It was too cold to be April, I decided, and I was too old to be crying on the phone to my mother. There were a million more important things happening in the world, yet here I was again, publicly crying on campus about my first real breakup. “I can’t let myself feel like this again. I don’t think I’m physically capable of more pain like this,” I told her. No amount of joy could possibly be worth this leaden grief, I thought.
The first person I ever loved took 10 minutes to make his bed. He talked with his hands and could lose track of an entire day while solving a puzzle. He lived for chaos and was afraid of inadequacy more than anything else. When I was with him, I started to believe that life was not nearly long enough for all the things we would do together. Talking with him made me think, “Oh you too? I thought I was the only one.” We put our lives together and hoped they would stick. My friends told me that pain lurked on the other side of every happy relationship. But I met his parents. He took me to his hometown. I met his little brother and we got lost in a corn maze together. We ate GHeav on his floor and danced in Central Park. My room never stopped smelling like him. Maybe pain lurked on the other side of our happy relationship, but I went ahead anyway.
We lasted about a year.
It’s the part when pain enters the picture that makes a relationship sound like a terrible waste of time. I could’ve started a small nonprofit with the hours I spent on the phone with my mother that spring. At Yale, we often run cost-benefit analyses on almost everything we do. We view time as a commodity we offer in exchange for Yale’s resources, and we understandably want guaranteed, quantifiable results. After my first big heartbreak, I was plagued by the fear that, by falling in love, maybe I had made a bad investment.
Love is not for the risk-averse. Hurt is an inevitable part of the deal we sign, whether it’s for a weeklong or lifelong relationship. Lydia Davis, in her piece “Break it Down,” describes heartbreak as a cold, metal box sitting three feet away from us at the start of every relationship. And, even though we can see the pain waiting for us, falling in love is the act of looking at that box and saying, “All right, I’ll take it, I’ll buy it.” Love demands the subversion of reason to feeling. No amount of reasoning or contemplation or consideration has kept me safe from love’s peculiar pain. When I entered into my next relationship, I tried to keep it as just “seeing each other.” I figured it would hurt less when we inevitably moved on from one another to the next “thing.” Reason told me that if we never called it something in the first place, I wouldn’t have anything to miss. But in an effort to avoid feeling loss, I denied myself the right to grieve. After all, I told myself, it’s not like you were ever really “dating” him anyway.
Perhaps Yale’s narrow definition of progress breeds an aversion to real intimacy. Before my first heartbreak, I’d seen my Yale career as a graph with a steady, positive slope. Each new element I added to my routine, whether I realized it or not, fit into a narrative of constant self-improvement.
But love isn’t linear. It doesn’t have an established set of hoops for high achievers to jump through. No amount of checked boxes will guarantee a relationship’s success. So when we operate under a strict definition of forward motion, we don’t want to risk the unknown variable of a relationship.
Those who dismiss romance as equivalent to unproductive pain forego some of the meatiest parts of life. The silly intimacy of being in love, and the knocks-you-flat pain of heartbreak are unique reminders of our human capacity for both extraordinary vulnerability and extraordinary strength. When I entered a relationship, I traded logical building blocks for less tangible — but much more important — transformations. I turned my focus outward and tried to truly understand someone else, even though I could see the pain ahead just out of the corner of my eye. When the relationship ended, the experience of having been fully accepted and then forgotten by the same person created a cocktail of emotions I didn’t even know could exist. I encountered the best and worst parts of myself. My capacity for grit and grief was far greater than I’d thought.
Desiring to love and be loved shouldn’t be countercultural on this campus. When we believe that self-actualization is a matter of following logical steps alone, we choose to live inside our emotionally stagnant comfort zone. Life is not linear, not sanitized, not predictable. Why are we living as if it were? Life is not as small as fear might lead us to believe. And try as we might, we ultimately cannot intellectualize ourselves above the basic human need for connection and acceptance.
This Valentine’s Day, I celebrate those I have loved for the moments our paths have crossed and for the resulting twists and turns my life has taken as a result. They pointed me in the direction I needed to go. The person I am now is the product of love’s peculiar joy and pain. That’s the way it should be.
Nancy Walecki is a junior in Hopper College. Contact her at email@example.com .