In Praise of Unrequited Love
We are a practical species, and when we think of love, it is normal to focus on the sort that goes places, that is mutual, that leads people to form couples and perhaps one day households.
But the more peculiar reality is that the greatest share of humanity’s love stories have unfolded in a directionless form in the recesses of the mind of only one party. It seems that we are – in aggregate at least – committed first and foremost to the unrequited version of love.
At any point, millions of love stories are quietly being spun by one person while the object of their adoration goes about their business blithely unconcerned. Someone watches someone else on a train, casts surreptitious glances at a delegate at a conference; carefully notes a fellow shopper’s manner in a grocery store – and the earth spins on undisturbed.
Unrequited lovers are easy to dismiss as not far from pathetic. If we were better designed and a little saner, we would of course never develop feelings for people who were not prepared to develop them for us – nor squander our days on desires without logical or practical outcome.
But, looked at more benevolently, there is something hugely salutary and noble about our capacity to entertain tender daydreams. It is a feat to be able to detonate powerful longings without causing any inconvenience to others. The ability to daydream is a significant human achievement. Rather than wishing that we stop doing so, we should be worried by what might happen to us if we couldn’t daydream, if we were faced with the choice of either accepting reality in all its barrenness or else of barging into the lives of others with unwanted desires. Daydreaming is a vital and artful safety valve, mediating between resignation on the one hand and uncontained effusions on the other.
Along the way, unrequited love provides us with an occasion to exercise our aptitudes for optimism in a highly salutary way. After a few decades on the earth, it is only too easy to start to hate our fellow humans for their mediocrity, selfishness and idiocy. But with our beloved in mind, we can, for once, give free reign to a boundless generosity that a god or the parent of a newborn might deploy. We can tell ourselves that we have found an angel, an exalted being, on the basis of nothing more than how wise their green eyes look or how delicately they open their yogurt for lunch. Our verdicts are a delusional exaggeration, but – given how much grounds there is to despair at the human experiment – perhaps a noble and forgivable one as well.
It’s the privilege of unrequited love never to have to encounter the disappointment that follows from contact with reality. We are not after accurate knowledge of what it would be like to coexist with this person. We don’t really want to know how they might behave in the midst of a crisis at work or over a holiday with their parents. We’ve been through enough such trials – and the results aren’t edifying. Of course they would, after a time in our arms, prove less than ideal and a little more like everyone else we know. We may be denied intimacy, but we are granted access to something arguably far nicer: boundless hope. We can attach to the form and figure of the person we desire everything we so want to be true about human beings. The beloved becomes the repository of every desire: for a particular kind of intelligence, wit, temperament and outlook. The older we get, the more unrequited love brings us back into contact with a passion and hope that feels like an essential relief, like finding out that we can still run – or giggle. In meditating on our beloved, we’re not getting to know a real person; we are gaining an insight into our ideals.
One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, we’ll be surrounded by a thought police that will look inside our minds at will and ruthlessly condemn for us for all the phantasmagoria that goes on in them. But for the moment at least, we can have any thought we like with impunity: we and the beloved can go on holiday to Portugal, can have four adorable children together, can dance in the town square all night – and the armed guards will never know.
It is hard to share with most acquaintances quite what we are going through. But those who do understand become the targets of particular gratitude. A true friend will indulge our folly and be generous to our melodramas. They will avoid the easy task of censoring and upbraiding us. They will have enough of an impression of our basic mental health to shepherd us only gently back to melancholic sanity.
Episodes of unrequited love force us to develop a sense of humour about ourselves. It is impossible to think too well of who we are in their aftermath. Unrequited love edges us inevitably towards a basic humility. We are at last confirmed as truly ridiculous.
With any luck, no one gets hurt, it is just that, for a time, the world seems a bit more wondrous, more exciting and more blessed than usual. A natural impulse is to try to convert our longings into something more sensible, either to start a proper love affair or else to dismiss our dreams as too silly to nurture. Maybe we should do neither, but rather let the unrequited love exist on its own, neither fully grown up nor wholly damnable, neither deeply horrible nor quite sane. It is just the mind, a very complicated machine, constrained by the narrowness of existence, turning its wheels, tantalised by a vision of happiness and sensing, quite rightly and quite hopelessly, that there could have been so much more to life than there ever will be.