mutual happiness gives way to something grotesque; a death grip that bruises and suffocates. Love’s passion is wild and untempered, burning fast and full of destruction.
Those who fear this reality and refuse to adapt out of romantic stubbornness will soon find themselves growing weary of the dimming matrimonial bliss. Pop a few children into the mix and that’ll really screw the Confusometer up even more. ‘Love’, it soon becomes apparent, is a sinister imaginary friend who teases you into believing and then leaves you when all breaks down.
So what’s left when the illusion of Love is shattered?
Many things, actually.
Love is that great stage-hogger whose exit finally allows a story’s true talents to shine through:
Acceptance: how we accept and understand our partner’s flaws and shortcomings. Commitment and fidelity: keeping promises, staying when youth is gone and beauty wrinkled. Tolerance: Our ability and willingness to tolerate their inability to change. Displaying patience, Kindness and Forgiveness when emotions collide. Knowing that we sometimes say the right words simply by not speaking but by Listening instead.
Though I must reluctantly admit that Love may be the sum of all these, it is still an oversimplification. As a word, its use is selfish and unfair; it unduly takes credit for something that’s clearly the work of others. Truth be told, it is merely a romanticised abbreviation of the many human qualities that fluctuate between Acceptance and Tolerance.
These plainer things devoid of ornaments, I suggest to you, are the true virtues we should acknowledge. These determine the success of our relationships and not that dismal farce called ‘Love’.
So, remember. Remember that Love is nothing more than an elaborate book cover. A story that endures owes it timelessness not to that cover but to the author’s prose and heartfelt words that line its pages.
That rainy night more than a decade ago, as I sat in the restaurant with my aunt and uncle; just the three of us for her birthday, I looked at them and wondered about their story.
My aunt moved her chair slightly closer to mine and asked me to help her read the menu’s small print.
“I left my glasses at home“, she explained.
And just then, my uncle pulled out a small case from his jacket, opened it and placed next to my aunt’s hand her folded bifocals.
“But I remembered.”