Thursday, May 30, 2013

Saying 'I love you'

I used to be leery of I love yous. Having heard the endearment used too many times, backed up with little or no feeling, I used to avoid the words whenever possible - even with my family, whose love is supposed to be unconditional. But as I've grown older, I've changed my mind.

Nearly everyone would agree that, as the saying goes, life is too short, that there is never enough time to do all of the things we want to do, or mean to do. And yet we pass through life with no apparent sense of urgency, as if there were an unlimited supply of tomorrows, as if so many of the things we feel that we need to do, all the places we feel a need to visit, can wait until later. If life is so short, and nearly everyone assures us of this, then why do we always postpone saying the few right words to the right people that we know we need to say? And when we arrive at what we perceive to be our last moments, if we can see them coming, those words become uppermost in our hearts, and the people we would say them to with them.

There is a true story that deserves repeating. Clive Wearing is a British musicologist, instrumentalist, and orchestra conductor who, in 1985, came home feeling unwell. With a noticeable fever, he went to bed. In the morning he couldn't remember his wife Deborah's name. A doctor visited [this is England!] and found his temperature was 104. The doctor gave Clive enough sleeping pills to make him sleep all day and told Deborah to go off to work. When she got home later that day, Clive wasn't there. As Deborah wrote in her book, Forever Today, "His pyjamas lay crumpled in the middle of the bare sheet. I screamed his name. Running the length of the flat, I already knew something bad had happened."

A taxi-driver found him wandering the streets, and the police traced his name from the credit cards in his wallet. He was hospitalized, where doctors learned that he had contracted a common virus that had gone to his brain, the high fever eventually destroying crucial areas that stored his short-term memory. When he recovered, he was unable to look at something and, looking away for a second, remember what it was he looked at. He was also stricken with "retrograde amnesia," which effectively robbed him of most of his memories. He could speak and read, and he remembered his wife, his first and only love. As Deborah recounts it,

"Clive was constantly surrounded by strangers in a strange place, with no knowledge of where he was or what had happened to him. To catch sight of me was always a massive relief - to know that he was not alone, that I still cared, that I loved him, that I was there. Every time he saw me, he would run to me, fall on me, sobbing, clinging. It was a fierce reunion."

I saw a documentary about him made by Jonathan Miller, and Deborah performed for the camera what seemed at first to be a cruel trick. She would leave Clive's side and step out the hospital room. After only a few moments, she turned around and went back inside to Clive. He reacted like she'd been away for days or weeks, overjoyed, throwing his arms around her and kissing her.

In his essay on Wearing's condition, "The Abyss," Oliver Sacks wrote of him: "The only times of feeling alive were when Deborah visited him. But the moment she left, he was desperate once again, and by the time she got home, ten or fifteen minutes later, she would find repeated messages from him on her answering machine: 'Please come and see me, darling—it’s been ages since I’ve seen you. Please fly here at the speed of light.'"(1)

Many contemporaries of Sigmund Freud commented on how his clinical discoveries in psychology had "confirmed the poets." As we have learned since then, the importance of Freud as an imaginative thinker eclipsed his importance as a scientist. When I made my first tentative steps into Freud's writings, I started where he left off, with his late, speculative metempsychological works, The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. I remember how moved I was reading the words, in the latter book, in which Freud announces his great theme:

"Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures."

Freud then examines the various "palliative measures" in detail, before arriving at the passage I still find so moving:

"One procedure I have not yet mentioned. And how could one possibly forget, of all others, this technique in the art of living? It is conspicuous for a most remarkable combination of characteristic features. It, too, aims of course at making the subject independent of Fate (as it is best to call it), and to that end it locates satisfaction in internal mental processes, making use, in so doing, of the displaceability of the libido of which we have already spoken. But it does not turn away from the external world; on the contrary, it clings to the objects belonging to that world and obtains happiness from an emotional relationship to them. Nor is it content to aim at an avoidance of unpleasure - a goal, as we might call it, of weary resignation; it passes this by without heed and holds fast to the original, passionate striving for a positive fulfilment of happiness. And perhaps it does in fact come nearer to this goal than any other method. I am, of course, speaking of the way of life which makes love the centre of everything, which looks for all satisfaction in loving and being loved . . . The weak side of this technique of living is easy to see; otherwise no human being would have thought of abandoning this path to happiness for any other. It is that we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love. But this does not dispose of the technique of living based on the value of love as a means to happiness."

Reading these words again, I think of Clive Wearing, who must endure the finding and the losing of love over and over every day, his life in suspense between total fulfillment and total despair.

This past weekend, the monster tornado in Oklahoma reminded us of what is on people's minds in what they consider to be their last moments. Jimmy Breslin learned the same thing when he examined the phone messages left by people or sent to people who were in the Twin Towers on September 11. He spoke about the overwhelming emotion behind nearly every message:

"You know something, all of those messages that I listened to, from people who knew they were going to die, they all said the same three things: I love you, I love you, and I love you. There was nothing about racial hatred or wanting vengeance or even anger. Just love. There's something comforting in that. We now know that when death is imminent, our only regret will be not saying I love you enough."(2)

Why should we wait for a natural or man-made disaster to remind us of what we know already? Today, even if you think it's trite, or if they complain that you said it five minutes ago, and even if you suspect you don't feel it (even though you know you do), say it. Say it again and again. It's the single human expression that can never get old, that can never be cheapened by overuse.

(1) Wearing, whose musical talent remains intact, is now living a more sedate life in a more genteel institution, still beset with his life in an inescapable NOW, which is at least tempered for him by his constantly-renewed love for Deborah.
(2) Jimmy Breslin American Lives: The Stories of the Men and Women Lost on September 11.

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