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Love Song Psychoanalysis

What Bette Midler can teach us about intimacy and fulfillment

In this spirit of Valentine's Day, I've been humming love songs. One blended into the next without leaving much of a mark, but then came Bette Midler and "The Rose" (written by Amanda McBroom).

Now I hadn't heard this song since my big sister auditioned with it for a high school play (and sang it over and over and, yep, over again at home). Maybe that's why I never paid close attention to the words, but this time around, when I heard the lyrics leave my own mouth, I was amazed to find that Midler and McBroom pretty much figured out the science of intimacy and fulfillment in this verse: 

"It's the heart afraid of breaking

That never learns to dance

It's the dream, afraid of waking

That never takes the chance

It's the one who won't be taken

Who cannot seem to give

And the soul, afraid of dying

That never learns to live."

This is essentially a song about vulnerability—about the perpetual willingness to step into the unknown and accept the surprises that dwell there. 

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Maybe I should have listened more closely when my sister rehearsed for her audition because this is an insight it took me awhile to get to on my own:

When we protect ourselves from the worst surprises, we also protect ourselves from the best surprises.

Or to echo researcher Brené Brown's findings: we cannot selectively numb emotion. In other words, it doesn't seem psychologically possible to switch off our pain receptors and leave our pleasure receptors on. It is natural, and to some extent adaptive, to neutralize our emotions and cling to certainty after we've been hurt (which explains why avoidance and numbing are common symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder), but the counterintuitive truth is that true intimacy and fulfillment are only accessible to those of us willing to be caught off guard.

We have to be willing to have heartache, broken dreams, and disappointments, and then we'll be ready to write our own love songs.

P.S. What lyrics have taught you about life?

Tania is the CEO of Surprise Industries and a psychology instructor and researcher at Hunter College.

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