love. week twenty five.
city. new york city
It’s 3:30 and I’m home alone. I’m sitting cross-legged on the couch, drinking wine, and listening to music.
I’d like to get some stuff off my mind and onto the page.
My roommate moved out last night and when I passed his empty room this morning on the way to the bathroom, I was completely unprepared for the impact that an empty bedroom can have on my heart.
A vacuum appeared in my chest, threatening to cave in at any moment.
I remember when my younger brother moved away, and left a million reminders of his absence scattered in his wake.
My heart feels like one of those pillow forts we’d assemble as children. We’d take a bunch of chairs and pillows, drape a few blankets over them, and then climb underneath. I don’t remember what we did inside of those forts; no matter, we just wanted to be masters of our own universe.
At some dreadful moment, my mother would ask for one of the chairs back, so she could do something stupid, like eat at the dinner table or work at a desk. We’d cautiously remove the least important chair, praying that the fort would stay upright. One corner begins to droop. We wrap it all the more tightly around the remaining props. But just when everything has gone back to normal, and we’re once again safely ensconced in our warm fortress, another chair is ruthlessly snatched away.
My heart seems to take the shape of its inhabitants. When one leaves, as must inevitably occur, the shape of its absence remains, for just a moment or two, long enough for me to trip over my own essential emptiness, before I too pull the drawstrings of my heart ever more taut, safely embracing the remnants of my love.
The Buddhist writer, Frank Ostaseski, talks about how all of life is practice for death. For, what is death, but yet another ending among many? Frank asks the reader to consider how we relate to endings during the course of our lives, as this will probably indicate how we will relate to that one final ending. Do we go into denial? Do we freak out? Do we grow bitter or resentful? Do we push those close to us away?
Or, do we learn to accept endings, just as we accept beginnings? Do approach the end with the clear eyes and curved lips of one who was just told the most wonderful story in the world? Do we draw our loved ones closer?
Every ending is also a beginning.
My roommate is gone. We had some great moments together, and now they’re over. They won’t return. And neither do I wish for them to. It’s okay for nice things to end. It’s even better than okay. By ending, it opens up some space for new beginnings. As each moment ends, it pauses, looks over its shoulder and, with a twinkle in its eye, asks me in the most friendly and challenging of tones: so, what’s next?
Anyways, once I’d finished moping, I poured myself some wine, put on some gentle piano, and grabbed a book on my way to the couch (where I’m now writing).
The book is called Civilization and its Discontents, and it was written by Sigmund Freud. It begins with an analysis of the religious tendency. Freud believes (and with this, I wholly agree) that the ego is not something that emerges in one perfect, eternal piece. It undergoes a development; a development which begins from the moment of birth (give or take a month or so). In the beginning, the infant is barely able to conceive of itself. It makes no differentiation between what’s ‘inside’ and what’s ‘outside’. Operating according to the pleasure principle, it attempts to reject everything which is unpleasant, and hold onto everything which is pleasurable. In other words, it identifies as everything which is good, and externalizes everything which is bad.
Slowly, it begins to dawn on the infantile mind that not everything good is in its control (most importantly, its mother’s breasts), and not everything bad can simply be rejected. And so, over the course of the following years and decades, the mature ego develops. One which realizes the boundaries between itself and the world, and hopefully gains a realistic perception of each.
But, alas, the mature person never quite forgets the innocence of youth. Somewhere deep inside, we long to tear down those boundaries between I and It, between I and You. We long for those days that never actually existed in which an all-powerful father possessing an all-powerful knowledge treats us with all-beneficent love, and when we contained within ourselves everything good, everything worthy.
Freud points out that, as a mature adult, there is only one healthy state (that he’s aware of) that comes close to this:
“At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were fact.”
Well, what the fuck am I supposed to make of that? That being in love is some sort of infantile regression of the ego? Some kind of delusional nostalgia for my own psychological Eden? And is that supposed to be a bad thing? What’s so great about being mature? What’s so wrong with being a child?
Freud isn’t stupid. He knows that psychological development is not a straight path from infancy through adulthood. He understands that the human psyche is a convoluted mesh of retraced steps and overlapping shadows. Just a few pages later he notices:
“Since we overcame the error of supposing that the forgetting we are familiar with signified a destruction of the memory-trace— that is, its annihilation— we have been inclined to take the opposite view, that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish— that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances it can once more be brought to life.”
And so, while the question as to whether love is a progression or regression remains open for discussion, the essential insight is nonetheless striking. The relationship between infancy and love (as well as transcendence and religion) is unexpected, yet instantly suggestive, and will definitely need to be returned to many times.
For now, though, I’m satisfied with this deeper understanding of Paul’s teaching that “God is Love.” Or, as Freud quotes Romain Rolland to have said, “It is a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling of something limitless, unbounded— ‘oceanic’.”