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When Love is not Enough

When a relationship breaks down and eventually ends the reason given by the two former lovers for their divorce is less because love was gone, as if it were stolen or it suddenly disappeared, than because it was not enough to settle differences or overcome difficulties.

The end of love is not always a question of its disappearance or reversal (into hate, anger, etc.) but may be a problem of its weakness. Love, when shaken and challenged, when brought down from the heavens and planted on the dirty soil of reality, may reveal the cracks on its ivory face and betray two lovers who had placed their hope and faith--and lives--in it. Or again, love, which was supposed be strong enough to move mountains and brave enough to conquer all; love, supposed to be kind and patient; and love, which is merciful and does not keep a balance of wrongs (1 Cor 13:4-6)--to be sure, love, like any kind of strength, can waver, lack, weaken and ultimately--fail.

The failure of love, however, requires that it persevered first and that it, ideally with all its might, as we like to say everyday, really tried. To say with a straight face that it didn't work out implies that love was at first and, necessarily, to the last not only given a chance (to bloom, to grow, to bear fruit) but was also fought for valiantly, bravely and to the end. The end of love, when it is then still held to be true by its protagonists despite their shortcomings and not dismissed all too quickly and conveniently as a "mistake," therefore is less the failure of love itself but of the lovers who, being all too human, are not only prone to error but more so are timorous, wavering, inconstant actors. Only the gods can perform the love we so sweetly but so blindly speak of, and sing and even dance to.

But what happens when lovers fail? And how is that possible when they profess to all and sundry that their love is true? How do we understand those who say that love tires? Why do most give up on love when it becomes trying? How is it possible, in a word, that what we hastily claim to give meaning to our lives may suddenly become insufficient and ultimately lack?

Let us see.

For love to lack implies that love can be measured, and what can be measured implies, again, that there is a standard against which what is measured is scaled. When it comes to love, however, what standard can be used to compare it with? Obviously, nothing numerical, and thus nothing universal, in the sense that one lover cannot "objectively" calculate the passion or devotion or fidelity of his lover and set it against a standard threshold which will indicate if a relationship is in the red or already unprofitable or will not be able to return the investment.

More essentially, however, love is not thought to be an enterprise which aims to profit or gain--to the contrary. Love does not invest so as to gain a return on its investment immediately or in the future but it divests itself, gives up what it has, its assets, as it were, so as to enrich the happiness of the beloved even at the expense of its own. While the bottom line is definite in finance and economy, the limits of love are unclear, its boundaries blurred, or to be closer to experience, these limits are seen only by the lover and no other. No one can ever demand the lover to cash in or close shop because he stands to lose and go in debt; it is the other way around for the lover: he only profits by going in debt and the more he loses the more he gains.

Thus if love cannot be measured and divests itself in principle to no end, how then can love lack and become insufficient? What would be the basis for the judgment that love is no longer enough? In itself, love is enough--for the decision to love is precisely that, to say that you enter a relationship and enter a place where you can give the beloved nothing other but yourself. But there are other aspects to a relationship, other features which also determine its health and success. While love is the guiding and overarching principle--its arche or root, its telos or purpose--other factors come into play in the game of love: psychological factors such as understanding and accepting who and what one is; practical matters such as work, money or lack of it, and future-building for the family; cultural and traditional differences; religious and ideological points of view, etc. In a word, because the two lovers are individuals, there is necessarily difference--why love your copy or mirror image?

It is this difference which makes love possible and at the same time makes it impossible or at least difficult: I love because I give myself to an other who cannot be reduced or appropriated back to myself, but such self-surrender goes against the very grain of the I which initially and for the most part strives to assert itself and master other beings in the world. The ego is precisely defined as a self which in order to remain itself must affirm, advance and maintain itself (will to power). If the ego grants itself to the other in the name of love, it thus dissolves itself into other, diminishes its difference, and denounces its claims and powers.

But the ego's slow but certain dissolution in its constant attempt to love the other and forget itself will never be perfect and will always be difficult. This is the first and perhaps the greatest problem of love: it is in the difficulty of always losing one's self and surrendering its powers which may challenge the strength of love and and provoke the saddest of all questions, whether it is still "worth all that trouble"--or not.

To ask whether it is still "worth all that trouble" now implies this: my whole self becomes the counterweight of my love, that is, the love I profess to give all of a sudden becomes squared against the love I have (or lack) for myself.

Doubtless, no new standard has arisen, nothing from the outside or from the world, but only I alone can judge whether loving already amounts to too much difficulty or pain, requires too much sacrifice or time, too much . . . . I become the sole measure whether the same love I have is already consuming myself too much precisely because I am the very being who makes love, feeds it, gives it. I come to a decision that love is no longer enough when I extend myself instead of intending myself, when I objectify my self rather than subjecting myself to the other I love. Caught in gazing at myself--searching for more cracks on the surface, for more reasons to give up, for an excuse--I fail to see beyond myself and my work and effort and now miss the beloved altogether. What had been before my weariness the sole reason for being and true purpose of loving becomes the object of my suffering when I gradually begin noticing that the offerings I give already cost me, diminished me.

Though there was no change in the beloved--and it is only right that she be unmoved--I change because love is not without time but is its very endurance, is even injured by it. Difficulty can only be perceived in time and earns its gradations from it: it was easier when I was happier then, unbearable in my sadness in the present. It is in opposing two times of love, the promising past and the pressing present, the best of times, the worst of times, which deceives the lover: he now thinks that the love itself has changed, that it has deteriorated or developed, has transformed into something better or into a monster--and this, naturally, is a cause either for cheer or for gloom and doom. The first sustains love, even strengthens it; the second wounds love, weakens it and pins it into submission. Was it all about enjoying the beginning, the solace our lost hearts found in each other and the fire of those manic afternoons, was it just about the best of us, my love?

Again, the same beloved, the same objective acts of love--which had earlier been accomplished with such hope and pleasure but now performed begrudgingly, resentfully, in spite--but an altogether different lover, a weakened one at best, an unreal one perhaps. How could you leave when things got difficult or when the suns of happiness no longer did shine for you and I, my love, my love?

To leave someone because love was not enough is to confess love was never there at all.

Jeff Bark, Abandon (Dusk). 2005



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