It is the end of spring lockdown 2021. I am sitting with a friend who has recently, very suddenly, been “let go of”, cancelled, Taylor Swifted, by someone he’d been seeing. No, that’s not the right word. By someone he had been betrothed to in some way.
We are drinking tea: him builder’s decaf, me some Pukka (Natalia insists on calling it Pooka), Feel New.
We are both taking precautions even in post-lockdown times. Even though I’ve now had my two shots of Astro, and he, ten years younger than me, has had one.
Talking to depressed people about their love lives can be quite refreshing at times. Research has shown that a depressed, somewhat pessimistic outlook on life cleaves more closely to the hard-knocks frame of our vulnerable human condition. Much more so in fact than the more buoyant energies of confidence, certainty, and those other Utopian dreams and even expectations of the mind.
Putting any lens to the world (biological, psychological, social, or spiritual) reveals to us the systems and the part we play in those systems as being pretty weird, and messy, and pretty unpredictable – “quantum” if you get my drift. Not half as orgnised and well-thought-through as we might have hoped for, or wished for.
Depressive Realism as the name suggests, particularly when it comes to love, that most Disneyfied and RomComified of all our positive emotions, makes the broken-up-with person a valuable perspective on an existential quandry that none of us are too keen to have deconstructed.
They are the sad-eyed, backward-looking philosophers banished for a time from Plato’s cave, and now retuning to tell all of us that Love, in its conditional form (I love you when you do things I like / I don’t love you when you do things I don’t like) is a losing game.
My friend’s cancellation had followed the course of a by-now classic online romance and break up algorithm. He and his beloved had had a text-tiff the week before over WhatsApp. She had retreated thereafter, whilst he had continued to send messages trying to reconnect in some way.
She then broke up with him over email, a day or two later. “Compatibility differences” was the official reason given. No further information or explanation given. No dialogue or discussion entered into.
My friend, let’s call him Charlie, now reels off a long list of all the ways in which he and his beloved had in fact been deeply deeply compatible: a list I’d heard many times before, a list that he had celebrated with her and with others in a kind of “aren’t we so lucky to have found each other” way.
It was incredibly OTT, but we forgive the newly-beloveds for their enthusiasms. One massive plus about the relationship, he had told the rest of his envious single friends, is that had told him right from the start that she was just serious and as committed as he was to creating a great relationship through great communication and great sex and great first aid when setbacks and obstacles presented themselves to this Loving Couple Team. They were certainly aiming for the stars, before one of them fell.
He asks me how myself and my current partner stay together. I wonder if it’s maybe just luck as much as anything else, I say. We too squabble. What couples don’t at times? “Yes,” I reiterate, “I think I’ve just been lucky in that we’ve found another who doesn’t expect the othert to be a saint, to be a paragon of virtue, someone who is happy to look for a pragmatic workaround when a setback occurs. And then happy to look for another workaround when either the same setback or a different one crops up again. Is that not just good luck, good fortunek, to find someone who is willing to do that with you?” I ask him.
My friend had met his girlfriend at the beginning of the year. I had seen him in the months that had followed become the best version of himself: his best caring self, his most creative self, his most loving self.
But this is what he now believes to be true about love.
He tells me that love is just a word. It might as well be called VOLE, or VEOL, or EVOL, “which sounds a bit like EVIL,” he says.
He tells me that when my partner says that she loves me, what she really means is that she is experiencing a very positive reaction towards me at that moment. Sell-By-Date for this kind of love? The very next moment.
“Notice,” he says, “how you say “I love you” in the good times. After sex or during sex. After a really intimate discussion. After you have been incredibly helpful in some way or they have been incredibly helpful or kind to you.
Love is never, or very rarely expressed when people are in conflict, when they in fact most need at that juncture the foundations of love (compassion, acceptance, commitment) to be reiterated. To come back to those principles. To hold them, to guide them through their disagreement, their differences, which are inevitable.
“Some couples are able to do that,” I say, which sounds like I am bragging. And I in a way, I am bragging. Although I have no reason to at all.
He tells me that most of the couples he knows, people like us (sensitive/reactive, thinky people) need something more than that word “love“ to keep them together. They need to be either living close so that they can walk over and repair arguments in the form of an embodied human animal face-to-face hug, rather than through flat and hollow online avatars.
