Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

What Does It Mean to Be "Afraid of Love"?

Exploring the scary side of love...

The other day, a friend and I were talking about fears, and she said to me that one thing she's afraid of is love. I'm sure many people feel this way, so I'd like to explore the various aspects of love that could inspire fear...

One aspect of love that sometimes generates fear is the feeling itself—at its greatest, it can be unbelievably intense, which can be wonderful if you're ready for it, but may not be a welcome thing if you're not. It can be very disruptive to a life, especially the busy, rushed lives we lead, in which we try to pack 25 hours of activity into the 24 hours we have. Some may feel that introducing love into that equation would only make it worse. Or, maybe someone feels she's finally gotten a handle on life, balancing the various priorities and demands while managing to keep her head above water, and she doesn't feel there's room for love. (Think of any romantic comedy about the harried young professional woman who is reluctant to make time for a love life until she meets the "perfect man.") Of course, such a person may nonetheless benefit from love, especially if it's something that's missing from her life, but that doesn't make it any less frightening.

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Another part of the fear of love is the danger of that feeling not being reciprocated. In the ideal scenario (at least to me), people fall in love together, gradually, after spending time together and getting to know each other. But it doesn't always work like that: another frequent rom-com scenario has two best friends or co-workers, one of whom falls in love with the other, but the other doesn't return the feelings (until the epiphany near the end of the movie). Unreciprocated love can be painful, silently yearning for that other person, who is perhaps easily within your reach physically, but miles away emotionally. So a person may resist develop those feelings in the first place (to the extent he is able), but if he can't, he will have to make a choice: keep his feelings to himself and just appreciate the company of the other person as much as he can, or reveal his feelings and let the chips fall where they may, or leave the situation altogether and try to find someone who will return his feelings. But in any case, unreciprocated love is tragic, and the possibility of a one-way love affair may well induce fear in a person, and keep him from letting those feelings grow at all (even before he knows they will not be reciprocated, in which case he will not even have tried).

Of course, the most fearful thing about love may be its loss. While this is the most obvious, and perhaps most common, fear about love, it is also the most self-defeating, because the person ends up avoiding love out of fear of losing it. As the saying goes, "it is the better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," because the pain of the end of a love does not erase the joy experienced during it. The pain will fade if you let it, but the joy will stay with you as long as you remember it, savor it, and learn from it. Don't dwell on what you have lost, of course, but don't deny it either.

So I have little regard or understanding for the last fear (loss), but the earlier ones have some rational basis in prudence. Remember that fear, used properly, is a valuable emotion that can temper our impulses to rush into a new situation. But fear must be moderated and recognized for what it is if we want it to work for us rather than against us. Drawing on Aristotle and the Stoic philosophers, we should recognize that too much fear will prevent you from trying anything new (including new relationships or new loves), while too little fear will make you "fall in love too easily, fall in love too fast," likely resulting in more pain in the long run. Ideally, fear should be used in conjunction with reason; fear can alert reason to a dangerous or risky situation, but it is ultimately up to reason and judgment to decide if that risk is worthwhile.

Prudence, caution, deliberation, moderation—ugh. What do these have to do with love, passion, and romance? Isn't the point of these things to throw caution to the wind: be swept away by love, driven by passion, and lulled into romance? Of course! Even prudence can be taken too far—we don't want to be foolhardy, but neither should we be cautious to the extent of avoiding life. And if, as many people believe, love is an essential part of life, a integral component of life's meaning, and something that makes life life rather than mere existence, then the most prudent thing to do may be to forget prudence: conquer your fears, dismiss your reservations, throw caution to the wind, and love.

My advice: Don't be afraid to love—there's too much to lose, and so, so much to gain.

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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