The Reality of that “Great Romance”

§   My cynical nod to this Friday’s Valentine’s Day–better (and more realistically) known to so many of us as Singles Awareness Day!  §

A few years ago, I sat reading an adventure book by a prolific male author. I’d read a few of his works before—male romance novels, I call them, because, just as in the female version, the adventure teems with an unbearably attractive main character who spreads him or herself around like water in a six-buck carwash. Characters fall in and out of bed, somehow always escaping the perils of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy just as they escape the dangers of the adventure. Mind trash, I think of these books; escapism, and enjoyable if well-written, but hardly literature.

However, in this adventure (and, I need to point out, just as I have done previously with female romance/adventure novels), I reached the end of my tether. Because this novel was blatant in a scenario which, sadly, so many people cling to as reality.

In this case, the adventurer learned that he had grown children—twins, a son and daughter, by a woman who he believed had died. The presumably-dead woman was his “one true love”. Since she so conveniently kicked the bucket early on in the adventure series, Mr. Hero was able to spend years being faithful to her memory, meanwhile cavorting with every available nubile female. (“I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion…”). Finally, 20-odd years later, his true love having finally succumbed for real, he is sought out by his unknown children–her dying wish, of course.

She (noble and utterly self-sacrificing—isn’t that what all good women are?) never let him know that she had survived, pregnant but with injuries that rendered her paraplegic—shades of “An Affair to Remember”!!  Instead, while bearing and raising his children, she never burdened him with a need for child support or shared parenting time. He never had to change a diaper or soothe a scraped knee, attend a parent-teacher conference, or help with homework. He never stayed up, sweating bullets, waiting on an overdue teenager’s arrival home; never had to hold onto his temper as he listened to backtalk. He did not ante up college funds, or buy a car, or sit with a new driver, hanging onto the panic strap and stomping the “parent brake”. Our hero never, in fact, had to do any parenting at all.

Instead, he’s presented with two fully-grown, perfectly matured, well-educated and attractive offspring for whom he never had to take a lick of responsibility—and who do not, of course, bear him any resentment for his abandonment of their mother, since he was kept in ignorance of her continued existence the entire length of their lifetimes.

I put the book aside, shaking my head and feeling discouragement and dismay.

I’d had the same reaction to a popular romance novel (also written, I should point out, by a male) in the 1990s, one made into an equally-popular movie. In that fantasy scenario, a couple shares just a brief time of “perfect love”, which they remember and pine for ever after, all the while going on with their lives. No commitment is required of either of them beyond fond memories; neither of the characters ever has to deal with the onerous tasks of compromising or getting along, or raising children; of dealing with a drunken spouse or a financial crisis, or holding their tongues to prevent a quarrel. All they have to do is have one wild, mad fling, and then gallantly surrender that moment to move on with the commitments they’ve already made, all the while recalling their “true love” in daydreams for the rest of their lives.

And women—women, heaven help me, made this book and movie popular.

I will say it straightforwardly: These scenarios are not just nonsense; they are discouraging and repellant. Discouraging because these fantasies of love without responsibility or commitment are a travesty of the reality of love; repellant because genuine self-sacrifice does not comprise either releasing another individual of all their responsibilities, or covertly living out an inner fantasy involving another lover to which one’s current partner could never measure up.

Love is many different things to many different people, but the scenarios described in these and so many other novels and movies has nothing, nothing at all to do with the reality of love as it is lived out, plodding and ponderous, but genuine and reliable, by thousands of couples every day. Wallis Simpson, wife to the abdicated King Edward VIII, is said to have famously remarked, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.” It’s too bad that reality is so rarely incorporated into novels.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Lest I be accused of maligning him, let me state firmly that I don’t think my acquaintance is alone in this sort of behavior; we all—every last living one of us—make assumptions and speak of them as truth. 

