The gaze of love is not deluded. Love sees what is best in the beloved, even when what is best in the beloved finds it hard to emerge into the light.
– J. M. Coetzee
When I was 25, living in Manhattan, and trying to jump-start a career in writing and photography, I visited my parents and brothers in Buffalo two or three times a year. On those trips, I also saw my maternal grandmother.
It was painful to witness Bubby’s decline. Though only in her mid 70s, by then she was legally blind, mostly deaf, unable to manage on her own. She had a room at a Jewish nursing home downtown, an institutional environment where I always felt uneasy.
On one visit, as I was leaving I noticed two of Bubby’s former neighbors sitting in folding chairs on the lawn. I went over to them. Mr. Klein’s recent stroke had paralyzed one side of his body and frozen half his face; his attempts to talk were unintelligible. Mrs. Klein, however, seemed virtually unchanged since I’d last seen her, more than ten years before. She asked how I was and what I was doing. I described my hoped-for journalism career and told her about my girlfriend, with whom I had briefly lived after college, and whom I had followed to New York. Our relationship was difficult, I told Mrs. Klein, “but I love her.”
“Love?” Mrs. Klein said, gesturing toward her crippled husband. She looked me in the eyes. “Love is 50 years.”
In that moment my concept of love changed permanently.
There Mrs. Klein was, content to be living in a place I found disturbing even to visit, because that’s where her husband needed to be. I understood that for her, love wasn’t about sex or passion, or getting what she needed, or even conversation. Nor was it about soul mates, shared interests, “chemistry,” or any of the other things I sought in a relationship. Instead, it was about setting aside her needs for the sake of another and feeling no resentment.
Unless I somehow beat even the most wildly optimistic predictions for life expectancy, I will never approach Mrs. Klein’s 50 years with one person. But I have long reflected on that conversation, and in the decades since then I’ve been learning to embrace what she was trying to teach me. Through a much different path, I have come to a similar place: to see that love is about recognizing the essential humanity of the other person in toto and responding to it with an open heart.
In his poem “New Heaven and Earth,” D. H. Lawrence wrote about crossing over from a world “tainted with myself” into “a new world.” Before his crossing, “I was a lover. I kissed the woman I loved, and God of horror, I was kissing also myself. I was a father and begetter of children, and oh, oh horror, I was begetting and conceiving in my own body.” Afterward, when he reaches out in the night and touches his wife’s side, he experiences her not as an extension of himself, but as “she who is the other.” When we experience others as truly other, with their own needs, wants, and desires, we can begin the process of fully loving them.
Love need not even be requited. In the surrealistic movie Adaptation, based on the novel The Orchid Thief, Nicholas Cage portrays twin brothers, Charles and Donald Kaufman. Toward the end of the film, both brothers are pinned down in a swamp at gunpoint by the author of the novel (played by Meryl Streep) and her lover. Facing death, Charles tells Donald a secret he has been keeping since high school: He’d often seen his brother flirting with a girl who seemed kind and sweet when she was with Donald, but made fun of him with her friends as soon as he was out of earshot. To spare Donald’s feelings, Charles had kept this to himself all those years.
“I heard them,” Donald says.
“How come you looked so happy?” Charles asks.
“I loved Sarah, Charles,” Donald says. “It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away.”
“She thought you were pathetic.”
“That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you,” Donald says.
Being a therapist has helped me to practice loving selflessly. Therapeutic love is about seeing and accepting the essential nature of someone, what pioneer psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard,” and then reflecting it back, if necessary holding it for safekeeping when the object of that love can’t yet take it in. It is the foundation of the best therapeutic relationships, a love seldom directly stated and also, I believe, one that’s necessary for any truly healing relationship.
Like Donald’s love in Adaptation, selfless love asks for nothing in return, and it does not end when the beloved is gone. The love itself lives on.
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