Friday, March 26, 2010

Meritocracies of Love

While in New York this week, I had lunch with an old friend, a singer who has in recent years been much in demand for her performances of twentieth- and twenty-first-century classical music.  She revealed to me that she has canceled all her engagements this year because her husband has left her and their children, and she didn't want to give them the impression that she was leaving them too, even if only for the temporary absence of an out-of-town gig.  Her husband, also a musician, had become embittered by the new, essentially jobless reality of the classical music world, and had begun to blame his inability to make a living in his profession on the modest success his wife had begun, after many years of hard work, to enjoy.  Now, after a dreadfully harrowing year, my friend has met another man.  She told me that she feels magnetically drawn to him each time they meet:  could he be the soul mate she never had?

I have recently made a new friend in my new city, a beautiful, vibrant, expressive and gracious woman, a conservatory-trained musician, the mother of teenagers.  She is leaving her marriage after twenty-plus years because her husband, she is convinced, is not anywhere close to being her soul mate.  She is willing to risk her home, her financial security, and a partner who, though perhaps unable to show her in the ways she craves, does (she admits) love her -- not to mention the stability of her children's lives -- for the possibility that she may, one day, find her true soul mate.

She came over and had coffee with me recently, and I prayed to say the right thing (I always pray for that, usually, I fear, without much success).  What could I tell her?  That our spouses and children are dark continents, unknowable, like Africa?  That we can never really know them, nor they us?  (It is always a bittersweet shock to run into your spouse, or even a close friend, when both of you least expect it, when both of you are immersed in the concerns of quotidian life and don't see one another at first.  The second or two before your spouse or friend glances up give a glimpse into his utter hiddenness, his utter separateness, from you.)  I am not the sort of person to give anyone the advice to follow their bliss; doing just that pretty well ruined my life.  I'm more the sort of person to give others the advice to suck it up, which is advice I wish I had received myself.  And at this point in my life, I have come to believe the mantra my mother used to repeat to me as a child, though I resented it at the time:  we're not here to be happy; we're here to change things for the better in the ways that we can.

I suppose I've also come to believe that there's no real meritocracy.  Not everyone can be rich; not everyone, no matter how lovely, good, or gifted, will succeed professionally.  We grow up hearing that we can do anything we want to do; as adults, the world generally disabuses us of this notion in ways either gentle or cruel (this makes truthful parenting a tricky proposition, but that's a subject for another time).  And yet, egged on by our culture, we continue to believe that there is a meritocracy of sorts in love.  The good will be loved; the lovely will be loved; through hard work, prayer, or perhaps serendipity, it will happen for us, just as it appears to have happened for those couples we see whose marriages seem like overflowing fountains of the bliss that I just advised you not to follow.  But just as not everyone can be rich, or good, or attractive, or talented in the same measures, why should we believe that everyone can achieve the same kind of blissful romantic or married love?  After all, it was Woody Allen who rationalized his seduction of his de facto stepdaughter with the immortal words "The heart wants what it wants."  I suspect that for many people, love is work, even backbreakingly, or heartbreakingly, hard work.

On the other hand, perhaps I am just a cynical person.  Sometimes I worry that years of struggle have calcified my heart a little.


Rodak said...

The word "love" is totally inadequate to cover all of the drives, situations, arrangements, attitudes, delusions, desperations, blisses, triumphs, disappointments, entanglements, gifts, obligations, responsibilities, comforts, mergers, consolations, charities, surprises, boredoms, and ten thousand other things that it needs to cover in order to convey a coherent message. Almost all of our art concerns "love" and has yet to provide us with an adequate understanding of it. Oh, wait--I forgot to include "lusts" in the list above. My bad.

Dorian Speed said...

Great and thought-provoking post. Of course, I am probably a cynic, too.

Thomas a Kempis writes of how we have lost our "original happiness." It seems like the search for a soul mate means looking to one person as the source of all happiness. And, unless that person is Christ (see what I did there?), you are not going to find it.

"You" generic, not "you" Pentimento.

Rodak said...

I wholeheartedly concur with Dorian Speed, btw, that this is a "great and thought-provoking post."
Despite the necessary fact that all of your readers are well aware of the intelligence and fluency with which you write, this should not go without saying.
As always: Brava!

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Dorian and Rodak (blushes).

As with human love, however, the love of Christ is the source not just of happiness, but also of heartbreaking struggle in our lives, I think.

Mac said...

"On the other hand, perhaps I am just a cynical person."

No, you're absolutely right about this. (Which I suppose doesn't mean you aren't also cynical. :-))

Ditto to your last comment above, too.

Elijahmaria said...

From experience, hard and long experience, I can tell you, without knowing you more than this post alone, and without a flicker of hesitation that you are FAR from being calcified. In fact my instantaneous thought was that here is a woman whose heart has grown large and opened up exponentially trying to convey to us a large portion of why and how that is so.

in solicitude,


Pentimento said...

Thank you for your comment, Mary. It was something I really needed to read today; it reminds me that God allows nothing, even the most wretched of pasts, to go to waste (I need to be reminded of that pretty often, though).

Melanie B said...

Perhaps I'm cynical too but I think most of the time this talk of "soul mates" is mainly about being in love with a feeling and not with a person. It's essentially self indulgent because it says I am more important than you. Moreover, it denies the truth that love is hard work, that love continues to act the same way even in he absence of that magnetic feeling.

I'm thinking about what you said about truthful parenting and what I want to convey to my children, what I want to teach them about dreams and ambitions, about work, about love. It seems perhaps the most valuable lesson I can teach them is that "as with human love, however, the love of Christ is the source not just of happiness, but also of heartbreaking struggle in our lives."

To me those two loves, those struggles, to love Christ and to love my family are the only worthwhile work.