We’ve been having those freezing summer mornings in the Bay Area. The wind rattled my windows all night long, and right now, the sky is the color of dirty snow. The leaves are shivering. Me too. The physical sensation is reminiscent of fear and of love, which have been much on my mind.
Summer is a busy season in online dating world: lots of emails and opportunities, still just as fascinating and promising as ever. But also, this summer, lots of anxiety emanating from many of the men I meet. I recently asked one about it: “I don’t want to hurt anybody,” he said, “or get hurt myself.” Well, who does? But hurting and being hurt are intrinsic to existence in a human body with a human heart. The only way to avoid either is to resign from life.
Fear is often a useful teacher. It tells you not to step into the path of a moving vehicle or jump from a high place, of course. I listen closely when my feelings tell me that someone is off-kilter, that it would be unsafe to allow myself to enter that person’s orbit. But for many people, including many of the men I’ve met this summer, fear is a priori: not grounded in the moment and the energies arising from it, but inclusive, ambient, perpetual, and firmly rooted in the pains of the past. Terrible things have plunged into the lives of some of these men. I can see how tempting it might be to shelter in the craters they’ve left behind: my own terrible experiences point the way. And yet….
I’ve been carrying on a sweet correspondence and phone exchange with a man who is living a few hours away this summer, working on a project. We’ve never met, but we share a particular countercultural past—a vocabulary and way of seeing the world that fit comfortably, old shoes with miles left on them—and an interest in understanding the world despite the futility of ever succeeding. He is on a serious quest for love, the kind that entails checklists (whereas I think love laughs at checklists, but never mind). Yesterday, I found myself writing him that some of my recent experiences had left me feeling a little blue at the gap between the desire to connect, so profound and intense, and the refusal animated by fear.
You can’t talk people out of their fears, of course, and especially in relationship, I don’t want to try: ambivalence and reluctance are qualities I absolutely do not desire in a partner. But if I were to attempt it, here’s what I’d ask: You know how short life can be. When yours ends, is this what you want to say: I survived, but I didn’t embrace life; I protected myself from pain, and it cost me the pleasure of living?
I’m just beginning to acquaint myself with the work of Esther Perel: I was introduced to her via this video by a man I met online. (Even if you aren’t interested in the subject, you should take five minutes to watch this for the pure pleasure of witnessing a tour-de-force of articulation from a brilliant mind and heart—even more so given that English is not her first language.) Perel is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She grew up in Belgium and now practices as a therapist in New York. In this video, she describes the epiphany that led her to understand that (I am borrowing the words of the Song of Songs here) love is as strong as death. In the community of survivors in which Perel grew up, she learned that it’s “not just about surviving, but it’s about reviving, it’s about bringing back aliveness, an essence and vitality into the world”:
In my community, there were two groups of people. Those who didn’t die and those who came back to life. The people who didn’t die often lived very tethered to the ground, very fearful, didn’t take the risks anymore to go out into the world, didn’t trust that the world was a safe place, generally could not experience much joy without guilt, and neither could their children. They were surviving, but not really alive.
And the other group were people that had come back to life, and those were people who understood the erotic as an antidote to death. Eroticism, sex, when you experience it at its full intensity, you are defying death. You are alive like no other moment, and it implies playfulness, and it implies risk, and it implies daring, imagination, and it implies once again being able to experience—the key word is aliveness. Eroticism for me is about aliveness. It’s the mystical sense of the word rather than what modernity has done, which is reduce it to sex.
Yes, exactly. I am not the child of survivors, although like many Jews of my generation, my ties to the old country have been dissolved by time. I know that most of the family members my maternal grandparents left behind perished somehow during World War II, but I don’t even know their names and no one who did know them is alive, so more than that I cannot say. Their legacy was a sort of black-hole sense of personal safety: history is waiting to swallow you up. To say that my immediate forbears lived tethered to the ground would be a serious understatement: once they braved the big crossing to America, fear captained their ship, and their aliveness was a brittle and elusive thing. Its shadow is my sadness at the fear darkening so much spirit in online dating world. And my gratitude is for the unfathomable mystery that freed me from its grip.
I don’t know if I will find the love I am seeking, but I am certain I won’t settle for anything less than that aliveness, and that knowledge always triggers a sigh of relief.
Bonny Prince Billy is an acquired taste, no doubt, but in the heartfelt tremble of his cover of Merle Haggard’s “Because of Your Eyes,” he seems to know. “And we’ll always be lovers, because of your eyes.”