Perhaps listening to the stirring songs and watching the touching narratives of the musical, Phantom of the Opera, invoked a spell of romantic nostalgia. Or perhaps it was due to the spontaneous and meandering conversations my friends and I had about romance and our understanding of love during my recent trip to Barcelona. It might even have been a result of the residual traces of abstract, festive romanticism left lodged in an unnoticed corner of my mind during the recently elapsed Valentine’s Day.
Whichever the reason, these occurrences have, either disparately or collectively, triggered the release of the mental dam that has been holding back my reservoir of thoughts on love – a reservoir which has been gradually growing in size over the past many months as I struggled for emotional equilibrium while trying to reconcile the disappointment, detachment and heartache that I have come to associate with love.
Since writing is my favourite form of cathartic release, I have decided to take a snapshot of my thoughts and make a montage out of them.
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1. The recipe for a beautiful love comprises three ingredients: a beautiful smile, a beautiful heart, and beautiful timing.
This is my personal conception of love, which attempts to capture an overarching generalisation of how most of our innate desires or prerequisites for transcendental romance most often fall into the aforementioned three criteria.
Regarding ‘beautiful smile’ and ‘beautiful heart’, the quintessential footnote attached to these concepts is certainly the fact that ‘beauty’ lies in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there probably exists a majoritarian standard for beauty, but its margin of appreciation – or the outer limits of this subjective and ever-shifting baseline – is often dictated by personal whims. The truth is that we are all secretly beholden to various underlying impressions and biases in looking for something like having a beautiful heart or smile, some of which we may not even be aware of.
After all, ‘beauty’ is such an elastic and flexible concept that what is considered beautiful regularly shapeshifts and conforms to the different notions people have of it. Some may consider a lady who loves the arts to have a beautiful heart; others may find that such a criterion is best found in a woman who does charity. In fact, they are not at all mutually exclusive.
As for ‘beautiful timing’, its literal interpretation indicates the serendipitous or chance encounters you have with someone whom you eventually fall in love with. However, it also encapsulates other worthy considerations which we tend to overlook for traits-based factors such as looks, intelligence, humour and charm. For example, ‘timing’ includes whether both parties are at a similar stage of mental maturity or physiological needs. If I may borrow the sociological concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and transplant it into this present stream of thoughts, then someone who is on the highest rung of ‘self-actualisation’ would be of a different ‘timing’ from someone who is situated on the lowest rung of ‘survival’. Hence, someone whom you believe is a complement to you based on perceived traits may, in fact, not be compatible because of a difference in timing.
This does not necessarily mean that people who do not initially have a ‘meeting of minds’ in terms of smile, heart and timing (unfortunately, that is indeed a legal reference which I couldn’t resist including) would not have a beautiful love. My personal conception does not capture the static moment in a relationship between two parties as it trembles on the edge between friendship and love; rather, it represents a normative ideal, something which both parties can work towards.
After all, ‘beautiful timing’ also connotes a beautiful pace at which the relationship progresses and evolves.
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2. We often conflate infatuation and/or loneliness with ‘love’.
Society’s vocabulary for love and its ancillary concepts is exceedingly limited. When two teenagers meet after curfew at a dark, secluded area and embrace each other tightly, we call it ‘love’. When an old married couple, on the day of their 47th wedding anniversary, strolls along a river and smiles at each other, all the while tenderly holding on to one another’s hand, we call that ‘love’ as well. We may add a few adjectives before ‘love’ such as ‘young love’, ‘matured love’ or other words that may extend, restrict, delineate or describe the scope of romantic love, but we rarely pay attention to the things that masquerade as ‘love’, such as infatuation or loneliness. Although everyone holds in their heads an idea of love which represents a fragment of the whole, no one really knows what it entirely is about.
I think this hazy understanding of love is why we often confuse infatuation i.e. intense emotional attraction, or what psychologist Dorothy Tennov calls ‘limerence’, with the idealised, abstract notion of love that we would like to have and experience.
When you meet someone with whom you feel some kind of strong romantic possibility, you start unlocking the secret chambers of your heart and letting her into these vulnerable rooms of your being. All of a sudden, the spaces between both of you no longer feel meaningless: the air grows thick and heavy with resistance, as though charged with chemicals that leave phosphorescent trails in the air as your hand moves closer to hers – chemicals that are just waiting to be ignited upon contact. Your mind becomes hyper-aware of the distances between the two of you, capable even of calculating exactly how far away she is from you despite having only slight or periphery vision. Because you have no idea what her opinion of you is, her every gesture – and sometimes, even the absence of gestures – becomes imbued with maddening significance. “Was I correct to detect traces of flirtation at the ends of her sentences and the corners of her smiles, or was this merely my own desire projected onto the face of innocence?” (Alain de Botton in Essays in Love).
This peculiar dance of romance and infatuation reminds me of the adage: to ‘love despite’ and not to ‘love because’. I will take this chance to add a qualification to that: Don’t fall in love with someone because of your infatuation; fall in love despite.
The same might be said of loneliness. It is said that “[n]ew couples take the intensity of their early infatuation with one another for proof of the intensity of their love even while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness” (Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving).
This happens more frequently than one might imagine. After all, no other epouch in history has seen an individual more aware of the highlight reels of others’ contemporaneous lives than the one we are living in today, where Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp conspire to show us how lonely we are compared to others. Given that many people – both youths and adults – have such difficulty appreciating solitude and differentiating it from loneliness, it is perhaps no wonder that individuals resort to love to fill the gaping voids within.
Much like the case for infatuation, let us learn to honour and appreciate ourselves better by falling in love only when one is ready and not when one is lonely.
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Continued in Part III: The Duality of Love