She’s falling in love. And, yes, that’s a joy. But an inconvenience, too, because she’s spent her whole life more or less making sure that never happens. She says something so honest that it takes me aback: “If I fall in love with him, I don’t know what will happen to me.”
And I think, “Well, yeah, that’s what falling in love is for, right? It’s supposed to yank us quite impolitely out of our tiny little selves and make us into something else. Something more.”
Falling in love is not for people who need to be in every way and always in charge. Or safe. Or in control. That’s like asking for local anesthesia during your open heart surgery, so that you can tell the surgeon what to do. Nope. You’ve got to be willing to sit in the back seat. And shut your mouth. And let love take you where it will.
And then I think of Rex. He’s a friend, a mentor, and the closest thing to a father I will ever have. And he’s the author of a significant collection of stories, witticisms and wisdom that live forever in my soul.
One day he said, “Somewhere inside of everyone is the longing to hear the words ‘I love you, and I will never leave you.’”
I thought I knew what Rex meant. I thought I got it. But the man to whom Rex spoke those words some 30 years ago was still a boy masquerading as a man.
I. Had. No. Clue.
The “I love you” part was easy. It was the “I will never leave you” part that confounded me. And that in both directions.
See, if someone says to you “I will never leave you,” you have to believe them. You have to be, then, willing to live as if that’s true. You have to say “no” to the self-indulgent luxury of hedging, calculating, and controlling. You have to be vigilant to confront the voices that incessantly whisper, “That ‘never leave you’ thing is a nice sentiment, but unlikely to be true. Everybody leaves. So enjoy yourself while it lasts, but a smart man keeps his escape plan up-to-date.”
Conversely, if you say to someone “I will never leave you,” you find it’s humanly impossible EVER to anticipate what that actually means in real time. The implications of commitment cannot be apprehended on the front end. Which is why commitment matters so much. Whatever effort, sacrifices, and psychic resources you think it might cost, well, sooner or later it costs more than that. More than you ever knew you had to give, or would have to give.
Truth is, most failed relationships fail NOT because love fails, but precisely because love succeeds. What love succeeds in doing is growing a level of intimacy that overwhelms its participants. And that’s when the frightened, small, under-developed or wounded parts of us begin to dodge, shut down, drift, to deploy strategies subtly (or not-so-subtly) holding the beloved at abeyance.
And that’s when most folks leave: at precisely the time it would behoove us to stay. For, in these most uncomfortable moments, you only THINK you’re being encouraged to flee and save yourself. When, actually, you’re being invited to stay and grow yourself.
My friend tells me his marriage is alive and well again. You can see it in his eyes. And I’m turning cartwheels inside my heart at the news. Because, frankly, I’d been waiting for the day he would tell me he was done. Out of gas. If ever I’d met someone whose divorce would make me say, “Yeah, well, sad, but I get it,” it was my friend. We’re talking years of distance. Years of absent or empty sexual courtship. Years of there being no sign the marriage would ever be anything else.
But he didn’t leave. He stayed. Never stopped digging deep to be the man and the husband he could most respect. And in the safety of the warm soil of uncommon commitment, finally, the dormant seed of his wife’s wholeness emerged as life. And now they rejoice.
It’s a fine line, but stay with me here: I would have never lifted one little finger of judgment had he left his marriage. But that fact doesn’t stop me from admiring and respecting the fact that he did not.
Most 60’s posters were pabulum nonsense. But I have particular contempt for, “If you love someone, set them free …,” etc. Nope. If you love someone, then, sheesh, CHOOSE them. Make a radical commitment. Never stop having high expectations of them or yourself. All in. Escape plans abandoned and exit routes welded shut.
Only then can you ever know what love can make of you.
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can reach him at email@example.com.)