The Romantic Trilemma: An Existential Inquiry Into Modern Romance

“You disappoint me, Gwendolyn. I hoped you might have a watt or two more light in your bulb than those poor toads that look on romance as an investment like waterfront property or municipal bonds. Would you complain because a beautiful sunset doesn’t have a future or a shooting star a payoff? And why should romance ‘lead anywhere’? Passion isn’t a path through the woods. Passion is the woods. It’s the deepest, wildest part of the forest. Everybody but the most dried up and dysfunctional is drawn to the grove and enchanted by its mysteries, but then they can’t wait to bring in the chain saws and bulldozers and replace it with a family-style restaurant or a new S and L. That’s the payoff, I guess. Safety. Security. Certainty. Yes, indeed. Well, remember this, pussy latte: we are not involved in a ‘relationship,’ you and I, we are involved in a collision. Collisions don’t much lend themselves to secure futures, but the act of colliding is hard to beat for interest. Correct me if I’m wrong.” –Tom Robbins, Half Asleep in Frogs Pajamas

A lot of people seem to be confused over what the concept “hopeless romantic” really means. It’s one of those things; like how most people disproportionately imagine they’re a “good driver,” or “smarter than most people.” It’s a particularly fascinating cognitive bias known as “illusory superiority,” whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others. The same thing applies to the concept of being a hopeless romantic.

In order to understand what a hopeless romantic is, we first need to understand what it is not. Let’s break it down using a trifecta: between the hopeful romantic, the hope-fool romantic, and the hopeless romantic. Just remember to look through the scope of high humor, and let rest your scope of self-seriousness. And remember what Rumi said, “Love is the whole thing. We are only pieces.”

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The Hope-fool Romantic:

“A man asks, “God, why did you make woman so beautiful?” God responded, “So you would love her.” The man asks, “But God, why did you make her so dumb?” God replied, “So she would love you.”” –Unknown

A great many people are hope-fool romantics because they imagine they are hopeless romantics when really they are hopeful romantics. Allow me to explain.

A hope-fool romantic is typically naïve, impressionable, and thoroughly conditioned by their particular culture’s sense of what romance means. They are taught to be invulnerable and meekly me-centered (codependent). They are unable to even fathom being vulnerable and we-centered (interdependent). Besieged by the onslaught of romance movies and Disney movies, and beleaguered by the gauntlet of love songs and sexy videos they grew up watching, these young romancers imagine they’re cool, hopeless romantics. When really they’re just conditioned to view love in extremely marginalizing, materialistic, and possessive ways.

If, as the French poet Paul Valery satirically opined, “Love is being stupid together” then hope-fool romantics have taken that advice and ran with it. In their innocence they have fallen victim to the notion that love is something that they must win, or that they must seek and eventually possess, tame, or contain. But, as Osho articulated, “Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.” Love is not a destination. Love is a journey. Appreciation can only come when we allow ourselves to become vulnerable enough to feel it. And that means delving into some pretty scary waters. As Rumi said, “Love is the bridge between you and everything.” But he can only show us the bridge. We’re the ones who have to walk over it.

The first scary step is learning to love yourself. Not your image. Not your reputation. Not what you imagine people think about you. But your deepest, wildest, most vulnerable self. Your inner-most core, where primordial love resides. Seek that. Love that. Start there. Then work your way up to loving everything else. Love is the medium through which courage can flow, after all. Like Lao Tzu said, “Being deeply loved gives you strength; while loving deeply gives you courage.” Indeed. Love can solve almost any problem. An act of love, the defeat of the conditional by the unconditional, overcomes everything.

