Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Stairway to Heaven

I had my first experience with unrequited "love" at 21. He (was it Guy #4?) had what I thought was a pleasant evening out; we laughed, we chatted—then he dropped me off, pulling out of my driveway with a frantic shriek of burning rubber. 

I had been hurt and pined for a long time. It didn't help that the dates following were not remotely viable, even if they didn't have a supposed ideal to compete with. 

Of course there were "others" since him; seven years is a long time. There was another two or three that captured my attention, but at each stage and at each age the allure was different. 

If one tries to be aware, one cannot help but change. Reading, listening to shiurim, engaging in deep conversations—these lead to "bam!" moments, epiphanies that launch a thinker onto the next step. Eventually, then there is another lurch forward. Then another. 
Dr. Thomas Hooven ("Nursing a Wound in an Appropriate Setting") was set to start his residency when his girlfriend of twelve years and his fiancée of two ended the relationship, no explanation. He was devastated, to say the least. 

But as time passed, and he was exposed to both the fragility and resilience of life, his understanding slowly morphed. He comprehended why she left, and that it was for the best.
As a couple, we did not fight. Our relationship was conceived from a need for security, and stayed small, quiet and safe. We came together in the disorienting haze of parental conflict, and from the start we shared a tacit assumption that fighting meant losing love . . . 
But now, more than five years later, her response seems less surprising and more diagnostic of why we failed. Our relationship had never developed the vocabulary necessary to express the many colors and intricacies of adult emotion. We had no language for negativity. She must have sensed that, and realized we were headed for serious trouble.
When he did meet his now-wife, he was a better functioning human being, less prone to simplistic perspectives of what a "relationship" means. 
The turmoil I experienced as an intern left me with a deeper understanding of how pain works: how it feels, how it ebbs, and how it leaves you less naïve. I also learned to open up to important facets of life that my previous relationship had locked out: unhappiness, uncertainty, regret. Comfort around feelings like these is crucial in both medicine and intimate relationships; it’s the basis of empathy. I didn’t understand that before my ex left me, and I learned it the hard way.
By the time I met my wife, I was a changed man and a real doctor. And our love developed differently from any I had experienced before. Less like a crystal vase, more like a basketball, our relationship is made for bouncing — for the good and sometimes rough play that modern professional lives generate. We do have fights (oh, yes, we do), but they do not threaten our foundation. They deepen it. 
When I look back to my love-lorn state not so many years ago, I feel like patting my past self condescendingly on the head. Oh, you silly goose.

Ironically, it was from the lips of one of my worst dating experiences that I heard it put into words: We should use our "single" time to improve, to become the best we can be (he still had a long way to go, but that is besides the point). When we are at our best, so can our relationships thrive.      

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