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“Unrequited love is the infinite curse of a lonely heart”
“For all the sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been'”
(John Greenleaf Whittier)
I have just finished reading The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and I can honestly say that it is the best book I have ever read. It has such incredible insight into human nature, the human condition, life, human love and emotions and feelings. So often we find ourselves unable to adequately express, explain and describe our emotions or to explain them at all. This book fills that gap and reading it often feels like looking into a mirror which can reveal the inside of your heart. It is almost as if the author is a mind-reader and also, if you like, heart-reader and it feels like he knows you and yourself better than you do.
I have recently experienced the feeling of unrequited and unreciprocated love and I can honestly say that it is one of the most painful things we humans can ever experience. Knowing that love is such an important, strong and powerful force only adds to the pain and grief which one feels when one’s love is unreciprocated. However, just the knowledge that I was not alone in this experience – friends and authors were going through and have been through and yet overcome unrequited love gave me just a little strength in my struggle. One of the things I most admire about Buddhism is its constant and consistent attempt to transcend the self and just the realisation that others are going through the same trials as you can comfort one’s soul. I will list below and examine individually some of my favourite quotations about unrequited human love.
Can Love be one-dimensional?
“If you do not love me, it does not matter, anyway I can love for both of us.”
(From “On Love” by Stendhal)
Here Stendhal seems to be saying that love can indeed be a one-dimensional, unreciprocated and unrequited thing. He argues that the lover can love both for himself/herself and for, and on behalf of, his/her beloved. This love on behalf of the beloved if surely though an imagined idea and would surely not feel as real or genuine as truly two-dimensional and reciprocated love from the beloved himself/herself.
“A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love.”
(From “On Love” by Stendhal)
Stendhal then seems to contradict himself by arguing that hope is required for love to take root in the heart. This hope is clearly the hope for returned, requited and reciprocated love from the beloved. If and when the beloved makes it clear that they do not love the lover back, this hope is crushed and the lover can no longer honestly or legitimately pretend, imagine or hope that the beloved loves them back. Surely then the lover cannot “love for the both of us”.
“All love is sweet, given or returned.”
(Percy Bysshe Shelley)
Here Shelley argues that love is good, positive and beneficial thing, even if it is unrequited. Bishop Michael Curry recently argued in his sermon at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle that it “feels right” both to love and also to be loved. Both actions seem right in their own right. I agree with him here but do not think that unrequited love feels, in Shelley’s words, “sweet”.
However, maybe Shelley is referring to a situation whereby one loves and is not aware of whether the not the beloved loves him/her back.
“There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.”
“I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to be able to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up”
(C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, in the 1993 film “Shadowlands”)
Are Sand and Lewis here saying that it is essential to have love and the feeling of being loved in return or is it an either or? I find it fascinating that Sand argues that loving and being loved are the only things which make for happiness but that Lewis conversely contrasts happiness with loving and being loved. As is so powerfully portrayed in the 1993 film “Shadowlands”, human love in this Earthly life always and inevitably involves suffering and sometimes great suffering. As Lewis says at the very end of the film, “Why love when losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then, that’s the deal”. This is why we are often reluctant to truly and properly enter into relationships of love and we necessarily have to make ourselves vulnerable to another person when we do so. As Erich Fromm said, “Love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person. Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love.” I think that love can enable moment of great joy but that it will not prevent all pain. The point is that it endures and is sufficient in those moments of great pain.
“In the arithmetic of love, one plus one equals everything, and two minus one equals nothing.”
Here McLaughlin argues that love is only meaningful and fulfilling if it is reciprocated and two-dimensional. If it is unrequited then it is void, empty and meaningless, it loses all value and worth. Unrequited love is thus, in McLaughlin’s view, “nothing”. I think that McLaughlin is right in terms of the desires of love – we desire to be loved in return. However, in reality I think that it does, in Bishop Curry’s words, “feel right” just to love, without necessarily also being loved back in return.
“And if I love you, what business is it of yours?”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Many find this quotation amusing as we automatically think: surely Goethe cannot be serious here. However, I think there is a sense in which he is right and that is the sense in which love is very much an individual, personal and private thing. I think that over recent decades we have lost that with our increasingly sexualised society. Magazines, advertisements and aspects of the internet have made romantic love (eros) and in particular sexual love (venus) much more public than they ever were before.
“Love is the acute awareness of impossibility”
Pernes is putting forward a seemingly pessimistic view of love – that to be in love is to desire something which you know you definitely cannot attain. While it is true to say that love involves imagination, fantasising and longing and dreaming for the attainment of a future relationship and situation which does not currently exist, I agree with Stendhal that hope is required for the birth of love, it is even required for one-dimensional love to begin. It is this hope of returned love that keeps us loving the beloved.
