The human heart is complex. Many of us have learned this through much pain. It can give us the assurance that what we are experiencing is truly love and then, itself, abandon the very feeling that it led us to believe was love. Most of us, I suspect, have had the experience of making a mistake in love – of mistaking infatuation for love, or having love go sour, or of having one love wilt before another infatuation.
Too late, we realize that the feeling we felt would last forever simply changed or disappeared and we were left with a sense of bitterness, disillusionment, and betrayal. Given that, and given the human tragedies we call divorce, broken friendship, and love gone sour, it is not surprising that there is a certain pain surrounding the question: How do I know what real love is? How do I know whether my heart is playing tricks on me? How do I know whether this person will make a good marriage partner, or friend, for me? How do I know whether I am just infatuated, or naive, or even using someone?
There is no simple way to answer those questions since love is always partly mystery, partly blind, and partly inexplicable. However, it is not totally blind and our responsibility towards others and ourselves requires that we do try to discern real love from that which is more ephemeral. What is real love? Real love is what we experience when we have the sense that we are coming home. Let me try to explain:
Robert Frost once commented that home is a place where they have to take you, it’s not a place you have to earn or deserve. Henri Nouwen, speaking about his experience of living with handicapped adults in L’Arche, recently remarked: “What is so unique about living in L’Arche is that here I am loved by people who are in no way impressed with me.”
What is contained in these comments can be very helpful in answering the question: How do I know what real love is? Real love is always a coming home, it’s not a place we deserve or earn, it’s coming to a place where you sense others will love you without necessarily being impressed with you. Thus, real love is always experienced as a security, a safe place, home, a safe harbor which we sail into. It’s a place of rest. For this reason, it is experienced as a place from which you don’t want to, or need to, go home.
Conversely, infatuation and other kinds of bonding that can feel like real love, are places of insecurity, of deep restlessness, places which “don’t have to take us,” places which we have to earn, places where we have to perform and impress, and places from which, ultimately, we go home. It is interesting how, in love and friendship, we can be infatuated and obsessively drawn to someone who is very different from ourselves – into whose heart we can never sail as into a safe harbor. It can be exciting and titillating being with that person. Perhaps, as in cases of infatuation, we might even need obsessively to be with that person, like a drug addict needs a fix. But, in the end, in spite of the excitement and obsession, after we have had our fix, we need to, and want to, go home. That person’s heart can never, ultimately, be home for us.
Real love and real friendship are home – you don’t go home from them! Whenever we experience love, however powerful, from which we need to go home, that love can be valuable and good in our lives, but it can never be a love upon which we can build a marriage or a truly intimate friendship. Hence the criterion to use when choosing someone for marriage, or even just for intimate friendship, is the sense of coming home. Love is home. Ultimately, if we cannot really be of one heart and mind with someone, however interesting and exciting that person might be, then that other will become just part of our world and we will grow apart and go our separate ways, that is, to our separate homes.
Given the complexities of the human heart, we can be obsessed with someone, painfully and hopelessly even, and yet, in that relationship, not be at our right place in the universe. In the end, our completeness, real love, home, lies elsewhere. But the heart needs to be scrutinized carefully before it will tell us that. It has, as Pascal once said, its own reasons.
Yet, at a certain level, it rings true and will tell us where our true rest lies, namely, at that place where we don’t have to impress or perform, or earn or win, where we feel safe and secure, and where we are at home.