How to Hold a Love that Cannot Live Yet Never Dies

Holding a lost loved one, an unmeetable hope or a belief you know ain't so.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

You've probably heard and seen lots of psych advice to just stop or start feeling or thinking things. Just stop worrying, blaming, judging, or beating yourself up. Just start loving, forgiving, tolerating or feeling joy. Social media is populated with memes to that effect.

To me, that's all a wishful foolishness that plays on what I’ll call robo-envy, a wish that we were like robots that could switch feelings and thoughts on and off in ourselves and others. Being a robot would be dreadful but also useful. Hit the kill switch on bad thoughts and feelings, reprogram out the annoying traits in others. It would be so easy.

Conversely, yet still grounded in robo-envy, we get lots of counsel that some feelings or thoughts are “hardwired” into our “programming.” 

Together, these robo-envy impressions suggest a toggle-switch interpretation of the serenity prayer:

Toggle yourself to serenity to accept what’s hardwired. Toggle yourself to courage to reprogram traits that aren’t hardwired, and have the robotic algorithm wisdom to toggle yourself right. 

Life is a little more complicated than that. For a taste of how, I like this line from the jazz standard, You Don't Know What Love Is:

You don't know how hearts ache for a love that cannot live yet never dies,
’til you wake each morn with sleepless eyes…you don't know what love is.

There are delusions I bet I'll never get over, feelings and thoughts that cannot live yet never die. For example, I bet I’ll always have the false sense that something is terribly wrong if I don't live forever. I’ll always have the false sense that there's some supreme judge who will decide at the end of my life whether I failed or passed the test by His exacting, perfect standard. 

I don’t believe either of these ideas is true, yet I don't expect myself to ever get over them. They’re ideas that, in me, cannot live yet never die. I do wake each morn with such ideas swimming around in me. Loves that cannot live yet never die, too—irretrievably lost loved ones I strive to reunite within my dreams. I rarely have a pure dream or nightmare. I have dream-mares, passions played out in ways that are neither all good or bad. I love them. 

By now, I welcome my delusions. I accept them as unlikely to change. I have the serene courage to accept that I can’t resolve this tension between what my heart believes and my mind knows. I'm fine remaining split like that, half-believing the unbelievable. When I wake up, I face the realities my heart will probably always deny. 

Shakespeare said, "When my love says she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lies." I'd say, "I claim to be made of truth though I know I lie." 

In psychology, we talk about authoritarian followers as true believers. I don’t think that most followers are true believers. Sure, some fanatics are truly trying to live by their dogma but most are what I’d call false believers that come in two varieties. 

The most notorious are the unbridled hypocrites. They wear their beliefs proudly. They insist on them loudly and with domineering passion but when you watch their behavior it’s obvious they don’t really follow their beliefs or care if they do. They wear the authoritarian cult’s jersey for the entitlements it affords them. They police the world for not abiding by their authoritarian dogma but with little or no interest in how their dogma should discipline their own behavior. These are not true believers. I’d call them dishonest false believers

Then there are the honest false believers. I respect them. I met some in China, people who said, in effect, “Sure, I’m a Communist. You sort of have to be here. I wear the jersey. I attend the required monthly meetings. Of course, I believe that Communism explains everything though I’m quite confident it doesn’t. I know Communism isn’t true, but still, I gain some comfort and solace by wearing the Communist jersey. That’s our team so sure, I root for it.” 

I’ve known honest false believers across a variety of comforting ideologies, for example, religious people who love what they get from their faith and admit that they don’t take literally the cosmology served up by it. They believe things that they know aren’t true and they’re honest enough to admit it. 

That’s like me waking up most mornings convinced of things I know aren’t true. 

People sometimes make life harder than it has to be by pretending it’s easier than it can be. They aspire to robotic level-headedness. They pretend that they’re of one mind when really, they’re of two. 

I hope we can learn to manage our ambivalences more honestly, for example with an ironic “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” Even when we know our story ain’t so.

I advocate multi-levelheadedness, on one level, believing what on another level we know ain’t so. It’s how to harbor thoughts and emotions that cannot live yet never die and be OK and honest about it. But it's better than the alternatives.