“I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I did, till we loved?” So John Donne mused in The Good-morrow, giving those of us doomed with a Protestant work ethic a vague, perpetual sense of unease about our own relationship, if it doesn’t seem sufficiently time-consuming – which, post-honeymoon, it won’t be. Love just bimbles along by itself, I would give in riposte to Mr Donne, if you’re doing it right.
I’ve been thinking about love this week, having been chatting to a youth who is getting over a rotten break up, and is all aquiver to find another girlfriend fast. There seems to be a sense in him, replicated in popular culture, that love should be a 24 hour soap opera, all tears, recriminations and reconciliations. I do blame Protestants for this, chiefly: their belief that salvation and eternal paradise comes of hard work, and that simply enjoying a feeling without feeling the urge to express it, nurture it, prove it, is somehow sinful, and may well condemn you to hell. Stuff that. Perhaps the occasional passionate row and reunion might be fun, but as a permanent way of life it sounds awfully tiring. I’ve got lots more to do than be in love. These columns don’t write themselves, even if sometimes they give that impression.
For preference, for the lazy, me included, love should not be hard work. Love shouldn’t be an active verb. Love should feel a relinquishing of responsibility, not another to add, sighing, to the daily heap. No endless need to impress, placate, reassure, amuse, mend; instead, love should feel akin to removing bra, heels and corset at the end of a long day, letting your flesh settle softly into the shagpile. Love should provide you with a background thrum, an emotional white noise, self-soothing and restorative, barely perceptible until it ceases. It’s devoid of worry: it’s the antidote of worry, the place you go to have worries soothed and forgotten. If you need to keep fixing it, it’s not love, it’s another damn chore.
It’s all too easy to confuse anxiety with love; to conflate that constant nauseating knot in the stomach with romance. Passion is from the Greek, to suffer; and often for the passion to feel real we want constant obstacles to overcome, a yearning after more than anything you’re freely offered. This love involves a quantity of sadness from the beginning, a sense of the uselessness and impermanence of all human endeavour. It’s addictive and thrilling, but no basis for a real relationship, or real life.
Until love arrives, I told him, have all the fun you can, and don’t try hunting it down: it’s a shy beast and seldom comes when called.
And to John Donne’s enquiry – What did we do till we loved – I would answer, just the same as now, only without a handy cheerleader making the usual drab round of duties joyous. Exactly the same striving, achieving, learning, falling short, trying again. Love isn’t the meaning of existence, but a pleasant, soothing addition to it. Get on with fulfilling your own dreams and love will find you. Or not. Doesn’t matter. Try, win; try, fail; try. Then keep trying.