The Limits of Optimism


Those who know me- and now, thanks to a piece in Essays on Childhood, some who don’t- know that I once loved a girl. Few know that, many years later, I loved another.


I had loved her for years, but would scarcely have admitted this to myself. During the many years in which we saw nothing of each other, I dreamt of her, and was seemingly content to let that love exist only in my reverie. After all, we hadn’t spoken in years, and she may very well have found another, stronger love. I had never even made my feelings known. I confined our relationship to the recesses of my mind.


One particular day confirmed that decision. During a visit to my hometown, I tried to find her. I went to her childhood home, only to be met with its current occupants. She was nowhere to be found. I relented, content to visit the corners of my mind to which I had exiled her.


Years later, it so happened that our paths crossed. I was jubilant, of course, but I restrained myself. She was unavailable. Still, I needed her in my life, so I allowed a platonic relationship to grow.


During the next few months, we talked. What neither of us realized was that something was bubbling just beneath the surface of our rekindled friendship, something which would not be suppressed. Without ever having spoken the words, we knew. We simply knew that what we shared was love, in its purest form, and gradually, we both realized that it would not be pushed aside.


We succumbed. We let the love wash over us, and for a few months, both of us lived in a state of ecstasy. I endured the taunts and jeers and many of my peers. Having become known as the eternal bachelor because I had sworn off relationships years before, my relationships had always ended quickly and abruptly. Of course, none of this mattered anymore.


We agreed to move far away and start a new life together, but circumstances, as they often do, intervened. She and I were separated again. We haven’t spoken in four years.


I recently recounted this story to a friend. When I finished the story, her response was succinct:


“That’s so sad.”


I disagreed. I had known love- the ferocious, intimate, soul-quenching love that so many strive for- twice, and at a very young age. How many could say the same? If anything, the story was one of boundless optimism, since my tendency was to be thankful for having loved and lost.


Do not cry because it’s over.
Smile because it happened


And so I did.


The day after having told this story, I made a quick trip to the grocery store. While minding my own business, relishing the way the sunlight was pouring through the branches of the trees, Bad Company’s Feel Like Makin’ Love came on the radio. I began to think of her. A particular verse struck a chord.


Darlin’, if I lived without you, I’d live without love.


Shit, I thought. That’s exactly what was happening. I had been living without love since I had been living without her.


For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.


~ Carl Sagan


The previous night’s concluding remark ran through my head. That’s so sad.


It was sad. Remarkably so, even, yet for these past few years, I had not allowed it to be sad. In my mind, I had transformed it into something wondrous. What I failed to realize was that a thing as complex, as powerful as love could be both wondrous and heart-wrenching. Had I recognized the depths of the sadness, perhaps I would not have been so quick to let her go. Perhaps I would have fought for her, for us. Instead, I had assumed that the circumstances to which we had succumbed had been insurmountable.


I recently read (forgive me, I don’t know where) of a ripple effect in our thinking as it concerned what we read. The conclusion was that, while we may not remember every detail of what we read, it nevertheless produces a ripple effect in our thinking, altering our perceptions forever after. So it is with everything. An experience, and our reaction to it, cannot be cast aside as a singular incident, but rather is a single thread in the tapestry of our approach to life.


How had the thread woven by this love affected my universe? How had my reaction?


Albert Camus’s The Stranger came to mind, the protagonist of which is the epitome of apathy. He feels almost nothing, and yet somehow manages to cultivate a captivating relationship with a wonderful woman. Initially, it’s difficult to see what in this story keeps the reader reading, since the main character so embodies indifference. How is that indifference not transferred to the reader? The answer, I think, is love. It is such a force that the reader cannot help but fervently wish that our subject fall deeply in love with his fiancee. It is not the presence of love in the story, but rather the faint whisper of the possibility of love that keeps us turning the page. Yes, love is that powerful.


Yet I had denied its force, exiling it to a remote island in the depths of my mind, using boundless optimism as an excuse to do so. We’ll meet again one day, I said, if it is meant to be.


In doing so, I had stripped myself of any power to change my circumstances. The conclusion of this story lies in Fate’s hands, not mine. Let the pieces fall where they may as I get on with my life.


Positivity is not an inherently harmful trait, of course, but the reckless use of it can easily, sneakily, distort one’s sight, leaving reality to fight for exposure in our peripheral vision. Optimism and reality can, and must, coexist, but we must be mindful of their roles, lest one or the other become the master of our Fate, leaving us to play the role of the pawn.

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