Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Love and Resisting the Tyranny of Relationship Labels
By Maria Popova
In the prelude to Figuring — a book at the heart of which are the complex, unclassifiable personal relationships animating and haunting historical figures whose public work has shaped our world — I lamented that we mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves.
Poet and philosopher David Whyte examines these distorting yet necessary containers of concepts in one of the lovely short essays in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a book I have long cherished.
Under the word “NAMING,” Whyte considers the difficult art of giving love the breathing room to be exactly what it is and not what we hope, expect, or demand it to be by preconception, tightness of heart, or adherence to societal convention.
Naming love too early is a beautiful but harrowing human difficulty. Most of our heartbreak comes from attempting to name who or what we love and the way we love, too early in the vulnerable journey of discovery.
We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognizable form of affection.
To sit with a shape-shifting, form-breaking love is a maddening endeavor that rattles the baseboards of our being with its earthquakes of uncertainty and ambiguity, its uncontrollable force and direction. Only the rare giants of confidence — giants like Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, in their beautiful love beyond label — manage to savor the sweetness of such unclassifiable, unnameable love rather than grow embittered at its nonconformity to standard templates of attachment and affection.
The realest love, Whyte suggests, is one we get to know from the inside out — a love that defines itself in the act of loving, rather than contracting and conforming to a pre-definition:
The act of loving itself, always becomes a path of humble apprenticeship, not only in following its difficult way and discovering its different forms of humility and beautiful abasement but strangely, through its fierce introduction to all its many astonishing and different forms, where we are asked continually and against our will, to give in so many different ways, without knowing exactly, or in what way, when or how, the mysterious gift will be returned.
While naming may confer dignity upon the named, names and labels are containers. They file concepts and constructs — often messy and always more tessellated, more replete with mystery than their linguistic package — into neat semantic cabinets. But language cups only with loose fingers what it is trying to contain and classify as nuance and complexity drip past the words. We contain in order to control, and whenever we control, we relinquish the beautiful, terrifying mystery of being.
We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling. In many ways love has already named us before we can even begin to speak back to it, before we can utter the right words or understand what has happened to us or is continuing to happen to us: an invitation to the most difficult art of all, to love without naming at all.
Consolations, which also gave us Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means and the true meaning of friendship, love, and heartbreak, is a revelatory, recalibratory read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Carl Sagan on how to live with the unknown, Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and Annie Dillard on living with mystery, then revisit Whyte’s beautiful ode to working together in a divided world.
Published January 23, 2019