Guest Post: Love is perfecting–but don’t insist on ‘perfect’

Guest Post #2: A fun and literary look at love, idealism, and how accepting the less-than-perfect isn’t “settling”–it’s what love is all about.

You can read the original here.

By Ellen Turner

It’s an age-old question: How are we supposed to draw the line between making an ideal out of love and our beloved, and being a cynic about the impossibility of love?

Are we supposed to believe all the poems and songs and movies that talk about how powerful it is, how eternal it is, how transforming and beatific it is?

Or, if we see other people who believe all that, perhaps we should shake our heads and say, wow, you poor dumb suckers, and walk away as the “sadder but wiser” participants in the game.

I suppose I’m not the only one to wonder, as countless books throughout history have had quite a bit to say on the subject.

A couple of years ago, I directed Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s about a man everyone thought to be outstanding and perfect, intelligent and kind, who turns out to have a less-than-perfect past. His wife is a woman of high moral character and unyielding principles. When she discovers his history, it almost destroys their marriage. The scene of discovery has some of the most poignant lines of the play, words that choked me up almost every time I heard my students deliver them.

an_ideal_husbandLady Chiltern: You were to me something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain. The world seemed to me finer because you were in it, and goodness more real because you lived. And now — oh, when I think that I made of a man like you my ideal! the ideal of my life!

Sir Robert Chiltern: There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals?  … Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. (43-44, Dover Thrift Editions)

Certainly, we can agree with Sir Robert that women make ideals of men. Young women are in love with love, and, when they find an object (and I say “object” though I am talking about a man, for he is functionally an object in the worst of these cases) which can supposedly carry the weight of all their fairy tales, well, they get used to the idea that this is it. This is “the perfect guy,” the one who will “make all their dreams come true.”

It’s natural that every woman should assume that she will be the one to have the perfect life, because really, with any amount of self-respect, we recognize that we are worthy of perfection and so expect that we will have it. That’s a good thing, stemming from a sense of our dignity and worth and our privileged place in creation. And when we find that guy who makes the world seem like a better place, a finer world, who makes goodness seem more real merely by the fact of his existence, it’s easy to get carried away and decide that yes, here is the perfection for which I was made.

But it’s a two-way street; men are not immune from making ideals of the women they love. For instance, the concept of medieval love, which was by no means localized or specific to a certain place or story, was all about the man pedestalizing a woman he didn’t actually know. Think about Dante and Beatrice, or Arcite and Palamon falling in love with Emily in The Canterbury Tales.

For a little more development on this idea, let’s look at Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Why did he ever fall for a flake like Daisy, anyway? Perhaps I’m being too harsh with her, but given the outcome of the book, I have very little energy to spend on pity. (If you haven’t read it: it ends very sadly.) Perhaps she had been more equal to him in her younger years, but, based on the following passage, I don’t think she ever deserved him. Here the narrator recounts the moment that Gatsby first kissed Daisy, shackled himself to a mortal, and limited his godly potential:

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his l ips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. (112, Scribners, 1953)

He’s completely gone over her, and shapes his whole life, where and how he lives, in order to pursue her and win her back, years after this moment, years after she was married to someone else. She is “perishable,” yet he gives up his incredible potential, for indeed he is a man of great talent and intelligence, to join himself with this mortal, white-faced girl.

Certainly, she is beautiful. And certainly love requires sacrifice. But he gave up everything for her, remade himself. He makes himself a slave to a woman unworthy of his great devotion, his star-struck love, and is killed because of it. Meanwhile, she lives without outward consequence for the harm she has done, the evil she has inflicted.

I think it’s safe to say most of us fall in love more than once. It would be glorious if each of us could end happily with the first person we fell in love with, and never have the distraction or memory of someone else who might at odd and unexpected times come back to our consciousness. But, for most of us, that isn’t realistic. And should we really hold it against someone else if they also have loved someone else before they loved us? Maybe a little healthy jealousy in love is, well, healthy.

Making ideals of the man or woman we love doesn’t end well for them, and it doesn’t end well for us. Pedestalizing and idolizing mere humans sets them up to fall short of our expectations. It sets them up for failure, andit also sets us up to blame and perhaps hate them for it when it was really our fault in the first place.

Does this mean that we have to throw up our hands and embrace a life of celibacy, because really, why should we put ourselves in a less than ideal situation? Why commit to something we know will only end in imperfection? Let’s hold out for that perfect situation, we think, whatever it might be. That’s what we’re worth, after all.

But, hold on. As Charles Ryder puts it in that most brilliantly and subtly Catholic of all Catholic novels, Brideshead Revisited, “To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.”

So, if that really is the root of all wisdom, perhaps it’s something we should contemplate doing. And if we should contemplate doing it, how on earth can we do it without lowering our self-respect by accepting something less than perfect, without lowering our standards, and without hurting either ourselves or the person we allow ourselves to love?

Real human love doesn’t mean perfection on earth — of course we were intended for perfection, and of course we should never abandon that goal, never forget the dignity and the beatification of the perfection that is our birthright. But human love, in its best form, is a perfecting force. Because it is human, it is flawed. Because those participating in it are human, they are flawed.

If you can look at a fellow human squarely and honestly, and, like Robert Chiltern said, love them despite their flaws and their shortcomings and perhaps sometimes because of the peculiarities of character that those flaws lend them — if you can look at them like that and still decide that they are worth it, then you might, one day, actually achieve that share in divinity. Love is a perfecting force.

The best love sees somebody for what they are, and, though content with that, tries to help them to become the most worthy version of themselves. Love sees the actuality and the potential, and is not solely focused on either one.

Ellen Turner is a high school teacher-turned-editor in DC. Her blog is Taking Back Our Brave New World.

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