We are the hollow men, I intone:
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar…
“Or,” he says, ignoring me, “the couple in question who don’t want to break up are living together. Or they need to have children, but of course children kill most relationships anyway. Certainly in the bedroom. Most modern relationships aren’t resilient in any way whatsoever, he reminds himself. You might say it’s a kind of miracle when they work at all with the way that they’re set up and resourced nowadays in a big city, mainly via text messages, the odd photo taken out of a window at the rain.
I argue that relationships have always been this way, that they are like flowers which need to be tended and nurtured and treated very delicately until they grow into more robust plants.
He tells me that this is no longer possible in the terrain of online dating in which we all find ourselves.
“When we live in a world in which dissatisfaction is considered to be something that can be eradicated, that never has to be tolerated, or accepted – an Amazon world, where if you don’t get the thing you want you send it back, or if you don’t get the person you want, you go on swiping – “Well,” he says, “how can relationships grow into strong and resilient entities in this world of psychotherapeutic brokenness, where nobody is good until they’re “fixed” or “changed” or “improved upon” in some way.
He looks out into my garden. We are sitting with the doors open so as to circulate air between our cautious selves. It has been raining fiercely and my half dug up lawn which I’m planning to reseed has turned into a pond or even a lake of sorts. A blue tit hops around on its edges, waiting for the waters to recede so that it might retrieve some worms. I remind myself that I need to fill the birdfeeder with bonemeal and hang it on the apple tree for all my feathered friends to have a little feast.
We talk for a while about the robins’ nest that I had found built into a plant pot in the mess strewn around the greenhouse. How tidying up, I had almost destroyed it. The tiny nest with its single luminescent egg. The size of an infant’s eyeball.
Thankfully, the robin has returned to its nest and continues to lay eggs there. The last time I looked, there were six of them. I think for a moment about my own partner who has five siblings, who once was inside one of those eggs, or something similar.
My friend is now talking about his birthday. His mind, is a mind (at the moment), of a suffering person. It is therefore mainly lost in the past: reliving the months they had together of love and friendship, mixed in with lots and lots of regret and self-recrimination too (“If only I’d said this at the time. If only I hadn’t said this or done that”). It’s a swine to have a mind laying this kind of stuff on your serenity mat. No fun. The mind of a discomforted or suffering person is also lost in the future. Especially the near future. My friend is going to turn 40 in a few weeks time.
He hadn’t been planning to do much on the day, but was very excited about the fact that after three years or more of being single, of looking for someone he could really build the next decade of his life with, he had found this person right in the nick of time. As if the universe had sent him this wonderful dream of a woman as a gift for clocking up 40 years of time on planet earth.
I ask him what he’s going to do now on the day and he shrugs. I ask if he would like some company. He says that he will probably just go for a walk in the countryside somewhere, reconnect to nature, and maybe have a cup of tea with his parents. I offer that if he would like to hang out in the evening, maybe I can cook him a meal and we can sit around and get stoned and continue to talk about love and it’s many infelicities and inconsistencies.
RECOVERING FROM SETBACKS
We are both psychotherapists so I ask him what he has in his “therapy toolbox” to staunch the wounds.
I tell him that I’ve been reading a book by William Irvine about the Stoics, and this notion of a Stoic Test which had really caught my imagination. He grunts again, noncomitally, lost in thought. But after a few seconds: “Go on.”
“OK, well, let me play for you these clips from a conversation between Bill Irvine and Sam Harris that I’d taken some recordings from in order to send to Natalia. I think these might speak to you too.”
VOICE OF SAM HARRIS: Victim culture is running a very particular algorithm, and it’s the algorithm of blame. But blaming others for your state of mind is one of the first obstacles and ultimately illusions that you have to cut through in order to actually practice stoicism. So let’s just be very practical here and talk about specific cases. Give me an example of a setback in life that you would turn around in a stoical way.
VOICE OF BILL IRVINE: Life is full of setbacks. In any day you will experience multiple setbacks. Some of them are tiny setbacks, like you stub your toe, or you run out of toothpaste. Those are micro-setbacks. A bigger thing: you might turn your ankle, you might slip and and fall. And then of course we get to the other end of the spectrum and you have some semi-catastrophic setbacks: you break a leg, your partner leaves you, you become homeless. When we get into the list of bad things that can happen to you, the list is quite long. And of course at the extreme, the endpoint of this Scale of Setbacks is death itself.
