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Relationships • Mature Love

What Teddy Bears Teach Us About Love

If we were ever tempted to despair about the human capacity for love, we might recover hope by considering James Gowan’s relationship with Little Tommy Tittlemouse. The bear was given to him by a relative when he was 1 year old in Colonial India in 1908, and James was to talk to him and love him passionately and loyally until his death in 1986. Along the way, the bear went to boarding school at Stanmore Park and then Rugby, saw many foreign countries, received a postcard from James every year on his birthday (24th November), sat with him during a long marriage and got to know his grandchildren. Finally, at a distinguished age, after James had read an advert from the Victoria and Albert Museum calling for elderly bears to be gifted to a new collection of historic toys, he was handed over to his country for posterity.

Little Tommy Tittlemouse, now in the V&A Museum

One reason why our love for our bears tends to be so strong and so rewarding comes down to a paradoxical but telling detail: how little we expect of them. Unlike what we ask of humans, we don’t need bears to understand us across all areas, to share every last taste, to express exactly the right opinions or to have identical views on how to throw a party, decorate a kitchen or spend the holidays. We just want them to be there for us, to listen quietly to us, to receive us in their arms and to look at us with kindness. On this slender and limited basis, true love has a chance to grow.

By contrast, we too often place an impossibly punitive burden of expectation on the human beings we love. We feel a partner must be right for us in every way, and grow intolerant and impatient at any departures from our hopes. We want them to approve of our taste in politics, to share our reservations about friends and to have just the right degree of suspicion of our parents or bosses. If they lapse in any area, we are liable to become furious, accuse them of betrayal and withhold our affections.

We are trying to do too much. By limiting what we expect a relationship to be about, we are often better able to honour the real claims of love. Guided by bear-love, we might realise that a bond between two people can be deep and important precisely because it is not required to play out across all practical details of existence. By simplifying and clarifying what a relationship is for, we release ourselves from overly complicated conflicts – and, as Tommy Tittlemouse understood, we can then focus on our urgent underlying needs to be sympathised with, seen and hugged tightly.

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