A friend who is that rare bird, a married gay Trump supporter, attended the Indy Pride festival as a vendor. The following Monday when our group met for our weekly meditation and discussion, he told us that his own vendor booth was quartered directly alongside a “Love” booth. Now, I wasn’t entirely clear, from his description, what this “Love” booth was about: Learning to love and accept the LGBTQ individual in your family, perhaps? Hugs for those who needed them? Methods for the community to demonstrate love and acceptance? His description was vague, and I was a little unclear on that detail as a result.

The point he was making to us, though, was that he wondered at the time, and was still wondering: Had he strolled over to that booth, wearing his MAGA hat, and explained to them his adamant view that Trump is “our greatest President ever”, would the people manning that booth have considered him loveable? He was extremely doubtful, he said, that love would have been their reaction.

Since this comment was not really in line with our group’s purpose and objectives, I didn’t engage with him on his remarks, but they set me to thinking. And although another group member and I used his question as a springboard to open a valuable discussion about what love itself is, and what constitutes unconditional love, I was still bothered by those original remarks.

It took me some days following his comments to tease out from my subconscious what I found distressing in my fellow group member’s original statement, and when I did so, it had nothing at all to do with my feelings about President Trump.  It was twofold: first, that (although, either through a sense of good taste or perhaps self-preservation), my friend wasn’t actually wearing his MAGA hat at the Pride event, he failed to follow through with his idea and actually speak with the people manning that Love booth: state his views, and give them the opportunity to respond. He assumed their likely response. But was he correct? Would they have rejected him outright? Might some of the participants have done so, but not others? Would they have said (as I have been known to do), “I don’t have to like someone to love them. I don’t have to approve of a person’s views to love the person. I don’t have to agree with someone to acknowledge that they are a child of the Divine.”

The second factor that bothered me was that, having not given these people the opportunity to prove their point, to demonstrate that they were living up to the ideals they promulgated, he then spoke of them to us when they weren’t present to defend themselves; making all of us doubt them and their good intentions.

Now, lest I be accused myself of disparaging my friend, let me point out that I don’t think he is alone in this sort of behavior, either; we all—every last living one of us—do this sort of thing.

And it’s wrong.

When we have doubts regarding the genuine intentions of another, or the likelihood that an individual will follow through on their stated good intentions; when we are cynical of their motives, or hesitant of their integrity, we have not just the choice, but the perhaps the responsibility, to bring our suspicions into the light of their attention, and provide them the opportunity to respond. We have the responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt, for that demonstrates our own integrity. And should we fail to give people the chance to prove themselves to us, then we really have no right to speak badly of them, especially if they aren’t present to defend themselves.

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. Public figures, celebrities, well-known speakers and teachers, often promulgate positions to which many of us respond with a disparaging, “Yeah, right, sure”.  We then state our opinions that their stances are, to put it bluntly, a crock. That is sometimes the price of being in the public eye: you have to take the heat of the kitchen.  Being doubted or criticized, unfairly or not, is a requirement of fame.  The question then becomes not so much one of our having stated our views about a public figure’s supposed lack of integrity, but whether, if they later prove themselves, we ourselves have the moral fiber to willingly admit, “I was wrong. They honestly did believe, behave, as they said they would. I’m sorry I doubted them.”

Personally, having swung on the pendulum from being quite naïve to somewhat cynical, I now must admit that I’ve been especially bad about this sort of behavior.  Recognizing it from my friend’s remarks has been a wake-up call to myself. It’s time for me to begin living up to my own standards, and giving others not just the benefit of the doubt, but the opportunity to prove me wrong in my suppositions about their behavior and beliefs.

I’ll always wonder now about how the workers manning that “Love” both might have reacted to my acquaintance, had he followed through on his notion and approached them with his views. I’d like to think that some of them, at least, would have shrugged and said, “Hey, you’re entitled to your opinions. It doesn’t mean that we can’t love you.”

After all, I don’t agree with his beliefs, either, but I still love him.