Roxane Gay on Loving vs. Being in Love and the Mark of a Soul Mate
By Maria Popova
“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation,” Rilke wrote to the young poet seeking his advice a century ago. “Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” Baldwin cautioned a generation later as he himself reckoned with the work of love.
Because the stakes are so high, because we are so overwhelmed by both the power and the fragility of love, we regularly find ourselves catatonic with confusion about what it all means and what it asks of us. We mistake much for love — admiration, attraction, need. We fumble and fall again and again into the treacherous abyss between the idea of love — an idea baggaged with millennia of cultural mythologies — and the reality of love, with all its work and responsibility.
How to bridge the abyss and see clearly through all the confusion is what Roxane Gay explores in one of the pieces collected in Opinions: A Decade of Arguments, Criticism, and Minding Other People’s Business (public library — her astute commentary on popular culture and politics, punctuated by reflections on the deepest and most timeless strata of our experience.
A century and a half after Jane Welsh Carlyle so brilliantly rendered the difference between loving and being in love, an exasperated 43-year-old reader turns to Roxane with the same perplexity, signing herself Where the hell is the love of my life? With an eye to the tyrannical myth of “the one,” Roxane responds:
We live in a culture that idealizes the idea of love, and the idea that there is one true person who will complete you, fulfill all your dreams and love you forever. We are told from an early age that our true love is out there, waiting for us and so we yearn to find them, to know what it feels like to experience true love, to know you have made the right choice. The truth about love is that it is often bewildering and unknowable. You may never know if you have made the right choice. But when love is true, you embrace all the unknowns, regardless.
Having “lived and loved long enough to recognize that there is a difference between the idea of love and the reality of love,” she adds:
You never really know if a marriage or relationship will last a lifetime. You can want that. You can work hard to make a relationship work and have the best of intentions and still, things might not work out but that doesn’t mean you have wasted your time or failed.
When you meet someone and start dating, you have no idea where things will lead…. It is so very important to know what you want from a relationship but you also have to create space for a relationship to develop without worrying about what the relationship will or won’t become.
To look for the love of one’s life, she observes, requires an understanding of and a commitment to what it takes — the immensity it takes — to love someone for a lifetime. This cannot be done without arriving at a personal definition of love that we live up to and into. (My favorite definitions come from Iris Murdoch, Robert Graves, and Tom Stoppard.)
Professing herself to be “a passionate, foolish romantic,” Roxane offers her own definition, anchored in the difference between loving and being in love:
Loving someone is recognizing the role they play or have played in your life and honoring that presence. Sometimes, love feels like an obligation but it is one you are willing to fulfill. Sometimes it takes hard work but you are willing to put in that work. Love is the constant you hold on to when you don’t particularly like the one you love. Love is recognizing the ways in which, for better and worse, someone has contributed to your life.
Being in love is wild, breathtaking, infuriating. It is butterflies in your stomach when you think about your person, when you see them, when you hold them. It’s the electricity when your skin meets. It’s smiling at your person with wide eyes and an open heart and seeing them smile back at you in the same way. It’s wanting to hold someone’s hand, even when your hand is hot, a little sweaty. It’s lust and the heat of wanting, wanting, wanting. It’s seeing who someone truly is, the best and most terrible parts of them, and choosing not to look away from everything you see, actively embracing everything you see… It’s wanting to be the best version of yourself for your person but also for yourself, especially for yourself… It’s the pride you feel in their accomplishments and being as happy for their successes as you are for your own, if not more. It’s their hurts becoming your hurts… It’s a gut instinct. You just feel it. You know it in your bones. It isn’t perfect, not at all. It doesn’t need to be. It is, simply, what fills you up.
To this taxonomy she adds the most culturally mythologized manifestation of love — the idea of the soul mate, so slippery precisely because it is intimately tied to the elusive notion of the soul. She writes:
A soul mate is someone so deeply part of you that they feel like a vital organ, living outside of your skin. They are the hottest part of the sun, your true north, your home, the one from whom you will never walk away, no matter what the material conditions of your relationship might be. Your soul mate is the one you wait for knowing no matter what happens, that they are worth the wait. Your soul mate is the person you choose because you look at them always and think, “You… there you are.”
She ends her advice with the sage and sensitive disclaimer that, ultimately, we are each responsible for our own definition of love, our own private understanding of what it means and what it feels like to love and be loved — a difficult triumph of self-knowledge amid the perpetual confusion of knowing what we really want.
Complement with poet Donald Hall on the secret to lasting love, philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to know if you really love somebody, and David Whyte’s stunning poem “The Truelove,” then revisit Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love and Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of loss at the heart of love.
Published October 11, 2023