Is Love selfish or selfless?
“In real love you want the other person’s good”
“True love begins when nothing is looked for in return.”
(Antoine De Saint-Exupery)
“If we think we love a woman for love of herself we are greatly deceived.”
(Maxim 374 by Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld)
“Some people are so self-occupied that when in love they find a mode by which to be engrossed with the passion without being so with the person they love.”
(Maxim 500 by Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld)
Anderson argues here that when we truly love another, we love them solely because we desire and seek their good. We want them to succeed, prosper and be in good health. Love is thus the ultimate force of selflessness. It rejects the self and instead seeks to benefit the beloved. De Saint-Exupery agrees with her and argues that “True love begins when nothing is looked for in return”. A major argument in Plato’s Symposium is this question of whether or not love is ultimately and finally selfish. Some argue that, in love, we seek the good of the beloved only because when we do so, the beloved will hopefully love us in return and seek our good. Love is thus ultimately and finally selfish even though it initially and originally seems to be selfless. Rochefoucauld seems to agree.
“I do not know a man able to supplant me in the heart of Charlotte; and yet when she speaks of her betrothed with so much warmth and affection I feel like a soldier who has been stripped of his honours and titles, and deprived of his sword.”
(“The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
“I sometimes cannot understand how she can love another, how she dares love another, when I love nothing in this world so completely, so devotedly, as her”
(“The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Werther seems to be arguing here that it is really Charlotte (his beloved) who is selfish – she refuses to truly acknowledge his unwavering love for her. He would do anything for her due to his love for her but she just seems, to him at least, to ignore this.
“Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.”
Here Smith seems to be stating that love is just the discovery of ourselves in another and so there is a selfish, ulterior motive of self-discovery.
“Love is the irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.”
Twain is saying here that we love others desire others and seek the good of others in love in order that we be desired, loved and sought in return. I think this is at least partly true as we do long to be loved as well as to love as both Sand and Lewis pointed out above.
“Love is selfless; love is selfish. Love is kind; love is cruel. Love is fickle; love is forever. Love is heaven; love is hell. Love is war. Love communes with the divine; love justifies the worst of crimes.”
(From “Love: A Very Short Introduction” by Ronald de Sousa)
I have included this de Sousa quotation purely because I think it brilliantly demonstrates the paradoxical and mysterious nature of love. It is a mystery which cannot be fathomed by reason, thought or logic.
Does unrequited love have any unique advantages?
“There are two tragedies in life: the first is not to get what you want; the other is to get it”
(Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw)
Here Wilde and Shaw are arguing that the one-dimensional desire of love is a great bonus as if we get what we desire, it always falls short of our expectations. Be careful what you wish for, you might say. As C.S. Lewis says in Shadowlands, “We live in the Shadowlands. The sun is always shining somewhere else. Round a bend in the road. Over the bough of a hill”. We never truly live in the moment and we never actually enjoy what we have in the here and now. We are always longing for something in the future which we do not currently have. We seldom grateful for the good things which we already have. Once the desire is and we have the loving relationship which we initially desired, we are no longer imagining or fantasising and so one could argue that joys of love and the thrill of the chase are gone, over and done.
I think the above painting has always powerfully and movingly portrayed the thrill of the chase of love. This is where I agree with Lewis when he says in Shadowlands, “The most intense joy lies not in the having but in the desiring. Delight that never fades, bliss that is eternal is only yours when what you desire is most out of reach”. However, this seems to be a profound paradox because later on in the same film (once he has married Joy), Lewis says that he no longer desires another state and that he is happy when and where he is.
De Sousa has argued that only unrequited love can be truly selfless because it expects and gets nothing at all in return. It purely seeks the good of another (the beloved).
Can Love change and should it change?
I think that part of the pain one often feels when first turned by one’s beloved is due to, in my own personal experience at least, a premature and naive presumption that human love is immutable and non-transferable. When we are young and first fall in love, we just presume that the beloved is the only person for us and that he/she has specifically been lined up for us in advance. We must, in my view, move past this notion of human love, painful and long as the journey will sadly be.
Conversely, divine love is uniquely eternal, everlasting, immutable and non-transferable. God has always, does and will always love us. It does not matter if we do not love Him back and it does not matter that those of us who do love Him do not love Him enough. We can take great comfort and solace in this. God Himself “is love” (1 John 4:8) and His “love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3).
By Ben Somervell
Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed it, you might be interested in the following articles which I have also written on love: