Finding and being able to engage in what you’re passionate about is touted as the end all and be all of existence. Though loving what you do can lead to a love of self, it doesn’t quite translate into feeling loved. This is reserved for other humans to provide. It cannot be created or conjured by the self, and it’s elusiveness seems to generate greater desire. Letting someone love you is the culmination of self-love. The romantic notion that, “I survived being neglected” has similar seeds as “I refused to let them hurt me”. Both result in you ending up alone, wondering where you go from here.
The tortured group that best encompasses this struggle are those aged 14 – 18.
The adolescent years make you anxious for love and belonging. Though most young people enter into high school without knowing love, they are hell bent on finding it before they leave. There’s too many available people around not to pay attention. As they learn to define and discern actual love from its many accessible slivers and fragments, they’re often too eager to call it by name. Still, they undoubtedly know what hurt is. High school is a cycle of heartbreak and healing. Their people and peers are the same source for each.
Teen dramas exemplify this plight. The really good ones have a huge advantage over those casted by adults — raw, relatable emotion. They’re figuring out life for the first time… what they want and who they should be and how to carve out their existence. Many ‘grown ups’ and graduates can relate, getting absorbed into tales of Dawson and Buffy to revisit these themes and frame their current state of being. It’s a form of reflective self assessment — Are they doing what they wanted to do and have they become who they hoped they would be?
In my early 30’s, I came upon the original, British series Skins. It followed a group of secondary schoolers for a two-year loop. One particular season and one particular plot line caught my particular interest: Season 3, Naomi and Emily. A girl chases another girl, and the one being chased can’t quite let herself be loved. The following scene recaps the feature photo, and illustrates the maddening dichotomy between self-protection and the longing for a lovely thief to claim what you’ve made sacred:
The most powerful scene of this episode occurs when Naomi tries to skip off after a day of deep connection with Emily. She’s terrified of letting someone get too close. Escaping the situation puts her back in control. When Emily realizes what’s happening she chases after her, but stops short and shouts something as she watches her go:
“I know you’re lonely. I think you need someone to want you. Well, I do want you. So be brave, and want me back.”
I must have re-watched this scene a dozen times. I wished I could so openly wear my heart on my sleeve like Emily, but I behaved with guard and skepticism like Naomi. I fully understood how hurt maimed most when it came from the inside. It was best to avoid entanglement altogether. I simply wouldn’t want. This was a role I could play easily. I’d been practicing restriction my whole life.
I had this thing I called my ‘unicorn’. It was a magical creature that dazzled me into paying attention to all the right things. I could convince myself of anything, and believe it with the utmost sincerity. Whether it was, “I’m not that fat,” or, “They’ll call, they’re just really busy,” I reassured myself that I was just fine without them. I stopped seeking invitations. I simply occurred and observed.
This skill I acquired, though, made me glorify lacking. I was so confident in dealing with less that I came to prefer it. Soon it was all I knew, and I internalized I deserved it. If you get real good at making lemonade with all of life’s lemons, it seems silly to experiment with anything else. My unicorn and I were happy. Why would I change this?
Instead of letting people in, I made it hard; self-fulfilling the prophecy that alone was better. I wasn’t cold, just numb. Ever warm and welcoming, I was masterful at keeping my space. I knew that if I smiled big and waved large, people wouldn’t notice they were stopped just short of the drawbridge. I was kind and listened and asked questions, attending to their words with such concern that they kept right on talking. Shouting from the top of the castle wall seemed as intimate as sipping coffee.
I knew that those who came back were interested in me as more than just a sounding board. These were the ones who asked me progressively deeper questions, not letting me get away with good and fine. They wanted details. They wanted conversation — thoughts, feelings, explanations. They pitched a tent and wanted to know if they could throw up waffles in the morning. These were the persons and people that made me feel loved.
Being pursued with persistence softens you, and makes you so grateful someone stuck around to keep trying. Their effort makes you feel worthy of it. You want to thank them back, and the only thing you can think of that is reciprocal in magnitude is to give them access to your most prized, protected thing — you.
I was once a cynic. I was the Joey Potter of Capeside, pushing the world away and avoiding hurt by hurting. We are not better off without people. We are not better off without love in our lives. Knowing loneliness is frightening, so it’s spun into strength and freedom by an enchanted horse. It sneaks in the mindset that we chose this and wanted this from the beginning, and that the self-reliant, isolated life is one of cultivated success.
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen that animal. Sometimes I wonder what’s become of him. When I look, I only find a colored landscape much more vivid then when I left it. Everything is real and true, and so much clearer without the tinting.