“Love is one of the great enlargers of the person because it requires us to ‘take in’ the stranger and to understand him, and to exercise restraint and tolerance as well as imagination to make the relationship work.”
– May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
I recently decided to join Instagram. With my new book slated for spring publication, my publisher is expecting me to join more social media platforms. While there’s a part of me that bucks in the face of this expectation, there’s another part that understands that this is a primary way that people share information these days. As I poked around Instagram I could quickly see that, like all social media platforms and our devices, it can be used in a way that depletes us or it can be used in a way that supports consciousness, creativity, and connection. In other words, the problem isn’t the platforms and devices; the problem is how we use them. As I say to my sons repeatedly, “Use the computer wisely. It can be used as a tool for creativity and learning or it can be used as a colossal distraction from your life.” Our devices don’t cause us to check out from life any more than a glass of alcohol causes us to become an addict. The deciding factor is how we use them.
It’s my deepest intention to use Instagram as a way to dispense doses of wisdom and inspiration, both mine and others. The simple, visual platform lends itself well to bite-sized pieces of soul, and, as we all can benefit from reminders of words and images that connect us to the deeper wellsprings of our being, it seems like a potentially positive place to share wisdom. What Instagram doesn’t offer is a place to expound upon this wisdom and explore the vicissitudes of a quote or passage. That’s what we do here.
So now let’s flesh out the above quote, which I shared on Instagram last week. May Sarton has been one of my touchstone authors since my twenties. I love all of her novels and her poetry, but it’s her personal journal that landed deeply in my soul twenty years ago and which I re-read every few years. Here she lets us into her inner world: her depression, her despair, her profound awareness of the life-and-death cycles, her creative process, her need for solitude, her deep friendships, and her reflections on her intimate relationship. I’ve read the above quote countless times, and every time it makes me smile as it confirms and encapsulates everything I write about love in one sentence. Let’s take is phrase by phase:
“Love is one of the great enlargers of the person.” Through loving we grow. She’s not saying that love makes us whole or alive or ecstatic. She’s saying love enlarges us, which means that through the challenges and joys of love, we become more of ourselves.
“It requires us to ‘take in’ the stranger and to understand him“ (Or her). Love asks us to truly know another, who in the beginning is a stranger. This flies in the face of the cultural expectation that says that when you meet our true love you’ll know it because you’ll finish each other’s sentences, as if you’ve known each other for lifetimes. Even decades into marriage, on some level our partner is still a stranger, just as we are to them, and the work of love is to extend ourselves to the strangeness of another so that we can seek to understand each other. As another brilliant mind wrote:
“For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other. This is the miracle that happens every time to those who really love: the more they give, the more they possess.” – Rilke
That each protects the solitude of the other. Yes! Love isn’t about merging into one glom of an undifferentiated human. It’s about two formed people coming together to guard each other’s solitude, which, on one level, means that we not only remain strangers to some degree but that we seek to preserve this element of separateness that defines the stranger. We are not meant to dissolve into each other. We’re meant both to know one another and not know one another, and through accepting this paradox of love we enlarge our capacity for loving.
“To exercise restraint and tolerance” Again, this flies in the face of everything our culture teaches us about love. Where do we learn that love is about exercising restraint and tolerance? We’re conditioned to believe that love is about full-force, no holds-bar state of abandon where we fling ourselves into the arm of a passionate other and merge into a cosmic pool of bliss. This may be adolescent love but it’s not mature love. Mature love is about holding our tongues (restraint) instead of nagging and complaining. It’s about knowing that our partners are just as quirky, human, and flawed as we are, which means we learn to develop tolerance for the things that irritate us. And what I’ve learned in my marriage – and it took me a very, very long time – is that by growing the muscle of restraint and becoming tolerant, the things that used to irritate me have now become the source of our deepest joy and humor. The irritation was one of my fear-walls, and as those came down I found that irrepressible laughter was on the other side.
“as well as imagination to make the relationship work.” This is my favorite part of the quote: she’s telling us that love requires imagination to make the relationship work. What does this mean? It means that the stories we tell ourselves largely determine how we view our relationship. We can tell ourselves fear-stories, as those prone to anxiety are want to do, or we can learn to change the channel in our brains and tell love stories. One of my favorite exercises in my Open Your Heart program is asking people to tell their love story through the lens of real romance (not the Hollywood version). It’s an invitation for members to see into the essence of their partner and tell the true story of goodness of character that they find there. Reading those stories is pure delight, and such a needed antidote to the false stories we read in the media.
Imagination isn’t only about the stories we tell ourselves. It’s also the realm of soul: of dreams, poetry, art, creativity in all forms. In order for love to thrive, we need to feed our souls with imagery – imagination – and not expect our partners to do this for us. When we’re filled up on our own soul-dwelling and we meet our partners in that place from time to time, the pool of love remains well nourished.
From one brilliant sentence we extract a world of meaning and a solid blueprint for how to navigate love. Thank you, May Sarton.
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