A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Is It Better to Have Loved and Lost? Yes, Yes, It Is!

Love is worth the risk.

I have had my share of loss in life—more than some and less than others. I have walked the long road of terminal illness with a parent and a best friend, ultimately losing them in death. This weekend, fear of loss was knocking at the door of my house, but passed with great relief. Perhaps you know the feeling of sitting in an emergency room for hours, as everyone waits with anxious uncertainty to know if the news is good or bad.  This weekend, it was good news for our family but I know it wasn’t for all the families in the waiting room. And it won’t always be for us. 

Love is precious and life is fragile. For me, the weekend’s experience revived my awareness that painful feelings of loss are an inevitable part of love. You can’t have one without the other.

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Grief is a painful process, indeed. And it’s not just the losing that hurts. I find it so painful to see someone I love suffer. To see my loved one in pain or in fear just breaks my heart. Sometimes I wish I weren’t so sensitive. I wish I could turn away from those painful feelings and be a bit more distant, a bit more matter-of-fact. But I realize that would also mean that I was a bit less in touch with love. And that is not something I would wish to give up. To be true to my best self, I must embrace the reality that the more I love, the more painful the loss. 

In writing about the death of his dear friend, the poet Tennyson expressed this truth in the music and rhythm of these words:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;

I feel it when I sorrow most;

‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

I think we instinctively turn Tennyson’s observation into a question: is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved before? We are often undecided about the answer, plagued by the question at a very deep level. We ask, wouldn’t it be better to protect ourselves from the pain of loss by never loving—really loving—at all?

Much of the isolation we experience in life is related to this fear of loss. If we stay distant, we imagine we protect ourselves. This is very unconscious, of course. We don’t consciously set out to keep a buffer between ourselves and others. We say we want to be close, but we tell ourselves that we can’t be close because we haven’t met the right person or we don’t have the time, the patience, the trust, or the flexibility to risk it.

Would you consider the idea that when we are overly picky, judgmental, or cautious that we are unconsciously putting up barriers so that we do not have to be in touch with all the risks involved in really, really loving someone? We tell ourselves that our friend or partner or sibling isn’t good enough, trustworthy enough, or safe enough. Perhaps we don’t open ourselves to love as fully as we could because we are so frightened that the relationship won’t work out  It is a strategy of safety, but at what cost?

How sad it would be to live our lives in a mode of self-protection that costs us some of the most precious experiences of life: to love and to be loved. We exchange a life of fulfillment for a life of safety. We exchange one kind of pain for another: the pain of love-and-loss for the pain of loneliness. We must each ask ourselves if that is a trade we are willing to make.

Love costs so much because it gives so much. After all, if it didn’t give so much, we wouldn’t be in such pain when we lose it. For me, that is a trade-off worth its weight in gold.

 

Copyright 2012  Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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