I pause the audio, look over to my friend to my friend to see if he wants me to run one of these Stoic Challenges past him.
“Go on,” he says. “I’m liking this guy’s vibe.”
SAM HARRIS: You discuss a variety of techniques here, let’s just run through a few of them. What is The Stoic Test Strategy?
IRVINE: The stoic test strategy: when you’re setback, you conceive it to be a kind of a game. A game played between you and the Stoic Gods. Now at this point, people might roll their eyeballs. What do I mean. Stoic Gods! Do I actually believe there are actually Stoic Gods. It’s a psychological devices psychological ploy. And if you don’t want to talk about Stoic Gods, you can instead talk about an imaginary coach, or an imaginary teacher and what these beings (in my case, Stoic Gods do) is they are responsible for setting me back when I have a setback. They’re giving me a kind test to test my character. It’s a test of my ingenuity. Can I find a workaround for the setback? And another key thing is they’re not doing it to punish me! They’re doing it because they want me to be strong and resilient. So actually I should be flattered that they would consider me worthy of their attention. Other people who never experience setbacks, they’re in tough shape because they will at some point in their life experience setbacks and they won’t be ready for them. But by experiencing setbacks and successfully dealing with them (success means actually finding a workaround, and keeping your negative emotions in check at the same time) by doing that you can have a much better life than would otherwise be the case. So they’re training you. It’s a kind of training it’s to to build up your ability to bounce when when life gives you a difficult task.
HARRIS: The analogy I have often used is to a videogame. We all have these experiences of repeated setbacks and with it the same sorts of setbacks keep coming around and we have our habitual negative reaction to them. Traffic being the most frequent and obvious to me. Everyone knows what it’s like to be stuck in traffic – it’s happened to you recently and will happen to you soon after hearing this. This is a repeated experience and so it’s a bit like a videogame with predictable levels. And if you imagine that life is a game where the measure of success -in the place we are getting points- is in maintaining a positive, tranquil, resilient, flexible state of mind, right? And your failure to do that is really the only failure. In that you can’t successfully avoid traffic, but you can successfully avoid being deranged by it, psychologically. And so if you’re playing that game then when you hit these various snags, part of you is inwardly smiling at the opportunity to navigate this particular obstacle
IRVINE: Yeah, playing this game turns setbacks upside down, turns them on their head. Because then when a setback occurs to you, instead of just grumbling and cursing and saying “Oh, this is great!”, you can say: “Oh, this is actually an interesting setback, you can sort of become a setback connoisseur. You might think about other setbacks you’ve experienced and how this current setback relates to them. So you can actually perk up on being setback! And here’s the interesting thing: it’s a self graded test. The Stoic Gods will never descend to earth and say “You got a B+ on that.”
HARRIS: Actually, to be honest, my wife is actually grading most of my test as well. And I still fail many of them.
IRVINE: OK, but failure is part of it. I still get angry
“So what do you think,” I say, turning to my friend? “What if you were to reframe the break-up in this way? I tell you Charlie, The Stoic Gods Video Game is going to be my new go-to if (or should I say when) Natalia eventually tire of my imperfections!”
“Yes,” he says, ‘it does chime in with the stuff I’ve been thinking about in terms of shifting my mourning misery and blaming mindset to something more creative or generative. Think about it: the relationship itself was a generative, and creative project. That was the energy for us right from the start. Here was this person who who we were beginning to build a slightly different version of ourselves and our lives around after some years of that life being just filled with…well…life: the wants and desires of the self, friends, clients, projects, family. So of course after three years when this incredible creative project comes along called A Serious Relationship, one where you feel you have a teammate who has the exact same values as you have, there is so much to celebrate. Maybe that is part of the Love Quest as well. And when suddenly the whole project that we’re calling The Relationship gets cancelled overnight. Destroyed. Shot down out of the sky one day, any half-open doors slammed definitively shut on a cloudy Friday morning, that’s a good setback to wrestle with. Ground Zero. An empty chasm of gone-ness. And so I go: how to invite the elements of one’s life back into that void? How do you start planting new seeds again in that bombed, barren, blasted out terrain. Maybe even start growing a few flowers, even if just for your own eyes to get some delight from them.”
That’s great I say.
“Yes, it is, and then, a second later into these ethereal consolations come painful thoughts, thoughts like “Wow, here is someone who stained my mattress with her vaginal juices, so desirous was she to have me close to her, inside her, one with her physically and emotionally. That’s what I thought yesterday when changing the sheets. I thought about our marriage proposals to each other, half-ironic, but half-not, and the suddenness of the break-up (she was someone who had always told me, promised me, that if we broke up it would have to be done with love and care and discussion, never a ghosting or a cancellation.
“All fine words but no certainty. Of anything. For anything. One moment here, the next gone. Nothing left behind. Just a mattress with some of that person’s beloved DNA deposited onto it. Am I a lovesick moron,” he wonders, looking into the water of the muddy swimming pool that my garden has turned into, “a lovesick fool for having these thoughts? Am I the chef who stands crying, holding the stained tablecloth of a beloved (and generous) client who used to eat there every Friday but now comes no more? As if this residuum of the human animal might still have some meaning even now, because it once meant something of value then, something meaningful, valuable, even if purely relational, and so formed nothing but words and good intentions?”
I am tiring of my friend’s talk. Other people’s break-up breakdowns can be tiring to listen to after a while. The language of the freshly-traumatised is threaded through with razor-sharp SUDDENLIES and screeching IF-ONLIES, and these can be grinding to their listener’s nervous systems if applied without let-up.
Hard enough for the person who is suffering these Suddenly-If-Only Earworms of blame and shame and regret, the freshly broken-hearted. But also an uncomfortable reminder for their listeners that a few lemony razor-blades created by the Sky Gods might of course soon be plopping out of the grey and raining sky out there, delivered to me, to you, from the inner recesses of a pigeon’s bottom, plop plop plop onto our best laid plans, that lie ever-vulnerable, spread out below like a freshly-laundered linen suit. The one you’d had dry-cleaned for your 40th birthday.
“Let me show you the bird’s nest I say to him,” putting my hand on his shoulder, but also because we are two cis het men of a certain age, I also feel the need to turn this gesture into something more blokey, as if I were about to remove all that metaphorical birdshit or bullshit, all the razorblades that are still cutting into his shoulders.
You’re not going to quote a poem at me again, are you, he asks.
Ha, I was, actually.
Here we go:
You’re having a bad day.
Chased by a tiger to the edge of a cliff,
you scramble over and grab hold of a vine.
But now there’s another one prowling below,
and two hungry mice heading for your lifeline.
You take a deep breath,
adjusting to how things are,
and notice some wild strawberries
dotted with flowers
and tiny red fruit.
What else can you do now but reach for a berry?
What else can you do now?
“Now, let’s go and have a look at that Robins’ nest shall we?”
We stand up, he makes some nice comments about my new garden chairs. I tell him that Natalia had bought them for us the week before, best garden chairs I’d ever sat on, and he tells me to hold onto her, that she’s a keeper. I tell him I shall.
A few months ago, I had placed a seedling tray for a moment on top of some overturned planting pots, and then forgotten about it. The robins had built their nest directly underneath this tray, affording them some extra protection from the elements, as well as predators.
We approach hesitantly, not sure if Mama or Papa Robin are in the nest. The other day, removing the seedling tray, one of the parents had flown out like a missile, and had continued to watch me with a nervous eye and loud, insisten alarm calls from the branch of a nearby apple tree.
Today, it’s just the nest and its neonatal treasures. Six precious containers of new life, six new tiny robins, who all have a slim chance of living beyond a year, particularly with their predilection to be so sociable and trusting towards other animals – but if they do make it to that age, some robins can live longer than dogs. I love the common-or-garden robin. They exemplify a cross-species version of default to truth, which I find to be very humbling, and also makes us (well, me, anyway) even more protective and caring around them.
I look over to my friend who is as entranced by this vision of potential life as I am. I can see that in this moment, just for a few seconds, he is completely reconnected back to the world, to his world, my world, our world again. But most of all he has come back to himself. The suffering will return as we turn away from the robin’s nest and pick up on the triggers of language again. But for a moment, the setbacks aren’t a burden to his life at all. If anything, they have become a kind of birthday gift.
Please feel free to get in touch either by email or telephone (07804197605) if you would like to talk about some of the setbacks that are troubling you at the moment in your life.