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The Hopeful Romantic:

“Drop the idea that attachment and love is one thing. They are enemies. It is attachment that destroys all love. If you feed, if you nourish attachment, love will be destroyed; if you feed and nourish love, attachment will fall away by itself. They are not one; they are two separate entities, and antagonistic to each other.” –Osho

Hopeful romantics make up the greater majority of romantics. They have overcome the naiveté of being a hope-fool, but only to fall into another level of innocence altogether: willful hope. They utter such platitudes as “Mr. Right” and “the one” and “knight and shining armor” and “soul mate” and “happily ever after”. They want so terribly bad that their love be a magical experience of two people meeting and spending the rest of their lives together, that they obsess about it to no end, thereby killing the magic. And yet, ironically, they still imagine themselves to be hopeless romantics. But they are so busy trying to possess love that they forget to be possessed by love. Obsession tends to lead to possession, after all. And they are all too often disappointed, typically becoming inadvertent serial monogamists along the way. Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule. But even in those cases, as the Bard said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

If hope-fool romantics are inhibited by the past, then hopeful romantics are inhibited by the future. They are so intent upon finding the “other half of themselves” that they forget they are already a whole person. A whole person who has yet to figure out what they’re made of. Love, if genuinely felt, is more of a fracturing anyway.  Love cracks us open. It breaks open our heart. It makes us vulnerable so that another person, who is also fractured and vulnerable, can help co-create a unique love dynamic. Love tests our mettle by shattering our metal and then softening it in order to see if it can be adapted to, and then pieced together with, the shattered and softened aspects of another.

But hopeful romantics don’t understand this. They are locked in. They are dead-set on finding their “other half.” They have the cart of their longing firmly in front of the horse of their love, and then they wonder why they cannot get anywhere. Our longing should only ever trail behind us, like a cape, lest it blind the road ahead of us, like a horse cart. A road that leads to a refreshing new perspective, and a shedding of the too-heavy burden of willful hope. Like Mark Booth cryptically articulated, “Deep inside us there is a self-loathing that prevents us from living wholly in the moment, from living life to the full. We cannot truly love or be loved until the insect-like carapace is cut open by the agonizing process of initiation. Until we reach this point we don’t know what life is meant to be like.”

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The Hopeless Romantic:

“The only way of loving a person is to love them without hope.” –Walter Benjamin

Being a hopeless romantic is a quality, a way of being in the world with an equal parts mindful/no-mind disposition toward life. A way of appreciating what we have, balanced with the counterintuitive ability to let it go. Hopeless romantics understand that the only viable option for love is for it to be in a state of creative non-attachment, holding on sufficiently enough to not fall apart, but letting go enough to allow space for human flourishing. Love must not obsessively attach and it must not obsessively detach, but it must do both if it would live forever. Like Dawna Markova said, “I choose to risk my significance; to live so that which came to me as seed, goes to the next as blossom, and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit.” And so it is with hopeless romantics. They are not bound up in the hope of love, rather they are unbounded by the freedom of love being what it is meant to be. Indeed. As anywhere else in the universe, the hopeless romance trumps the hopeful one.

Being a hopeless romantic is embracing the Apocalyptic Love Story. It’s being all in, filled to bursting with the beautiful tragedies as well as the ugly joys of life. It’s riding the hurricane of love like the beautiful wild beast that she is. It’s embracing vicissitude. It’s falling in love with love itself. The highest to which mankind can attain is love. And so a hopeless romantic contents themselves to be in love with love. They are love. They understand that true love is the absence of striving for love; it’s the presence of being Love. It’s a deep, all-consuming cosmic love that subsumes the slings and arrows of unexpected change. Like E.E. Cummings said, “Love is the voice under all silences. The hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun, more last than star.”Hopeless romantics are the ones dancing the wonderfully-terrible and tragically-beautiful dance between “first sun” and “last star.” Their love shrinks or expands in proportion to their ability to let it be free. And so let it be free they must, riding it without hope, without expectation, without dogmatic belief or a self-serious disposition. On bated breath they surf, rolling with the tragic pounding of the waves, but rising with the romantic sounding of the Phoenix’s courageous call.

The hopeless romantic is the Never Not Broken Goddess within us all, shattering in order to feel more, courageously breaking apart in order to become absolutely vulnerable, and then piecing herself back together again in order to become spiritually and existentially robust. Like David Whyte beautifully articulated, “I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat. I have read, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God.

Thank you for reading,

Love and Light,

Gary Z McGee

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